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Looping around Shikoku

A man with no plan in Japan. That's me. Well, I had a plan. Then I dumped it.

I was going to ride up to Matsuyama castle. Then I stepped outside and it was already hot.

Anyway, I've been up there before and if I have my way and bring Alex here then I'll go up again. It's an excellent castle with first rate explanations in its original interior. But I wanted to go somewhere new and there were lots of options on the table.

I was going to have a breakfast of toast at the same little station cafe that B and I dined in on our other visit to Matsuyama. Then I stepped into the station, saw an Anpanman train bound for Uwajima pull up and decided to catch that immediately.

I've mentioned Anpanman trains before. Anpanman is a Japanese cartoon character made of bread. His friends are also bakery products. The creator comes from Shikoku and it's a big thing over here. We have bought Alex quite a few Anpanman train toys and it was sad that he couldn't share in this today.

The Anpanman train was a diesel set colourfully decorated with Anpanman characters. When we were about to depart the familiar Anpanman jingle played and Anpanman's voice welcomed us to the train, just like in Alex's sound book.

We raced (not at Shinkansen speed, but faster than the cars) past bright green rice paddies, the heads of grain looking almost ready for harvest, and through lush green valleys of bamboo and vine covered forest, looking very tropical. Near the end of the journey we passed through hills of tan soil and orange groves, with brief glimpses of a bright blue sea. It felt like I was back in Spain.

While I had mobile internet access I tried to plan the day. Okay, I should have a couple of hours in Uwajima to explore the castle and fertility shrine with its big "fertility statues". Hey, it's in the Lonely Planet.

Then we arrived at Uwajima station. There, sitting on another platform was a single diesel railcar, colourfully decorated and labelled "Hobby Train Number 2". I was hungry for a missed breakfast, interested in seeing Uwajima, but... What the heck, I just had to catch that train!

There were dinosaurs and spacemen painted on the outside, but the real surprise lay on the inside. A glass display case containing model dioramas of dinosaurs, Alien facehuggers, army tanks and anime and Thunderbird 2. The rest of the interior was further covered with dinosaur and spaceman decoration. The train was advertising the Kaiyodo Hobby Museum in Shimanto. I'm not sure where that is, but it's looks pretty whacked out.

This was a local (ie all stations) train along the quiet Yodo line to Kubokawa. I had no idea how long the ride would take, but I figured I'd still get to Kubokawa earlier than on the originally planned ride.

I positioned myself at the rear of the carriage, with a view back along the track. I like these local lines, it feels a lot more adventurous than a speeding Shinkansen. In between rice paddies and dense tropical forest we passed towns that were barely that, stopping at often empty single platform stations with nought but an open shelter and maybe, if you were lucky, a toilet.

Midway along our journey we had an extended stop at Ekawasaki, which had a sign with something about "Slow train". It was a chance for passengers to get out and stretch our legs. The only shop was a dusty little place adjoining the main station, though the shopkeeper was a younger lady than is usually the case at these places. Not knowing how long we'd be staying here I quickly bought some prawn crackers and a drink, then returned to the train.

It was another hour before we arrived at our destination of Kubokawa. I quickly changed platforms to catch the Limited Express Ashizuri to Kochi, a place I was determined to actually stop at.

Another 2000 series DMU, only without the Ampanman decorations pulled up at the platform. I was glad for the enforced seating as my legs were tired from over two hours of standing up taking photos. As the scenery reverted to the still pretty but somewhat familiar rice fields and jungle valleys I allowed myself a little sleep.

Close to Kochi there were scenic views of the ocean glimpsed between tunnels in the mountains. Kochi station has a new wooden canopy and an open airy feel about it. Open enough to let the hot, hot air in.

I asked at the tourist office how to get to Kochi Castle and where to eat, then caught one of the old trams to get there. I think I prefer the Matsuyama trams, but these are still of the old fashioned kind. I had to change lines, with the help of a transfer ticket from the driver (they know if you are changing at the Harimayabashi stop that you need one).

I got off at the Ohashidori stop, in front of the big covered arcade where most of the sellers had fresh seafood or other products. After this is Hirome Ichiba, what looks to be a seafood market, but is actually a series of stalls selling cooked food. It took me a while to figure out what to order, but I eventually chose a popular stall where they sear bonito on a big flame, then serve sliced with raw garlic, cabbage and spring onions, along with either ponzu sauce or salt and wasabi. I'm not a fan of sashimi, but this was delicious, as were the sides of tempura fish and chicken.

My hunger finally satisfied, I ventured back into the heat to climb Kochi's impressive and original castle. The grounds are attractive, but the glare of the sun was harsh. I was glad to be inside the building. At the top of the turret the doors were open and the cooling breeze very welcome. The views from up there were magical, with the city and mountains disappearing into the haze. Well worth the climb.

By the time I returned to Kochi station it was past the time I'd hoped to be back by. I finally relented and made a plan by reserving tickets on the express service up to Okayama on the Honshu main island. I had hoped to do the coastal route via Tokushima and Takamatsu, but there just wasn't the time and I felt like a rest.

While I waited for my train I explored the interior of Kochi station. There was a shop selling local souvenir foods, another devoted to Anpanman goods and a bakery with Anpanman shaped buns.

My train was another comfortable Series 2000 without Anpanman markings. Before I could relax entirely I thought I'd better continue with this planning business and work out where I was staying. The reservations lady at JR had given me a late arrival time into Shimonoseki, where I hoped to spend the night, but I found some alternative times. I managed to find a room near the station, a stopover point for my big San-in Coast adventure so long in the planning.

The scenery along the line from Kochi to Okayama was quite spectacular at times, especially along the Iya Valley with the rapids of the Yoshino River. It's popular for boat tours and white water rafting. The train climbs up through the mountains along the river. Difficult to photograph but easy to admire with the naked eye.

At Tadotsu we re-entered familiar territory as I prepared to say goodbye to my lightning tour of Shikoku and cross back to the main island of Honshu over the Seto Big Bridge. What better time to do it than when the Sun nears the horizon and shimmers off the grey sea, silhouetting the small islands that dot the passage.

Okayama station has been a transit point for many of our adventures in southern Japan. I should like to have had dinner there, but I felt like there was only time to get a cheap bento box and wander the local products store with their outrageously priced peaches and grapes ($50 for four peaches!).

Fortunately, the wooden interiored Sakura shinkansen had power sockets beside the window seats, as my devices were running flat. I spent the time trying to catch up on messages, it being dark outside and the route so familiar. We passed through Fukuyama, Hiroshima and most interesting of all Tokuyama where oil refineries shoot gas flames into the dark skies and steel works compete with them for lighting.

I actually visited three of the four main islands today, as the nearest stop on the Shinkansen was Kokura on the island of Kyushu. There I quickly changed to a local train that took me back under the Kammon straights to Honshu and the southern city of Shimonoseki.

After stopping to pick up some groceries at the You-Me supermarket in the station it took me a little while to locate the Washington West hotel along the dark streets. The name is written in katakana, not English, but I figured out which it was. It's a nice little room, if nothing special.

That's me done for the day. Another big day of trains tomorrow, but still not a great plan. So long as I enjoy the ride I'm happy to let Japan surprise me!

Photos: Matsuyama to Uwajima, the Yodo Line to Kubokawa, Kochi, to Shimonoseki.


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