Environment, Japan, Long-Distance Walking, Streams, Creeks & Rivers
Comments 5

Angry Haiku in Central Shikoku

Japan suffers from a severe case of “pave and build” mentality. “Pave and build” is the idea that huge, expensive, man-made monuments are a priori wonderful, that natural surfaces smoothed over and covered with concrete mean wealth, progress, and modernism” ~ Alex Kerr, ‘Dogs and Demons’

MAY 2008. Shikoku.

Shikoku & the Iya Valley

“Tsurugi-San” – my favourite beer mug, bought near the mountain, which somehow survived weeks of bouncing around in my pack

For the lonesome traveller, high expectations sometimes mean there’s a long way to plummet.

For a few days, I’d been following the advice of Chris (‘Ashioto’ was his trail name; ‘Mountaingoat’ was mine) and writing haiku in a little notebook as I walked. We were Basho fans, inspired by his journey 400-odd years earlier, and while I was a novice, I enjoyed recording these snapshots of my experiences — and the excuse for a break. I love road-walking in quiet countryside, but it can get monotonous after several 12-hour days, and haiku gave me an excuse to sit on the roadside for five minutes while scribbling word-images.

A lot of western haiku nuts have dispensed with the Japanese 5-7-5 syllable pattern, but I enjoyed the challenge. Tramping along the road, dodging cars with incredulous-looking drivers (“Was that a foreigner?! With an umbrella?), I could easily kill an hour trying to express some incident or impression. I did carry an iPod, but an imagination requires less frequent recharging.

At first I tried to obey the convention of a seasonal reference. Striding along a dyke next to the Yoshino River:

By the Yoshino

The wind makes a souvenir

Of my brown felt hat.

But I soon relaxed this rule. Watching drivers at Sadamitsu Yuyukan, a roadside rest area, was a great haiku spectator sport:

The boy drags his feet

As though they are a burden

Carried grudgingly.


He held his back straight

For his first three cigarettes

But now he lies down.

Alex Kerr’s influential book

In the following hot, sticky days (note my seasonal reference!) I made big miles, aiming at the Iya Valley (祖谷渓谷 Iya Keikoku), a goal since reading Alex Kerr’s influential ‘Lost Japan’ in 2000. I found it, and I found also that the Japan so many foreign travellers are seeking is perhaps more lost than even Kerr imagined.

First, though, I had to cross Mount Tsurugi, second-highest in Shikoku. Tsurugi, Lonely Planet’s ‘Hiking in Japan’ tells us, was for centuries…a sacred abode for mountain worship [where] until the 1920s women were forbidden to climb to the summit:

I loved this mountain, but it was a trek. I spent a long day climbing by road to the start of the hiking trail, camped, and spent another long day hiking it (most tourists take the chairlift), getting lost, getting found again, battling through dense, scratchy acres of sasa (dwarf bamboo), and descending steeply through thick forest (the path had collapsed in one part) to the Iya River feeling a little sore.

Some mountain views, showing the bothersome sasa:

I got to the river ready for a rest. Here’s one of the famed Kazura Bashi, the ancient vine bridges once used to evade pursuers — nowadays reinforced with tourist-friendly steel cables:

I’d recently busted my knee badly in Hokkaido and it was hurting again, so I camped for two tourist-free nights near the bridges. Now, nobody could pretend that tired waterway was anything but a sorry trickle of its long-lost majesty — you could evade modern pursuers sans bridge and risk only damp ankles — but at least it looked like a river, albeit a heavily damned — I mean, dammed one.

I departed on Day 8 of my 30-day Shikoku near-circuit rested, in a great mood, and followed the river, which quickly devolved till it barely deserved the name. My heart sank with every bend in the road. Here’s my journal entry for that day:

After leaving Kazura Bashi I had my first really awful day on the road since Takamatsu. Partly this stemmed from the high expectations I had for the day… I followed the river — or what remains of the river — all day, and it was a depressing journey…

..The scale of the devastation being visited upon its banks, its bottom, and the hillsides overlooking it is shocking. Concrete walls and even bottom for long stretches. Its flow denatured and deformed to a series of descending steps that the water is forced to spill over as though it’s merely a resource being funnelled down an open drain…

..Fucking dams everywhere. Fucking signs explaining to the awestruck public the glories of the triumph of the engineers’ merciless skill. Everywhere earthmoving equipment, pipes, stores of materials. Men in hardhats and overalls clustered in the bed, on bridges or high above the banks inflicting more improvements on this once-beautiful waterway…

Perhaps my attachment to rivers is overly romantic; perhaps I have no business traipsing through a foreign land finding fault. But I was doubly shocked as countless tourist brochures and guide books had described the place as “idyllic” and “scenic” — I often marvelled, as Kerr had, that so many Japanese seem unable to notice the most hideous defilement of their environment, or the obvious stench of rotting pork seeping from a leaky barrel…

As I wrote in our blog soon afterwards:

I walked within a dark and boiling cloud, visualising firing squads in town squares where engineers, architects and construction workers, local politicians and their crooked cronies stepped up to take their turn before my one-man vengeance unit…

And as I paused to rest my feet and eyes above the concrete river and beneath the concrete-latticed valley walls, the haiku I scrawled took on a decidedly eco-militant flavour:

The Iya Valley,

Engineered to perfection,

Engineered to death.

River, remember

When your waters made music

Of boulders and sand?

It stifles its cries

And sobs quietly downstream,

The river of tears.

That poor, tortured river. It hadn’t even reached the parking garage yet:

Shikoku map courtesy of http://factsanddetails.com/japan



  1. Andrew Smallacombe says

    You may recall me saying this one:
    You know you’ve been at Nova too long when “Nature” is a CONCRETE concept!!

  2. Wow. Where was this post hiding? That’s unbelievable! My non-travelling brain would have thought that the Japanese were really green in thinking. All the gardens etc had me thinking they were into the environment. Thanks for the history lesson! I think you’ve rocked the Haiku’s as well. That line, “…imagination requires less frequent recharging” is a good one!

    • Thanks again! I’ve sent myself mental over the years trying to work out the Japanese and the way they see the world — it’s a hobby of mine! There’s definitely a strong tradition of enjoying a highly stylised, controlled version of the natural world. And regrettably the Japanese seem to subject the tools who govern them, and are happily trashing what’s left of the country for their own venal ends, to very little scrutiny or criticism. That said, perhaps will improve post-Fukushima…but I’m not optimistic.

  3. Anessa Bridges says

    Firstly, one must mention that this was incredibly well-written. Secondly, I adore what you’re doing. Walking is a great passion of mine, and I should love to do a long journey like yours. Do tell me, how did you get started with this sort of thing?

    • Hi Anessa, at last! I have always been an outdoorsy type, but it wasn’t till I lived and worked in Japan for three years that I really realised it. In reaction to the sensory assault that was Tokyo and the horrors of conversation-class teaching for eight lessons a day, the mountains were a revelation and a source of solace. I became entranced by mountains and spent more and more time in increasingly higher and wilder ones in that country, usually alone.

      When I left Japan I’d already decided to hike the Appalachian Trail as I realised that walking was becoming a key part of my life and philosophy. I read the Bryson book in Japan and that sparked my interest in doing something longer. I hurt myself a thousand miles into the first attempt, and went back two years later for the second thousand. In the meantime I’d researched and experimented with lightweight hiking. The second half was a joy and I was at my physical peak. Did the Long Trail in Vermont while there.

      Photography sort of developed (haha) as an adjunct to the walking, starting in Japan, but I never started really trying to learn it till I lived in Switzerland for a few months in 2010. Too late unfortunately to take many decent shots of the Pacific Crest Trail which I spent a few months on earlier that year. Then two years in Korea where I was very lonesome and unhappy gave me plenty of time to teach myself more, then came time in America again, more returns to Japan, the adventure continues!

      Now I see walking and making pictures as two aspects of the same journey. I haven’t left home without one or more cameras in several years, and even walking and re-walking the same local terrain, I never get bored and am always seeing something new, or anew…

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