The Flow of the Fourth Island

September 4, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Sachiko once hit an American soldier over the head with a flower pot.

Her nose scrunches up as she laughs at the memory, and her face dissolves into a myriad of deep laughter lines. It’s hard to believe that in four hours time, she will turn eighty years old.

We pitched the tent high in the mountains before negotiating the perilous road down into the valley, where the map pointed to an onsen hot spring. At the end of a narrow track, the remains of the onsen lay, its neat perimeter walls now overgrown; in the middle stands a modern cottage, and it was from here that Sachiko bustles forth at the sound of the car’s tyres crunching over the gravelled path.

“Yagase onsen? It was here… but it burnt down ten years ago. I was the owner. Where are you from? England? I love English people! Diana was my favorite. I don’t like Charles though. That woman. I suppose he’ll never be king. I like most Americans. But not Bush. He was just in it for himself. Won’t you come in and at least have something to eat? Have a beer? There’s nowhere else in the valley.” She skips lightly from foot to foot.

We protest mildly, but to no end.

“Two of the boys from the village have come over, too. They’ve probably never met a foreigner before, it will be good for them.”

The boys are sitting at the low table in the middle of the living room, giggling nervously. The older one confirms, indeed, he’s never talked to a foreigner before, and the younger one sits nodding his head vigorously. Sachiko skips in from the kitchen and makes the introductions.

“This is Ken-chan. He’s sixty this year. And this is Dai-chan. He’s fifty-eight.”

Dai-chan says something in the incomprehensible accent of the Tosa region, which makes them all laugh. Sachiko fishes through the small mountain of beer cans on the table until she finds an unopened one, and deftly cracks it open.

“The boys live up by the Todoroki waterfall. Even in this little valley, each hamlet is different. The men of the waterfall have the best hearts. Can’t say the same for their heads, though…” This is the cue for more laughter and impenetrable comments.

Another pack of beers disappears, the boys get to their feet and weave an uncertain path to the door, gently bouncing off each pillar on the way. I offer to drive them home, but they refuse and get into their small white trucks before making their slow way back up the side of the valley towards the waterfall. I wonder aloud if it’s safe for them to be driving in that condition.

“The other evening I found a police car lurking just up the road there,” Sachiko says, “I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he told me he was looking for drunk drivers. I told him to leave immediately! Go and catch the crooks in the city! The men around here need a drink or two in the evening, it’s the only chance to socialise that they get after a day in the fields. And besides, the only person you’ll hurt on these little roads is yourself. I haven’t seen that policeman since.” She sticks her nose defiantly in the air, pulling all four foot ten of her frame ramrod straight and marches briskly back into the house.

Sachiko holds court again.

“I was eating okonomiyaki with my friend at a restaurant just after the war. There were four American soldiers in the next room getting drunk and talking loudly. I told you that I grew up in Hong Kong and Formosa, yes? So I knew a little English, and could tell that they were being so rude. ‘All Japanese girls are pan-pan‘ one of them was saying. That was the slang word for prostitute in those days. Well I stood up, and my friend begged me to calm down but it was too late. I walked into their room, and there they sat grinning at me; maybe they thought the pan-pan had come to them. The noisy one had his back to me, but he is still talking, and such rudeness. “Pan-pan this, pan-pan that”. So I pick up a big flower pot from the alcove and shout ‘No Hiroshima, no Nagasaki, Jesus Christ God dammit, Yankee go home!” and whack I bust it over his head!”

Yuka and I sit open-mouthed as she recounts this tale.

“My friend felt so bad about it all. As she said, we could have been shot; they all had pistols. So we tracked them down to the local hotel where they were staying, and waited in the lobby to apologize. We waited and waited, and after a few hours the clerk finally came to tell us that the soldiers had seen us waiting there and had crept in the back way; it seems that the noisy one was just married, and was afraid we’d report what they’d been saying to their commanding officer. He was in a bad way, too. Had a huge bump on the back of his head, and another on his forehead where he’d smacked into the okonomiyaki hot plate! Ha ha ha!”

Sachiko had clearly been quite a handful in her younger days, and kept her fire as she danced into her ninth decade. She insists we stay the night.

We’d driven from Kobe, over the bridge from the mainland to Shikoku. The least visited of Japan’s four islands, home to two hyakumeizan mountains and innumerable valleys and gorges. Yuka has marked the best waterfalls in red pen on the map; we thread our way along narrow mountain roads, single tracks at best, to stop at each one and hike up the valleys towards the waters that thunder down into aquamarine pools.

A little way from Mt Tsurugi, we set the tent at a deserted campsite. The early evening is perfectly still, and the smoke from our fire rises straight up as we grill fresh aubergines, potatoes and the famous onions of the region. One by one, the stars appear; later, as we swig from a bottle of cheap red wine, the milky way blooms across the sky. I tell Yuka about how the milky way is really the cross sectional view towards the center of our galaxy; she tells the tale of the weaving princess who can cross that milky river once a year to see her lover on the far side. Slowly the fire dies, and we crawl into the tent.

The roads of Shikoku are narrow, and subject to nature’s continual battery. The soil of the region is thin and the mountainsides steep. Every rainfall brings trees and boulders crashing down from above, and every road is scarred by these events. Indeed, driving around the island it would appear that the major industry is road repair; scarcely a few kilometers of open road appear before another set of roadworks is marked by a dozen workers furiously waving red and white flags to direct the traffic. In the hot August sun they wave on each car with a slight bow.

Further into the mountains the roads are narrower still, barely tarmacked tracks and full of blind corners. There is no space for two cars to pass, which has the perverse effect of making everyone speed through these constrictions as insanely high speed, before something comes the other way. We soon adapt. A quick glance in the mirror at the roadside confirms nothing is approaching, mash the accelerator and scream around the corner before jumping on the brakes again. We do this for miles on the way to Tsurugi, only to find that the southern approach road is closed due to landslides. We retrace, and start our climb from the eastern flank.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the young men nowadays.” Sachiko declares. “They don’t seem interested in women at all. I asked my grandson, and he said he had a steady girlfriend. He’s 18! A steady girlfriend! I told him, you should be seeing as many girls as you can. Just don’t get any funny diseases; always use a condom. He called me pervy. Well is that my fault? I mean when I was his age, I was standing on the docks waving all the young men off to war, all to be killed in China. It just wasn’t possible to have a boyfriend, not even for five minutes.”

The summit of Tsurugi is served by a cable-car, but we take the long route instead, up and through the  forests that cling to the mountainside towards the peak of Ichi-no-Mori. The whole of Shikoku stretches out below us, rumpled mountains and deep valleys. As we climb to the marker on Tsurugi, we mix with the day trippers who’ve taken the quick way up. Yes, the summit is overdeveloped, but it is clearly a mountain close to the heart of those Shikoku dwellers who climb it. Dapper old men compete with small children along the wooden boardwalks. “Ah! This is Shikoku!” and “Jirogyu looking wonderful today!”, their voices ring in the fine August air.

We plunge back into the treeline and are soon heading along a rarely used trail. In places the recent rains have brought down trees and landslides across the path, and we skid over the slick mud. This route’s name, the Gyoba or Pilgrims’ Path, attests to its original and long forgotten purpose. In a generation it will probably have returned completely to nature. Yuka charges ahead, loving the terrain. “It’s barely wide enough for one foot.” she cries.

We drive deeper into the heart of the island, furthering our waterfall odyssey. We have each one to ourselves; at the more secluded ones, we strip and run screaming into the icy waters before dragging ourselves out to dry in the blazing sun. Eventually we make it to the southern edge of the island and the waters of the Pacific, and cruise the coast road for a few miles through innumerable rundown towns. Many of the shops are boarded up or deserted; Shikoku is dying. The idea depresses us, so we turn again inland and along another valley to a campsite, where we surprise the elderly warden as she is about to leave for the evening.

“No, there’s nowhere to buy food around here. The man who ran the village store got old, and moved away to the city to join his son. But I can give you some rice to cook.” she offers. We start a small fire and grill what leftovers we have from the previous evening. Without warning, the warden appears again out of the darkness with a watermelon and some cucumbers. She informs us that she’d just picked them from her field, and leaves with the admonition to watch out for mamushi adders. We pull our sleeping bags around us and lie in the long grass as the planetarium wheels above us. Shooting stars gash the sky, and Yuka whoops with each one.

The next morning we duck through the faded entrance curtain of a hillside onsen and out of the seething sun. An old man, bent double with age and wearing just a pair of boxer shorts, shuffles into the lobby and wishes us good day. We buy big chunks of raw bonito and garlic at the local store; scrubbed and fed we make our slow way across the island and towards Mt Ishizuchi.

Tired of hammering at his masters degree, Adam kissed his wife and baby girl goodbye for a few days and came to the Omogo gorge to bike the roads and jump in the icy cold azure pools of the river. The fire is full of charcoal and the cooler full of beer. ” Come on over when you get set up. I’m having a Grateful Dead afternoon.” he offers, as Garcia and the crew drift cooly from the iPod speakers. We pool our resources and end up drinking and cooking deep into the night. He’s the only other camper in the valley, a regular visitor, and knows ever stretch of the river. At midnight we stagger down to the pools and jump into the cold waters. Our howls carry up through the inky gorge; after a minute I jump out and run back to the warmth of the fire on the bank.

It’s a dark and foreboding morning as we race to the shrine that stands at the foot of the mountain. We’re the only climbers today on this side; up the gorge and then the steep side of the valley to the ridge that curls around to below Ishizuchi’s peak. The path is indistinct and little used now, shunned in favour of the cable car which serves the other side of the mountain. Cloud drifts through the buna forests, deadening all sound and covering the waist-high sasa bamboo grass in dew, which soaks us as we push through it. It obscures the sheer drop to our right, and I shout back to Yuka to keep a close eye on where she is walking. Head down she follows, and I can hear her muttering under her breath, “Shuchu, shuchu“. Concentrate, concentrate.

Ishizuchi is a granite island in a sea of cloud. We make our way carefully over the slick rocks and towards the summit marker on the dramatic horn of Tengu-dake. We lie on our stomachs and shuffle our heads over the sheer drop of the summit wall, which falls away into space. I glance down and admire the line of pitons which lie rusting in the cracks below. The summit done, we run down the mountain to soak in the bath of the eerie hotel at the entrance to the gorge. “There’s no-one staying tonight, so I’ve only filled one of the baths. You can get in together if you wish.” the owner tells us. The August rain falls outside, and it’s time to think about heading home.

I ask Sachiko what accounts for her tremendous health and vigour.

“Several years ago we had such snow one night. My uncle, my father’s brother, was staying and he took a walk up the valley.”

I’m starting to wonder if she’d heard my question.

“He walked up the valley to my father’s grave by the roadside, and when he got there he found half a dozen school scarves wound around it. He took them down, and the next day went along to the local school to find the owners. The teacher called all the classes together and asked to whom they belonged. Six of the local children put their hands up, and explained that as they passed they’d felt sorry that the old doctor’s grave should be so cold on such a snowy night. So they put their scarves on it, and continued home. Poor things, they must have been cold without them.”

By now I’ve quite forgotten how we got onto this story.

“The children grew up to be teenagers, and then one night four of them died in a car accident. Their car went off the main road and tumbled down into the valley floor. In memory of their kindness to my father, I walk every day the six kilometers and back from here to the place where they departed this world.”

“That’s my secret. I walk.”


42 Responses to “The Flow of the Fourth Island”

  1. George on September 4th, 2009 3:26 pm

    This is the best piece I’ve read on Japan in a long long time. Many thanks!

  2. Harvey on September 4th, 2009 6:48 pm

    Fabulous as always. Fantastic!

  3. Chris Highcock on September 4th, 2009 7:24 pm

    Absolutely stunning

  4. Peter Skov on September 5th, 2009 2:44 am

    I’ll have to come back to finish reading this but as always your reporting is excellent. The photographs are phenomenal! I now have a definite reason to visit Shikoku, perhaps next year if I have the money. I could take a break from all the mountain photos and it seems like your waterfalls would be just the places to go.

    Btw, seriously you should contact Outdoor Japan. The editor Gardner Robinson is a busy guy but good to talk to. I think he would welcome a story about an out-of-the-way place like this. Your writing and photography leave nothing to be desired. It’s top notch work! The most recent issue of the magazine has a great story about a guy who was attacked by a bear near Minakami.

  5. Matt on September 5th, 2009 9:02 am

    Good to see you went to all the right spots Chris.
    Great pics as usual. Keep up the good work!

  6. Project Hyakumeizan on September 5th, 2009 9:21 am

    Agree with Peter – this piece should be seen by an even wider audience. Admirably captures the quiet charm of Shikoku….

  7. Damian on September 6th, 2009 10:59 am

    I didn’t expect any of that, from beginning to end, words, pictures and tales within the story. Well done Chris and thank you.

    And yes, a wider audience is merited with this piece and many others before it. However, said carefully, I think this is too good for Outdoor Japan. They should be so lucky as to ever have had images and copy such as this!

  8. Jamie on September 7th, 2009 2:06 am

    Fantastic story, you’ve made me want to have a honeymoon in shikoku or something. It looks stunning and your photography is great. Thank you.

  9. Matt Lindsay on September 7th, 2009 4:15 am

    Just wanted to add that your writing is fabulous Chris. A real pleasure to read.
    Walking is the key it does seem – my friends and i came across an 80-year old man on Mt Bizan when we’d lost our way a tad. We struggled to keep up with him as he led us back to familiar ground.
    As for Shikoku dying – i certainly hope not!

  10. YL on September 7th, 2009 9:14 am

    That’s just one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time.

  11. RJ on September 7th, 2009 10:36 am

    I lived on Shikoku for 2 years and this piece has just transported me back 10 years. I am once again frolicking in the waterfalls of the fourth island!

  12. CJW on September 7th, 2009 12:41 pm

    George – it was one of the best holidays I’ve had in Japan too, and a pleasure to write about it!

    Harvey & Chris – glad you enjoyed it. Shikoku makes it easy to take great shots though. There’s some unreal scenery down there.

    Peter – I’d recommend Shikoku for a vacation without hesitation. Very reasonable, too – apart from onsens, campsites and veg (and a few bottles of 7-11 wine) we barely spent a dime.

    Matt – in no small part thanks to your many writeups of the best spots, much appreciated.

    Project Hyakumeizan – so many projects, so little time!

    Damian – thank you, as ever. And thank you for posting the link on JapanSoc too!

    Jamie – Shikoku’s great, you’d have a lot of fun down there. It’s an enormously varied island – great mountains, incredible waterfalls, good beaches..

    Matt – definitely. “Choju no himitsu” – the secret to long life – is a phrase I’ve heard more than a few times in the mountains. We met an 85 year-old on Mt Daisen last year, who claimed to climb it every day in good weather. Had legs like knotted oak…

    YL – you’re too kind, but thank you and I’m glad you liked it.

    RJ – glad I could take you back!

  13. shibuya246 on September 7th, 2009 12:59 pm

    Great Stories, great pictures. Thanks. Makes me feel like taking a trip into the countryside.

  14. Clint on September 7th, 2009 2:31 pm

    I am not really sure what to say since it has already been said. You could basically just have posted a trip report without photos and it still would have been well worth the read.

    Did you drive out there or do you take trains, planes, or buses?

  15. Martin Rye on September 7th, 2009 6:44 pm

    It has a way of drawing you in that tale. At the end to hear of the car crash was a shock. The waterfalls and location are truly magnificent and your photos are stunning as ever.

  16. steve on September 8th, 2009 3:34 am

    Hi, great post through and through. I wish you would post where the photos were taken, particularly the first few. Have been here in Shikoku for about 5 years off and on. Spent 3 years in Ehime (hiked much more then) and now I am in Kochi. Would like to try and get to some of those spots you photographed. I`ve only lived in Shikoku, but have visited several parts of Japan. For me Shikoku will always be `the real Japan`. Your right in a way, it is dying, but it will never die completely.

  17. Tom on September 8th, 2009 8:31 pm

    Beautiful – great to see you’ve had a nice summer! Isn’t that the ‘Lost Japan’ Alex Kerr talked about? Keep it up :)

  18. hanameizan on September 9th, 2009 8:27 am

    Dramatic photos and fine words as always. I would rather read one of your blogs every two months than some newspaper website every day.

  19. CJW on September 9th, 2009 11:20 am

    Shibuya246 – the countryside’s not that far away and the season is beautiful for getting out there – go!

    Clint – thank you as always. We hired a car in Kobe and drove around, it’s really the only way to do it if you want to get into the interior. But some of those roads are pretty hairy..

    Martin – it was quite a shocking story to hear in person, too. She’d seen such a lot during her life, and while she claimed that walking was the key, I’m sure her attitude to life’s vicissitudes is equally important. Her son died when he was just 30 – her comment was “These things happen”. A truly remarkable lady.

    Steve – you’ve reminded me of my (long-broken) New Year’s resolution – to geotag my photos in some way. I think Peter Skov made the same point some time ago. I would geotag them directly in Flickr, but the resolution on their maps is so poor for rural Japan that it doesn’t make sense. I have been fooling around with the Google maps API, though, and I will endeavour to produce something shortly. Thanks for the reminder!

    Tom – yup, having a great summer out here! Shikoku is Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan. We went briefly through the Iya valley where his house is, but sadly that area has already been lost to modernisation, so we hurried out again and onto the back roads to the hidden valleys where no-one goes..

    Hanameizan – very kind of you to say so! It goes without saying that I am looking forward to the resumption of your own (and Hana’s) travels, too.

  20. The Envoy on September 9th, 2009 11:38 am

    Words fail to describe my awe. I am bookmarking this blog.

  21. wes on September 9th, 2009 12:58 pm

    fascinating report as always.

    I can’t help but notice that you had fantastic weather on Tsurugi, and less than ideal on Ishizuchi. I feel that the latter is cursed, as I swam through torrential rain just trying to make it to the summit.

    Did you happen to make it as far as Miune? Much more stunning of a peak than Tsurugi.

    Looking forward to reading more about your winter pursuits – the first snows are just around the corner. Sharpen up those crampons!

  22. Mikael on September 10th, 2009 6:47 am

    I always knew I missed much on my one and only short visit to Shikoku in 2004. Never got inland then.

    Those deep greens in your photos are amazing. You can almost taste the warm moist air from them. Quite a contrast to the scenery of northern Sweden and Norway where I went hiking last week.

  23. CJW on September 10th, 2009 11:07 am

    TheEnvoy – welcome! I don’t post often, about once a month if I’m lucky – watch out for another post some time in early October (weather & mountain gods permitting).

    Wes – you nailed it – beautiful blue skies on Tsurugi, and grimness on Ishizuchi. As Yuka put it though, Ishizuchi is a shugendo, so it’s only right that we should struggle to the top! Another climber mentioned Miune to us, but we just didn’t have time to make it there. It’s one I’d like to do at some point, as well as Kame-ga-mori. And Ishizuchi in winter would be pretty special, too – you’re right, I’d better start filing the crampons & axes..

    Mikael – Shikoku’s coast is beautiful, but the interior is just fantastic. Maybe something for next time you vist? I think the forests are so dense and lush because of the steep sided valleys they have down there – everything has to fight to get some sun – I can imagine it is quite a contrast to where you have been recently!

  24. Mikael on September 10th, 2009 1:04 pm

    Chris, if you have time I put up some pictures from the hike in my blog, accessible by clicking on my name, I guess.

    What kind of maps did you use to find all those places (waterfalls)? Not just regular road maps, right?

  25. casey on September 12th, 2009 10:24 am

    awesome pics, better writing

  26. billywest on September 14th, 2009 7:08 am

    Sachiko alone was worth reading about.
    Great post!

  27. Dave Hollin on September 14th, 2009 3:26 pm

    an excellent and truly well written piece that had me in stitches a but also moved me as well. The photographs are stunning as always. You have brought a little bit of Japan alive for me.

  28. KamoshikaBob on September 15th, 2009 6:34 am

    dittos on the above comments. sounds like you were able to take your time and enjoy several areas of the island. How many days did you spend in Shikoku?

    My brother lived near Takamatsu 1996-8, and when I visited in ‘97, we climbed Ishizuchi together, and the top was foggy then too. Even if the bottom of the cliff you are on is 200m down, seeing it would make me feel better, instead of just watching it drop off into white nothingness.

    Did you tag the first picture of the bay on the map?
    It reminds me of a rocky outcrop near Takamatsu my brother took us to called Gokenzan, as I recall.

  29. KamoshikaBob on September 15th, 2009 6:37 am

    *make that the “seventh picture of the bay”*

  30. CJW on September 15th, 2009 7:41 am

    Mikael – I took a look through your blog, but couldn’t see the Shikoku photos. If you have a link then I’d love to see them. Quite a few of the larger waterfalls are actually well marked on the road maps (even on the car navi) – several of them are in the top 100 waterfalls in Japan.

    Casey – thanks for reading!

    BillyWest – good to hear from you, and glad you liked the post. Sachiko was fantastic. I hope I’m that full of life when I am her age.

    Dave – great, that’s exactly what I wanted to share – if I can bring a little bit of Japan back with me and convey it, then I count myself a happy man.

    KamoshikaBob – we were down there for ten days in total, which was wonderful but still not enough time. As you see on the map, we didn’t make it to the west of the island at all. I know what you mean about Ishizuchi in the mist – I would have preferred to see what I was standing above… Re the picture of the bay, that was taken from Awajishima looking over towards Shikoku. I’ve obviously mis-linked it to the map above – I’ll sort it out.

  31. Mikael on September 15th, 2009 8:08 pm

    Sorry Chris, I meant the pictures from my hike up in Lapland, since the contrast to the nature in your pictures is so big. I did a brief stay in Matsuyama, just seeing some beaches, the castle and Dogo onsen way back in 2004.

    But it’s good to know I wouldn’t need to get detailed hiking maps of the whole island if I managed to go there again. Definitely would like to see at least some of the places you shot live.

  32. CJW on September 16th, 2009 7:51 am

    Mikael – doh! of course, you were talking about Lapland, not Shikoku. Looks absolutely stunning, really remote. Northernmost Europe is definitely on our list of places to explore at some point.

  33. Mikael on September 16th, 2009 1:31 pm

    Chris, just let me know if you ever get to come here. I can maybe give some suggestions.

  34. Anonymous on September 17th, 2009 6:18 pm

    Hey there,
    this post made me dream once again about japon!
    Im a hiker myself
    and have a hiking site ( )
    great post thank you!

  35. Carlos Camacho on October 22nd, 2009 2:32 am

    Nice to see these. I lived in Ehime and Kagawa for 16 years. Back when there were so few non-Japanese on Shikoku. I miss it so much.

  36. CJW on October 26th, 2009 9:49 am

    Carlos – still very few foreigners in Shikoku, although I imagine more than when you were there. It’s definitely on our list of places to explore further (hopefully the west side of the island next time).

  37. Keela on February 8th, 2010 9:28 am

    Shikoku is totally stunning, very inspiring.
    Your pictures are amazing

  38. Hamilton Shields on February 17th, 2010 5:10 am

    That was a beautiful piece of writing. Captured the rhythm perfectly. Thank you.

  39. CJW on March 2nd, 2010 9:40 am

    Keela, Hamilton – thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  40. Quora on June 12th, 2011 4:07 pm

    Where are the most beautiful places in Japan, and why?…

    I’m not someone who has seen a lot of Japan, but to follow on from Katrina Li’s suggestion of Shikoku I’d like to mention Iya Valley. Last time I was in Japan we rented a car in Kobe and drove down through part of Shikoku. We spent a few days in Iya…

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