The final crossing on our bike ride was the Kurushima-kaikyo Shashi Bridge. The bridge took us to the Island of Shikoku– the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands. There were strong headwinds and we were relieved to get to the bike off ramp which provided views of a large shipyard. We arrived in Imabari around 3 pm, dropped off our bikes and boarded a train for Shikoku’s largest city Matsuyama.
From the moment we stepped out of the train station we knew that Matsuyama was different from the other cities we visited in Japan. First, the street car that took us to our guest house was 1950’s vintage rather than sleek and modern. It felt like a Japanese version of the Streetcars in New Orleans except it had wifi. Second, we saw many businessmen returning home from work at 5pm (slackers by Tokyo standards). Finally, people were very chatty with us. Eliot started a conversation with an elderly couple who told us that Matsuyama was known for its writers. Our first stop was Dogo Onsen the oldest onsen (traditional bath) in Japan. The building has been rebuilt after a fire but it still had a vintage feel to it and I liked the orange scented soap. Eliot got embarrassed when I splashed some patrons after having trouble working the handheld shower nozzle at the washing station.
After our soak, we checked into Sen Guesthouse where we had a private tatami matt room. It was the perfect combination of a traveller’s hostel and budget hotel. The hosts recommended an excellent restaurant where we had Tai Meshi (sea bream sashimi dipped in broth on rice) and other local specialties. The evening was capped off with a visit to a discount supermarket that was filled with a busload of Chinese tourists buying seaweed and other Japanese specialties. The next morning I picked up freshly baked buns at a great french -Japanese bakery with an Elfin vibe called Panza Uzu.
I could have stayed a couple more days in Matsuyama but we booked an apartment in Osaka that was non-refundable. So we boarded another fast train and headed out across the countryside. The views were spectacular and within 3 hours we were in Osaka- a large modern town that was almost the complete opposite of Matsuyama. Osaka does not have the temples or imperial history of Tokyo or Kyoto. It does have bold architecture, busy shopping streets and amazing food. We saw sky scrapers with climbing walls and space ship shaped concert halls. The pedestrian malls were packed with tourists and locals. On the side alleys we saw advertisements for girly bars bars where women could hire men that looked like Boy Band singers to act as hosts. We bumped into a sumo wrestler and saw a number of rocker bands busking busy corners.
Our friend Koh explained that Osakans are known as the Latinos of Japan. They are loud, and eat unhealthy food. Osakans are not exactly Puerto Ricans or Mexicans but by Japanese standards Koh does have a point. Cars were tricked out with tinted windows, mag wheels and anime decals. Young people were tricked out in rockabilly, punk and school girl garb. If I had my bedazzler I could have made a mint accessorizing t-shirts and black vinyl jackets with hello kitty beads.
For dinner we had the local speciality Okonomiyaki (octopus and green onion pancake) one night and Izakaya (Japanese taps-pub food) the other. Smoking is still permitted in restaurants and it felt like I was back in Montreal in the 70’s. I would definitely go back to Osaka for the food, for the people and to just see another side of Japan.