In this journal:
- 1500 steps into the next existence;
- I stomp on noodles;
- cave with ogre-captured women.
Never, ever, lose yourself.Promotion poster for Spirited Away(1989)
The harbor of Takamatsu was the first place to welcome me onto Shikoku for the first time in my life. Japan is mainly divided into 4 large islands, Honshu where all major cities you may know such as Tokyo and Osaka are located, Hokkaido in the far north, Kyushu in the south, and finally Shikoku sitting in the Seto Inland Sea. Shikoku is probably the most overlooked of the four, so it is my job to bring you this place far off the beaten path by western travellers. Interestingly, Shikoku has developed a rather unusual level of niche tourism catered specifically to Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongnese for some bizarre reasons, as Takamatsu, arguably the capital of Shikoku, receives international flights and visitors nearly exclusively from those regions.
Takamatsu is also the capital of Kagawa Prefecture, the smallest prefecture of the entire nation. However, this little place packs a huge punch in terms of its influence in Japanese culture, as in almost every noodle shop you can find in Japan, you will find udon noodles being tauted around. This chewy thick noodle is exactly the invention of the people living here in Kagawa, utilizing the local high-gluten flour, soy sauce from Shodoshima Island, and dried infant sardine broth. Now, the Edo-era Sanuki udon is known a world over, sold in any Asian supermarket in every country. (Sanuki is the name of the ancient feudal lord state in current day Kagawa.)
Of course my first meal in Kagawa had to be this signature, in a locally famous canteen. What I like about udon here is that it is made fresh and incredibly cheap, even compared to many ramen noodle varieties known for budget-friendliness. After being stuffed with bouncy goodness, I began exploring downtown Takamatsu, where a large castle ruin stands next to the harbor. This is Takamatsu Castle, also known as 玉藻城/Tamomo Castle. Tamomo is a poetic name for seaweed, as the castle used to stand in the sea, where a forest of heavy seaweed would dye the water a dark green color. Nowadays, a road separates the castle from the sea, but the moats still are connected, proving Takamatsu Castle’s official status as one of the top 3 water castles in Japan.
The main defense and where the feudal lord would reside was taken down in late 19th century, so Takamatsu does not have an imposing city-icon like Osaka or Himeji. Though plans are in the works to rebuild the original, the only castle-like structures you can see nowadays are three turrets built at the corners of the moats. Now, the Tamomo Park mostly serves as a place of relaxation and strolls, thankfully not touristy at all compared to other castles in the nation. Additionally, the old horse-training field is now covered with cherry trees, and I managed to grasp one last view of the season before the petals all fell into the tranquil moat. At night during hanami season, the park grounds are open specially for night cherry views, popped up by hundreds of traditional lanterns illuminating the fragile blossoms against the bustling city center backdrop.
The most important sight of Takamatsu is 栗林公園/Ritsurin Garden, an old feudal lord’s playplace under the pleasantly green Shiun Mountain. The original garden expanded from a small pond under a cascading waterfall all the way to the gigantic city park we see today, covered with artificial rock formations, bright red bridges, cherry blossom groves, pine forests, a tea house, and much more.
The cherry grove of Takamatsu’s signature park is also an important place for hanami crowds, including me. This is not only due to its scenic mountain backdrop against a full forest of trees older than a century, but also because one of these trees serve as the signaling tree for the arrival of the season for Shikoku in accordance with the rules laid out by the Japanese Weather Administration. During spring, Japan’s government puts out a live map of every region’s cherry blossom status, and the tree featured below is one of the honored ones to represent Kagawa Prefecture.
Because I experienced the beginning of the week-long hanami peak in Himeji, and the absolute full blossom on Shodoshima Island, I was only seeing the end of the season here in Takamatsu. Most of the flowers were very brittle by the second week of full blossom, and a tiny gust would pluck out the petals from the branches, and send them flying across the azure sky. It was the end of another year of cherry blossom viewing experience, but I was determined to make the most out of it.
Next to the famous pond reflecting the lush mountain in its tranquil waters, you can find the Kikugetsu-tei pavillion. It is an ancient pavillion built by the feudal lords, now used as a teahouse for those who wish to relax next to one of the quaintest scenes in Japan. The name in Japanese literally means “Moon Scooping Pavillion” because the water is so calm that during clear nights, you can see the moon almost right there in the water, so close that you want to scoop up the reflection just an arm’s length away.
The water is surrounded by black pine trees, each meticulously trimmed over the past few centuries to a specific natural shape that pleases the eye, resulting in a very aesthetic view that does not seem artificial at all. The philosophy of these live bonzais is to let the trees grow their own patterns but trimming to make sure their beauty is maximized. It is really rare to see even a small grove of these black pine kept in such a pristine shape, because it takes a trememdous amount of resource and time to make sure they each look natural enough and coherent enough as a whole, not mentioning the artistic requirement for the masters. Seeing an entire forest of these century-old works is probably the ultimate dream of many gardeners.
I spent most of my time watching the small boats carrying passengers slowly row by, barely eliciting a ripple response from the waters, seemingly in a meditative state. I then moved on to the small concession located by a series of waterfalls, where a variety of large kois were roaming about. You can purchase a pack of fish pellets and slowly watch a crowd gather underneath you, and I did exactly that. The hungry fish raised one after another mini-tsunamis fighting for food, and their chomping sounds were barely overshadowing the slow waterfalls. This level of serene existence put me in a trance, where I barely found differences between me and my environment. I had become one with this gorgeous garden, melded into a droplet of water, an elegant koi fish, a century-old pine needle, and an ancient pavillion.
To finish up my Japanese garden experience, I arrived at Ueharaya udon shop famous for their serve-yourself sanuki udon, topped with a variety of tempura fried items. The price is shockingly low, and you will find the noodles freshly made next to you before being put into a piping hot broth, decorated with a tiny bit of green onion and garnish. The noodle is extremely chewy yet not hard to bite through, as if they are bouncy snakes made of tiny ping pong balls. This is arguably the best udon noodle I had ever had, despite its rather bland appearance.
Just a few stations east of Takamatsu city center sits Yashima peninsula. It is one of the large lava plateaus formed during the last active volcano period a few million years ago. Nowadays, it is a protruding piece of rock that stands a few hundred meters above the Seto Inland Sea, offering unparalleled views of the rest of Takamatsu, as well as the islands dotting the horizon. A temple calld Yashima-ji also sits near the peak. A steep bus ride took me up the hill, all the way to the temple front.
Yashima-ji is the 84th temple on the 88-temple Cannon Pilgrimage of Shikoku Island. Many devout followers of Shintoism have to do the 88 temples consecutively in order, preferrably on foot. That would entail nearly three years of walking. I have met a German girl, Vivien, in my hostel in Takamatsu, who had finished the entire pilgrimage, which definitely became one of those crazy stories she could tell her children.
The main temple was founded by a Ritsu school monk in 8th century, and has been designated as an important cultural asset in Japan. Another interesting story involving Yashima is the temple’s protector diety, Hage-tanuki. It is a racoon dog said to bring family happiness and entertainment industry prosperity. The story is rather hilarious, as Japan has always had three major tanuki’s, each boasting about their signature ability to shapeshift and create illusions. One day, the Hage-tanuki from Yashima challenged Awaji’s Shibaemon-tanuki for who is the better shapeshifter. Right as Shibaemon-tanuki was waiting for Hage-tanuki, suddenly a huge fleet started advancing towards Awaji. Startled by the impending war, Shibaemon began panicking, and it turned out that the entire invading fleet was simply an illusion created by Hage-tanuki. Admitting defeat, Shibaemon decided to introduce Hage-tanuki to his friend, the local governor.
Next day, a large precession led the advent of the local governor, who was spledidly dressed and properly mannered. Hage-tanuki laughed out aloud, began praising Shibaemon-tanuki for his skillful transformation and masterful illusions. However, a soldier bellowed:”How dare you insult our governor like that!” and promptly shot Hage-tanuki to death. It was never an illusion or a trick, but Hage-tanuki thought the competition was still ongoing. Shibaemon was very embarrassed by this mishap and gave Hage-tanuki a grand funeral. Now, people still say his spirit is lingering around Yashima-ji, blessing those people who came to his shrine. The story is made into a famous cartoon film by Studio Ghibli, the one which also gave us Spirited Away, Totoro, and many other classics.
By the viewing platform to the other side of the temple, one can soak in all the majestic outlook of this advantageous position. Yashima commands one of the highest points around the bay, and you can easily gaze upon the Seto Inland Sea, as far as the sea-crossing traffic nearly 30 kilometers away on the Great Seto Bridge. One can also look closer towards Takamatsu City, whose governmental buildings pale in front of the natural rocky outcrop. A line of cherry blossoms were releasing their last breath of vigor into the air, as the full flowers began to wither. Sea, islands, cherry blossoms, and a bustling city, all formed a rather Japanese image hard to duplicate elsewhere.
After an afternoon just sitting by the sheer cliffs and watching cargo ships come and go, I slowly packed up my bag, and returned back to my lodging in Takamatsu. I hung out in the small Japanese house used as a hostel with Vivien, who told me her fascination with Japanese culture as well as young children education, so she did a term of kindergarten teaching in Osaka before heading here to Shikoku looking for spiritual ascension. Base on her calm attitude and sweet smile, I did not need any answer about her quest.
(Vivien is later featured in Berlin section of EuroHop 19/20.)
After bidding farewell to Vivien the next day, I boarded a ferry towards a small island visible from any part of the coastline in Takamatsu. This tiny boat is the lifeline connecting Megijima, a small island the size of a dozen blocks but with barely 200 people, and the mainland. Viewing afar from Takamatsu, the island was not a lush green during its normal seasons, but a girly pink: 2000 cherry blossom trees practically changed the island’s color.
The ferry slowly docked at the sleepy village on Megijima. The island’s name contains the word for “female”, and another smaller island a kilometer out is Ogijima, which contains the word for “male”. They are usually called the couple islands together by the locals. A lot of art pieces can be found around these islands, as they are a part of the Setouchi Triennale, a large-scale art festival held once every 3 years on the islands of Seto Inland Sea, including Shodoshima as well as the main venues Teshima and Naoshima. Once every three years, many local and international artists would install temporary and permanent art pieces around these islands, and in turn attracting a huge crowd wherever the art reaches. One of such pieces is a Maoi statue standing next to the dock on Megijima, which reminded me of those magical days on Easter Island, where these giants originally came from.
From the tiny settlement, I began my climb to the top of the island, painted completely pink by arrays of cherry blossom trees. There was no tourist shuttle, or public bus, or any form of modern transportation in sight. I had to walk past the small garlic fields, past the snoozing villagers with their hand carriages, as well as quiet shrines with unnamed gods, all the way up the small hill along a cherry-petal covered single lane road. I was the only non-native person on the island at that time, but I did not mind my solo venture up the hills: I was in my happy place, right underneath flowering cherry trees.
Megijima is also suspected to be the inspiration of Onigashima in popular Japanese folktale Momotaro. A cave can be found near the peak of the island, as volcanic activities eons ago formed large connected lava tubes underneath the island, and it is said to be the place where the ogres lived during Momotaro’s adventure. As a result, Megijima is often called Onigashima, literally meaning ogre’s island. Nowadays, a tourist operation is set up as the interior is filled to the brink with artifacts and statues depicting the story of this popular childhood hero of many, and some caves even contain jail cells featuring dolls depicting captured women.
It was such a lazy afternoon that nobody was on the hill, so I got a private tour of the caves for free, even though during normal holidays people would line up to pay for entrance. I continued upwards all the way to the peak, where the howling wind blew unchecked across the viewing platform, stripping all cherry blossoms of their beauty. Megijima village could clearly be seen from here, including a tiny field that used to be the playground of the handful of students studying on the island’s elementary school. However, the exodus of young people had gotten so badly that the school had had no students for a few years, eventually forcing it to be shut down. This is the fate of many remote places in Japan, as old people disproportionally occupy rural areas while the young relocate into the ever-crowding cities, leaving dying villages in their wake.
The city of Takamatsu is clearly visible across the sea, and the dozens of ships coming in and out of its busy harbor could be seen loading and unloading goods for and from Shikoku. So few people come here to Megijima that you can rarely find anyone talking about the combined beauty of cherry blossoms, a sleepy village and the Seto Inland Sea, not to mention a kickass folk legend to boot. Sadly Takamatsu has fallen out of favor in many western travelling websites and advertisements, as it is not the shiniest or flashiest city in the region, despite its cultural heritage and historical significance.
Still hours away from the next ferry carrying me back to civilization, I winded down the hill via a small road clearly not used for a long time. Autumn leaves are mixed up with the fallen spring blossoms, creating a crunchy sound every step of the way. There was not a single soul in view, as I pleasantly strolled across the wild, under hundreds of cherry blossom trees on a tiny island, thousands miles away from familiarity. It is the impossible achieved by traveling: transport my body away from the grim pollution, and my mind away from the daily grind. It was a long walk kilometers away from anybody else, but I had never felt more connected. The bird chirps, the wind brushing through treetops, the graceful descent of a petal, and the undulation of the sea waves: I could hear it all, see it all, feel it all.
The road eventually reached the lighthouse, the southernmost tip of the island, before turning back towards the settlement. During these hours, I did not meet any single person, as most fishermen were either busy snoozing or drying their nets during this low season, so I enjoyed the majority of the island to myself. I finally sat down by the sea on the village’s stone wall, and looked at the sun slowly sinking beneath the horizon of the sea. Life is sometimes a mystery to vagabonds like me. One day, I may be sipping mate in an Argentinean mountain valley, and the next I would be waiting for a small ferry on a Japanese fishing island. For many others, it is the opposite. I feel cursed and blessed at the same time for this unique position, as most would kill to not be among mediocrity, but for those who truly live extraordinarily, normalcy is a luxury they cannot comprehend yet yearn from time to time, intangible but ubiquitous, so unremarkable yet so comfortable.
To finish up a great day in Kagawa, I had to try the second most famous food of the prefecture: 骨付鳥/honetsukidori, literally meaning bird with bones. This is basically a chicken leg covered with butter and seasonings grilled as a izakaya food. This dish was invented by a local izakaya owner in Marugame, about 40 minutes from Takamatsu, as a Japanese version of roast chicken he saw on Hollywood films, and has been wildly popular among local drunkards ever since. I devoured the chicken by holding onto the bone, and washed it down with a soup-drenched salmon rice bowl.
For my last day in Kagawa Prefecture, and this trip in general, I decided to go for a day trip into the spiritual world, visiting a famous shrine located in Kotohira town, an hour by train from Takamatsu.
The small town featuring less than 10000 people is home to Shikoku’s most important Shinto shrine, Kotohira-gu. However, before I head up the mountain covered in divine mist for a view of the famous religious complex, I had something else that is equally important to me: food. More precisely, I had to learn how to make those delicious sanuki udon before I leave. Fortunately, a cooking school called 中野うどん学校 is located right at the entrance precession way of the shrine, allowing me to become a noodle master in a mere hour.
After paying a modest fee, I was escorted to the higher levels of the building with my fellow students, and sensei was sitting right at the table. He first began taking attendance of all students in the classroom, and then whipped out a blackboard. The next dozen minutes were about the correct ratio of making the dough suitable for an udon noodle. Surprisingly, the ratio of salt, water, and flour differs base on the current season as humidity can impact the chewy-ness of the noodles. Next, we were taught how to make the dough into noodles, and the first step is flattening the white blob, and then fold them back together, and repeat this process again and again. This gives the dough rigidity, and finally to give it one last punch, we used to traditional method of applying pressure: stomping on it.
Sensei played a variety of music to provide a rhythm to aid our stomping, and a few rounds of Gangnam Style and Japanese Pop songs later, we were finally given evaluation on the finished dough. Finally, a sharp knife was provided to cut the flattened product into long strands, which are chewy enough to be the finall noodle that we shall consume ourselves. Yes, we would have to eat our own product as the last test.
I sheepishly carried my white baby downstairs to the kitchen, stealing a sniff of it every few seconds, worrying that it may have caught a whiff of my foot fungus. After firing up the stove and waiting for the water to boil, I added my finished sanuki udon, applied a dash of dashi as garnish, before dipping it in the specially-prepared sauce. Yum! I can finally say that I learned how to make udon noodles! Sensei looked at my face beaming with satisfaction, and gave me the all clear: I was graduating!
He presented me my graduation certificate, and wished me best of luck in the upcoming culinary challenges I would face in my life, and sent me packing. I wandered down the precession walk, and began the climb towards the heavenly realm. I was officially on temple grounds once I passed by the torii erected as a symbol of passing into the territory of the kami, gods.
Right at the entrance sat 5 women, each manning a small stand selling items relevant to the holy visit. These five women have been there for generations, lasting nearly 1000 years, as it is a tradition to keep them as the unofficial guardians of the shrine, and the five families have been supplying the stands with womenpower since ancient times. From the grand gate on, everyone had to proceed on foot up the 800 steps of stairs towards the main complex, sitting half way on Mount Zōzu. The precession way continued upwards from here, hugged by thousands of toros, each symbolizing a wish or a donation. Even more monuments lined the walkway, each documenting the donation provided by a certain individual or family, some nearly 600 years old.
The complex also has a barn, housing the two holy equines for the temple. Kotohira-gu’s main deity is Konpira, a previously buddhist deity responsible for shipping safety and smooth sailing. In this shrine, horses are considered to be a form of messenger of Konpira, so it is not hard to imagine why some wealthy donors have managed to keep two lucky horses on site for a few hundred years. They have to be pale-white, which symbolizes the purity of the galloping spirit, suitable for prayers and ceremonies.
A few hundred steps from the barn, I finally reached the main complex of the temple. This is where most pilgrims come to disclose their prayers to Konpira. A large shrine sits in the middle of the complex, featuring a statue of the god. However, due to the religious nature of the subject, one is forbidden to take any photo of the shrine from the front. Next to the main shrine, a large sqaure was populated by priests and a small shop that sells relevant ema for specific prayers. You can buy those wood blocks and write your wish, preferrably related to the sea or sailing, and hang them on the halls of the emas. Inside the hall, you can find prayers dedicated to all kinds of vessals, from as small as a fishing boat for one, all the way to gigantic shipping containers of displacements in tens of thousands of tons, and there is even a prayer dedicated to a Союз Soyuz spacecraft carrying a Japanese astronaut.
However, the main complex is not the end. From the back end of the major shrine, you can continue up a much-less traveled set of 500 steps towards the last shrine, 奧社/Izutama Shrine, literally meaning Deep Shrine, hidden from most other visitors. I circled back from the crowds, and started marching towards the ultimate spiritual ascension. First, after a few wet bridges, twists and turns, I reached a small shrine manned by a priest dressed in white robes. The late cherry flowers were drenched in mountain mist, forming dews that were about to drop any minute.
From there, another 30 minutes of relaxing climb thanks to the mystical mist that shrouded the entire upper part of Mount Zōzu, I reached the final destination of this hike. A snall shrine was barely visible at the end of the road, signalling the ultimate achievement of any devout believer. Izutama Shrine was the place for a priest to achieve divinity, as the heavy fog coated the entire cliffside with a deep sense of mysticism. The maglonia tree above the shrine was slowly dropping petals, and the white covered every part of the ground as if the kami/gods gave grace to this blessed land.
I purchased the Izutama special protection emulet from the sole priest, who blessed it with the power of nature and Konpira, and congratulated me for reaching the end of the road. After two hours of slow descent due to slippery surfaces, I eventually came back to the realm of the people, in Kotohira town. I decided to relax with a small traditional snack: freshly grinded matcha with a slice of yōkan, an agar-based jelly dessert. Ahhhh, nothing soothes my stomach better than a warm bowl of fragrant matcha after a climb!
This is it…
Finally, the trip is over. Even the most beautiful flower has to wither eventually. I boarded a bus taking me to the airport, and stood on the small observation platform, realizing I was about to end one of my largest trips, in a place that I turned out to love more than I should.
The experience here is spiritual. Every day packed a different surprise for me, as if each day was my birthday. Takamatsu Castle and its night cherries were hard to capture on camera, and even harder to describe; Ritsurin Garden is as green as emerald and as blue as sapphire; Yashima is religiously elegant, and the vantage point was the best in this trip; Megijima has a road covered with cherry blossoms, and I got to enjoy it all by myself; Kotohira carried more history and spirituality than my soul could handle, as I was unwillingly transported to another plane of existence.
I was spirited away.
As my plane slowly left the surface of Japan, my L.A.S.T. trip was officially over. I have too much to say, too much to feel, and too much to regurgitate, I spent nearly a year organizing the photos, my thoughts, and the lessons I learned. Before I tell you my thoughts, my dear reader, I would like to thank you for being here even after all these years. From the first journal written casually about my silly hop in Colombia, we have come a long way. I appreciate you being here with me; these truly are the days, eh?
Here, we have finally reached the end. It was bittersweet because in the beginning of this trip, I was planning for this journey to be the last large scale trip I will ever take in my life, hence the acronym L.A.S.T. As you may have read before, I have grown increasingly wary of these really long journeys. I have slowly lost focus on what I am supposed to do when I am out in the world months at a time. Without an end goal, the journey has become pointless. The more places and more things I visited and saw, the more I realized that I would never be able to see them all. Just Japan gave me so much to experience in different seasons that losing oneself is almost a pre-requisite for enjoyment. The fact that I may not even experience 1% of the world before I disappear shook me to the core. What kind of vagabond life would I lead if I am so inefficient at experiencing everything?!
And then there is the part about solitude. I am getting older, and the fact that my friends and classmates starting a relationship, a career, and even a family makes me feel extremely lonely. I wander from city to city, country to country, yet no matter how far I have walked, I am always at the fringe of life. It is a lonely road, and I sometimes desire human interaction and that warm fuzzy feeling more than food, culture, and even wifi. I may have done the unthinkable, turning vacationing into a lifestyle, but it is getting overwhelmingly lonely. As a meme once jokingly said: the only thing about being faster than light, is that you always live in the shadows. If I continue traveling for months at a time, crossing oceans like streets, I will end up alone. Nobody is capable of taking this large of environmental shift. It sounds nice to eat breakfast in Seoul, lunch in Dubai, and dinner in London, but behind the scenes, you will find me silent on my breakfast tatami, reminiscing in the lunch shisha cafe, and sobbing on the mash-and-pie dinner. The glamorous side of life is great, but nobody will ever know that sudden hit of depressive loneliness when I was the only business class passenger on that 12-hour flight back to my “home”, where nobody would pick me up and I had prepared a 4-month-old frozen meal ready to be heated as I got back. There are so many moments like this that coerced me to use all the power of my being to hold back tears, whether it was in a cafe in Paris, on a boat to the Arctic, under a cherry tree in Osaka, or among a wilderbeest migration in Kenya. I was through and through by the end of this trip: it would be my L.A.S.T.
However, in recent months, during L.A.S.T. and after that, I tried quitting traveling for a while. I stopped checking cheap flights. I began applying for jobs that would numb my brain and forcefully anchor me down in a place so that I would never be able to fly. It worked, only for a little while. I fucking hated it: I am not a rat designed to run a wheel in this confusing machine called social norm. I was sad, depressed, hurt, and desparate for salvation. I was no less in pain, but just in a different kind of pain.
I realized I was wrong. It was not traveling that has made me a distant social fringe figure, but my own attitude. In the past years I had been trying to run away from the only thing I cannot get away from: myself. I am the person who slowly decided to give up on close human connections and shunned all others who dared to come near. I pretend to be alone while refusing any outside help. I am the problem, and it had to stop. Traveling is not about how many miles you have covered, but about how many people you are able to connect and stay connected, and the secret is to open myself up. L.A.S.T. originally stood for Lost, Apathatic, Scared, Tired, as I aimed for a much grimmer future, devoid of happy flights and mindblowing sights, but now I realized the error of my thoughts. I shall run from my shadow no more, and face my fear as well as vulnerability head on, regardless whether I am on a trip or at home. Because you can never outrun your shadow, no matter how ugly, dark, unformly it can be. It is time to embrace who I am, a vagabond, and fight against solitude or die trying.
The name of the trip cannot be changed, but its meaning can. This acronym is not a lost cause. My body and mind will fade, but my spirit will live on for eternity, and for that, I am willing to fight. It may not be my last journey, but it sure is my L.A.S.T. journey.
Love All, Stay True.