The mountains of Shikoku, Japan’s fourth largest island, are profound and the hum of tyres on asphalt acts only to emphasise their silence. As we climbed the third mountain on the 150km route of the Prestige Kamikatsu, our minds were focused and we were acutely aware of the moss-covered ground beneath our wheels. A damp tunnel awaiting us at the top of the climb drew us in, the darkness initially causing riders to lose their balance and then cruelly blinded them with bright sunlight on the other side.
Kamikatsu is a relatively unexplored area of Japan, so I had no doubt this Prestige would be an incredible way to experience the essence of this small island where I grew up. Characterised by vast, deep green forests, vertiginous mountains and thunderous waterfalls, a Buddhist pilgrimage route follows entire circumference of the island.
And wading through,
Yet green mountains still.
As I turned the pedals a haiku poem by the mendicant monk Taneda Santōka came to me. Had he walked the same path on his Shikoku pilgrimage as the one we were riding? The mountains obscured much of the daylight, the smell of the moist forest and the cool air was overpowering, a vivid memory of my childhood.
As we came to the second mountain the long climb and winding roads seemed endless. Any hopes of the gradient relenting were futile, as little by little the distance between the riders in our team began to increase, then everything stopped. One of our teammates crank arms came off just before the summit, exhausted, laughter was all we had left.
Things became more serious as we began climbing Japan’s longest gravel road. Tsurugi-San Super Rindo is an unpleasant reminder of what it must have been like at the Tour de France 100 years ago. Even the view of a cloudless blue sky did nothing to ease the brutality of this rough gravel climb, which punished our legs and our bikes – at every corner there were riders with flat tyres.
Fortunately our group only sustained one flat but this would become a fatal blow. As three of the team continued ahead while we made the repair, one of the rider crashed on the gravel, the injuries were not severe but the shock of the impact ended her day. And so it was that the remaining four of us were left with a decision – to stop or continue?
At this point our bidons were already empty and we were fast becoming dehydrated. Eventually, after a desperate search, we found a quaint tearoom where we filled our bottles with water from a huge kettle. This unexpected encounter with local hospitality provided a brief boost but by the third mountain we were already reaching our limit. Without a concerted effort we knew we wouldn’t make it to the next check point. We increased our pace pushed our hardest but as the entrance of Yaeji Tunnel came into view, it was all over.
Only seven of the 35 teams completed the 150km parcours with close to 4000m of climbing in what must be the toughest Japan Prestige to date. Rather than rediscovering Shikoku it punished me but I found a new respect for the roads the pilgrims walked, the mountains and the sky they observed haven’t changed. Someday, our team should return to find what we lost there.