The Wilds of Shikoku: Sample

A man carrying a rucksack walks on a road in the distance at night 📷 Photo by Gyula Simonyi

Cape Gamōda, the easternmost point of Shikoku, jutted into the sea, the bushes on the hill streamlined into helmets worn by cyclists in a time trial. My shoulders had forgotten the straps of my rucksack. Gyula and I left the lighthouse in the howling wind that blew in from the Kii Channel and turned the sea into rippling grey sheets of interference, and froze our hands in this subtropical winter. We took our first steps across the island, tentative shuffles on the asphalt, feeling out the long-faded footsteps of Alan Booth, the sky powder-blue above the clouds. Our souls lagged behind, still somewhere over the mainland of Honshu, approaching the dense coastal atmosphere of Shikoku like delayed space capsules. We talked about the practicalities of water filtration in the Afghan Pamirs, where Gyula had recently traveled. A single sheep will feed a highland village, he said. We left the last houses and turned on the old coast road.

Gyula had showed up the night before at Hanga’s house. I barely knew him. He lived in Yokohama, and he resembled me to such an extent that my own mother had mistaken him for me in a photo I sent her. I had met him once before, in Budapest, over plates of tagliatelle and vacation photos from the Pamirs. I watched him now, dressed in grey, all elusive smiles and mischievous observations, and I wondered if the coming proximity of body and soul would turn us into great friends or grate on our nerves instead.

Landslides of trash cascaded down the steep slopes between the stubby trees. The road was on its last legs, covered in rockfalls and debris, the guardrails bent and rusted, the traffic mirrors dimmed. We climbed over the trunks of fallen trees in the wind. The trash had been trucked here and dumped over the sides, television sets and refrigerators and ovens. The abundance of VCRs made the heaps easy to date. In a country where disposing of trash is a national, near-neurotic pastime, where recycling the layers of plastic bags the smallest purchase comes in is a religion, we walked for an hour in a sea of waste.

The wind was constant. A twist in the road revealed a small pickup truck, abandoned next to its last load of refuse, rusting into the tan earth. As the afternoon wore on, fishing boats from Tsubaki rushed out to sea, the thrum of their engines amplified by the narrow funnel of the bay. We walked on the crumbling edge of the asphalt and rejoined the main road, perfect and smooth, that ran from the dead end of Cape Gamōda.

A bathhouse sat on the hill above the bay, one of those rural outposts which make walking in Japan such a languid joy. From the forlorn coast road we entered a warm and sunlit temple of spring water, where we discarded our rucksacks, laden with chocolate and oranges, by the lockers. Old men with wrinkled bodies came and went in the heat. We sunk to our ears in the outside bath, the cold wind from the sea whistling and droning. I climbed out to stand under a jet of water streaming from a headless shower, the gusts from the bay atomising the flow into hot pinpricks. Beyond the steel-blue, white-capped sea, smoke rose from the factories of Anan towards the grey clouds.

The restaurant was closed by the time we came out of the baths, and we ate our oranges and watched Naomi Osaka play Karolína Plíšková in the semi-final of the Australian Open. Naomi Osaka is from Osaka but she spells her last name with different kanji characters. Men lounged on the tatami mats in front of the television. Osaka was a game or two away from winning the decisive set when the broadcast cut away to news and never returned.

We walked back into the wind. A soar of kites circled in the dusk above barren fields and a great camphor tree. We talked about the artisanal ice cubes you get in Japanese bars. A single one will chill three whiskies, Gyula said. We were yet to come across another person outside. We walked past half-sunk fishing boats and dark farmhouses, and waded across the shallow pools of light in front of vending machines.

It was the last winter of the Heisei era, some weeks before Emperor Akihito, a gentle old man in a grey flannel suit, was due to abdicate in favor of his son. The western sky dissolved into a cold sunset of oranges and purples over the Tsubaki River. We warmed our hands on cans of corn soup bought from a vending machine in Tsubaki, where office workers were getting into their cars and driving away west. A row of simple concrete houses lined the road which climbed towards the first of many passes we would cross. We talked about holidays in Korea, about a girl Gyula had left behind at a train station in the North. Standing on the crest of the pass, we watched the constellations merge with the lights of the fishing boats out on the Pacific.

Later, at a shrine, we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags next to crates of beer for the gods and their custodians. The waning moon rose from the east, imbuing the clouds with a pinkish-silver glow. Two years after I had walked the length of Japan, from Kagoshima to Nemuro, I lay again in the darkness after a day’s walk, and asked the gods to accept me, in whispered Hungarian, the sounds of my language doppelgängers for Japanese morae. The chill air clung to my skin, and I thought of the snows and the high passes which lay ahead, and I remembered the villages I had walked through, desolate even in the glory of a late spring, and I tried to imagine them now, snowed in, afternoon music playing to their frozen streets. In my sleeping bag, warm enough for the Afghan Pamirs, I shivered and tossed and turned, and in my dreams I wandered in bewilderment.

If you enjoyed this sample chapter, you can buy a copy of the book in my shop:

The Wilds of Shikoku is a book about a five hundred kilometer walk across Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, in January and February 2019.