The Next Step: part eight - heroes and lovers

Bright and early, the only thing waiting for me was an overpriced breakfast. Youth hostel my arse, this was barely short of a scam. Never mind, it was cheap and convenient enough, but this wasnt a hostel.

I walked to Riritsu park, two kilometres down the road. It was built hundreds of years ago and thanks to the probably tireless work of the locals, looks as good now as you could ever imagine. I admit that I dont appreciate the finer points of admiring pine trees, but there were a lot to admire. The sprawling park takes over an hour and a half to see all of it, and see it I did. It was early and still crisp out, and again it was mostly empty.

The main points of interest are the numerous box pines, which have been shaped over the years using bonsai techniques into more or less cubes and the rather impressive man-made mounds and rock formations. One in particular is made up of a hundred rocks and has a pine tree growing out of the top, the overall effect is supposed to equate to a crane on top of a turtle. I must agree that it did indeed look like this, as much a pine tree and a bunch of rocks can. Other formations are much bigger and offer decent views of sections of the park. The fact that it was all made by the ruling class for their own pleasure is obvious, such is the care and refinement that emanates from every single corner of the park. The centrepiece is the old teahouse, where the current emperor himself once enjoyed a hot cup of something. It was not open for business when I was there, but for those who wish to indulge, you too can sit where great men once dreamed up haiku and wished there was a war to fight.

The last really impressive feature is the man-made waterfall. One of the parks many lords took a disagreement to the positioning of the waterfall and ordered it moved. This required a bucket to be placed at the top of the small rock face and servants to pour the waterfall out wherever his lordship walked past. Nowadays it is done by machines and pumps, but the operating hours are clearly marked should an unwary visitor stumble across a dry waterfall.

As I left I saw a crowd entering. Looks like I missed the rush. I bought a postcard for Mum and made it back to the hotel just in time to check out and head to the train station. I was heading toward Niihama, on the way to Matsuyama. I was going to meet my friend Ryoko, who after almost three years I would finally see again. Three years? Damn, that is really too long. It would only be a few hours But that is better than nothing.

The trains in those parts are less than reliable. Well, reliable is one thing, frequent is another. There is a series of line that connect up all along the edge of Shikoku and one that cuts through the middle. That is all there is, considering which the number of trains is probably higher than expected. I took the local to Kamonji where I was forced to jump an express or I wouldnt make my lunch date. Alighting in Niihama, there she was. As radiant as ever, as bouncy and happy as that day I left Osaka in the long-lost spring of 2003. She had grown up, ever more a woman now, but she still speaks exactly the same way. The Ehime dialect is, not by accident, my favourite variety. Similar to the Hiroshima dialect, it positively rings with the sound of water on rocks, hums with insects in the air, splashes like waves on the beach. Flows like the biggest river or trickles like the smallest stream. This pocket of Ehime is still out of the way enough that major civilization has not yet turned it into another far flung suburb of Tokyo (however, the biggest Jusco shopping centre in western Japan is there) but still big enough for the express to make a stop. So there are enough locals and local pride about to maintain the dialect in the face of awesome linguistic pressures, making it an all to rare situation.

We had udon. Then she drove me to Saijo station where we drank some water (cleanest in Japan) and promised that we would meet up again sooner next time, this time in Tokyo. It was too short, too short by a long way and never have I wished things to be different. Blessed as I might be, there are some blessings I wish I could have just a little more of. Such is the way, and such is how I took a local to Matsuyama to continue to try and find just that.

It was raining when I got there. I located the tourist information booth at the station and soon had myself a room at the cheapest hotel in town. Despite the weather, I trekked out to hunt some food and bandwidth and found that Matsuyama has the biggest shopping centre in Shikoku. It is still nothing to write home about and I felt disturbed that I had come all this way only to find the best Matsuyama has to offer me was La Foret, of Harajuku. Just another suburb? Maybe this part was. I ate and made my devotions to the internet deities, went back to the hotel and planned my assault for the next day.

The sky was still decidedly grey when I left. I dumped my bags in a coin locker at the station, bought a one day pass for the tram (!) and with my trusty tourist map in my pocket, set out. I mention trams. Oh yes, Matsuyama indeed has home-on-down, honest to God trams running around. I may not have spent so much time there (I have lived in Tokyo longer than Melbourne) but as a Melburnian I have a love of trams somewhere deep inside. Maybe not the heart, but somewhere above the colon, to be sure. So to ride around the trams of Matsuyama was indeed endearing to me. Matsuyama is most famous for being the setting of Natsume Sousekis novel Botchan and as such most places of note are places the protagonist of the novel visits. Souseki himself lived for a time in the city, as did his friend and famous haiku poet Masaoka Shiki. I spent the morning walking around finding places mentioned in the novel and other places of note, like Masaokas birthplace and grave (at a temple where the remains of two of the 47 Ronin also lie) as well as a long walk through and around Matsuyama Castle. This is a fine example of a well preserved castle, the interiors being much the same as always (as opposed to the kind that has been rebuilt in recent years) and was only sullied by the repair work happening on the main tower. The views from these castles are often the best in town, yet I was denied my view by a whole load of scaffolding. The smaller tower afforded a secondary view I was forced to make do with. This castle is on top of a small mountain, making it an especially good place to view the city spall. On the way down I stopped by a garden before finding myself out on the street again.

I took a tram up to Dogo Onsen, reputed to be the oldest in Japan. Souseki himself bathed there what more could a literature dork do to follow a hero than to bathe where he once did? So I was looking forward to getting in there, but not before seeing everything around there. The site of the old castle, now a park, as well as numerous temples dot the area and all can be found within an hour or so. There are several arduous stairs to climb and more than enough visiting tourists to fight off in the street. They become more numerous as you near the bath house. I seemed to be the only one looking around the temples, all too common an occurrence, as the natives all seem to come to town for one thing. The bath.

Finally, I had done enough walking to earn myself a shot at glory. A chance to be naked with total strangers where the man on the thousand yen note once bathed. In the oldest hot spring in the land. That is not such a bad way to end an afternoon exploring, I am sure you can think of a great many worse.

There were quite a lot of old men in there.

So back to the station, grab my bags, get some food from the convenience store, and jump on the local train down to the port. I would catch the 10pm ferry to Kokura, arriving at 5am, thus killing two birds with one proverbial stone by covering transport fees and accommodation cost with one swift blow.

Lets see how that turned out.


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