Urban Diversions

We were feeling indecisive in Aso, but our bicycles and our bodies made up our minds for us. Jim’s shifter cable was frayed almost completely through, and I had a backache that I couldn’t shake. We realized we needed a bike shop and a substantial break, so we coasted downhill to the city of Kumamoto, on the western coast of Kyushu.

Once we arrived in Kumamoto, we deliberately scheduled a day of nothing. We ate about five separate meals and watched Japanese TV while drinking Asahi in our hotel pajamas.

The second day, we ran errands. On the third day, feeling much more human, we actually ventured out to see the local sites. First was Kumamoto castle, still being rebuilt after the 2016 earthquake. The scale of both the destruction and the reconstruction were impressive. Huge walls of stone had toppled throughout the park, uprooting any trees downhill. The castle itself, under construction, loomed over the park. The modern scaffolding made it look like it was floating, only tenuously attached to the ground.

We also visited the Kumamoto Contemporary Art Museum. I had assumed it would be showing entirely Asian art, but I was surprised that the current exhibition was a series of watercolors by Andrew Wyeth. I loved his vibrant brush strokes and quiet Maine scenery, but it was displacing to see a diagram (in Japanese) explaining exactly where Massachusetts and Maine are.

The next day we rode north out of Kumamoto. We wanted to stay at Sky Tea House, a tea farm and hostel up in the mountains near Yame, since the touring family we met had recommended it. After a late start, we cruised through the flat valleys north of Kumamoto and quickly went up some rolling foothills. But it was almost dusk when we reached the steep final climb to the tea fields. The main road took a fairly indirect route, so we let Google suggest us a “shortcut”. It sent us on an a few believable roads before turning onto an abandoned forest road thick with leaf litter, and up the impossibly steep access paths beside terraced fields. It ended up being more of an 8 kilometer hike instead of a ride. It was still beautiful to see the tea fields and rice paddies, normally a fluorescent sort of green, in the black-and-gray of overcast moonlight.

We arrived at the tea house very late, but were welcomed warmly. (I’ve never been so happy to have someone say “help yourself” to a rice cooker). We spent two days there, with our sleeping bags set up on the house’s second level, an open tatami-lined space accessible by ladder. The next day was pouring buckets, like only Kyushu can. So we sat indoors, napped, read, and socialized with the other guests. It turned out to be the eclectic mix I’ve always wanted to find in a hostel – perhaps it’s a self-selecting group who end up at a rural tea farm up a mountain. There was Jiro, who traveled the world for 6 years before owning the farm; temporary farm workers; a neighbor and her teenage son, who was going to live at the farm for a while in lieu of school; an artist; a photographer; a French woman and skillful string musician, there for a month; an ex-telecoms engineer, also there long term; and an assortment of other friendly tourists and expats. We ate our fill of Japanese home cooking, and enjoyed a memorable guitar and violin jam session around a kotatsu.

I felt happy to have found somewhere that felt so lively – it certainly made me think about different ways to build a community of people. We bid farewell to everyone at the tea house and went back downhill, this time to Kurume and onwards to Fukuoka. We felt like we had already had enough time in the city, so we spent only a single night and we skipped doing anything touristy. The next morning we continued up the coast back out of Fukuoka.

We’re now approaching the end of our time in Kyushu. It’s been so different from our ride between the urban corridor from Tokyo to Osaka. Kyushu felt magical in a way that few places have for us while touring. I was never bored by the scenery and I appreciated the intense physical challenge of it. I hope to come back some day, hopefully with more friends or family I can share it with.

Volcanic Asceticism

In a departure from our usual planning, we plotted our route through Kyushu by looking at its topography and riding towards the wildest geographic features we could find. Ever since Iga village, we’ve been joking about becoming mountain ascetics. Perhaps we were feeling a little too comfortable in our circuit of affordable suburban hotels, but we longed for something different and more difficult. Equipped with two kilos of brown rice we headed north, into the mountains.

First was Kirishima on the Ebino Plateau. A volcano pockmarked with several calderas, it happened to stand between us and our intended path north. We both thought it would be a shame to slink around its foothills when we could go straight over. Our hubris was rewarded with a long, steep climb, including some significant pushing. Sulphurous vents poured steam across the road. I contemplated how I would explain my case of volcano-lung if we had to seek medical attention. As we climbed to 1,200 meters the trees grew small and pale, before the naked peak loomed in front of us.

At the top of the Ebino Plateau, in true Japanese style, was a gift shop and a cafe. We’ve both started to anticipate a cone of vanilla/matcha soft serve at any sizable point of interest. It was just us and a half-empty tour bus. It turned out that most of the park was closed because the volcano was too just a little too active for tourism. The geological precariousness of Kyushu is striking to me. In the news that morning was a terrible mudslide, and we even passed a volcano eruption shelter on our way up. Recent significant earthquakes frequently come up in conversation.

The descent shaved a few millimeters off my brake pads. For good measure, we climbed a second, small mountain range that same day to reach Hitoyoshi. We followed a long, graded road that included several corkscrews that elevated the road bed hundreds of feet in the air.

We took a day off at a hostel in Hitoyoshi to rest, sightsee, and avoid torrential rain.

The next point that called to us was Mount Aso, another volcano sticking up out of an ancient sunken caldera. When we looked at possible waypoints, Jim found little Shiiba, an isolated village nestled improbably in a gorge.

What followed was one of the more beautiful and peaceful legs of our trip. A Japanese road given a number and a constant width on Google rarely reflects that in reality. Roads we followed petered out into single lanes. What they lacked in amenities they made up for with mountain streams, bamboo forests, and gigantic pines. We covered very little distance each day but large changes in elevation.

It turns out we’re not very good ascetics – when we reached Shiiba, we contacted the tourism office, which helped us book a stay at the Tsurutomi-Yashiki ryokan. We wanted to try the full-service ryokan experience, which comes with dinner and breakfast. We even upgraded to the more elaborate dinner, served in a private room in a neighboring historical building. The traditional kaiseki meal was like a surge assault on the senses. It consisted of at least 15 courses, some brought out in the beginning, others throughout the meal. Many of the ingredients were local to the region – mountain bamboo shoots; tempura-fried flowers; and small salmon called yamame. I spent most of dinner too stunned to process anything other than that it was delicious. That kind of dining experience that would have come with Michelin stars in New York.

We left Shiiba much better fed, but in an unfortunate downpour of cold rain. We didn’t make it very far. The best part of the ride was walking our bikes through a 2.5 km tunnel, which at least was warm and dry.

We stopped at the first ryokan we found, a family run place by the Gokase ski area. It was like the homespun counterpart to our first experience – friends arrived for dinner, one bearing fresh-caught yamame; the local English teacher was invited over to act as a translator. We were both overwhelmed by so much hospitality.

Finally, yesterday we arrived at Aso Geo Park. We entered the caldera through a series of tunnels on a screaming downhill. Suddenly Aso appeared in front of us, jagged and steaming. We’re staying with a Warmshowers host family near the base of neighboring Mt. Neko, on an organic farm, along with a cycling family and a pair of WWOOFers.

We ended yesterday in an onsen, watching Aso at sunset. It lives up to the drama promised by its topography.

We’re still plotting our next move, towards either the eastern or western coast of Kyushu. The surplus of beautiful mountain landscapes has desensitized us a bit – like spending too much time in a museum – so we’re actually longing to see a little suburbia again. But I hope we’re able to return to the mountains again in Japan.

To the South

During the Tokugawa era, there were two rulers of Japan. The Shogun was in control of the army and the executive branch, while the Emperor was the spiritual ruler and nominal head of state. Both titles were hereditary. The shogunate was based in Tokyo, and the imperial household resided in Kyoto. The noblemen and their retinues had to make the journey between these two capitals, along one of several highways. Tokaido was the most famous of these roads. Traveling along it involved fording various rivers, crossing mountains, perhaps being carried in a Kago.

We found a published bicycle route inspired by this ancient route, and followed it all the way to Osaka. There is another road, Nakasendo, that we are planning on taking back from Osaka/Kyoto to Tokyo, at the conclusion of our trip. However, Amy and I still have much we want to see to the west of Osaka; the inland sea area, the Shikoku bicycle bridge, and the Hiroshima peace monument to name a few specific locations. Unfortunately Japan is arranged quite linearly at this point; If we bicycled straight west we would have to bicycle back on a very similar route.

Some of the hardest parts of bicycling occur at inflection points like these. It’s easy to keep going when you have a goal, however lofty, and you can tell you are making measurable progress towards that goal. 

 Without such a goal, however, I begin to doubt why we bothered to leave our home.. just to sit in a youth hostel in Osaka and eat okonomoyaki?

During my research, I noticed a dashed line leaving Osaka across the ocean on google maps. There is a daily ferry from Osaka to Shibushi in the south of Kyushu. A plan began to emerge: we would take the ferry to the southernmost tip of Japan and then spend the next six weeks bicycling back to Tokyo.

The next day, we biked from our hostel over countless bridges through Osaka harbor, a maze of industrial islands, to our ferry terminal. Later that evening we were on a large ferry, with our bikes lashed below decks next to the cars. The ferry was scheduled to take fifteen hours, but there were excellent amenities, including an arcade, buffet restaurant and free public baths; a real miniature cruise. We didn’t see the need to spend extra money for a private cabin, so we were assigned a futon in a large artificial tatami room full of other travelers and went to sleep with the sound of fifty other people gently snoring.

After disembarking the next morning we biked from Shibushi north to Miyakonojo. We were struck by how much more tropical, verdant and less densely-populated the land was. We could smell the smoke emanating from Mount Sakurajima (one of the decade volcanoes).

I’m grateful that we’re back on the road again, with a new goal and general route. In order to make it back to Tokyo along the route we envisioned, we will have to cover more ground per day and take fewer rest days, but I think the mountains and onsen will help us with that.

I’m looking forward to biking through this new mossy volcanic landscape!

That’s all for now,

Getting our Mountain Legs

After we left the Fuji lakes area, we followed the southern coast through Shizuoka. Continuing along the oceanside, we took the ferry across Ise bay, then turned inland and went through some small mountains to Nara and then Osaka. Kyoto was completely booked up – literally, the entire city except for a few love hotels – so we made the decision to divert to Osaka and visit Kyoto by train, instead.

Iwago port, from the ferry terminal.

The mountains and climbing have actually really grown on me. Everything in Japan is uphill both ways, which has given me a lot of practice. Suddenly grades that used to be sweaty, cardiovascular-redlining ordeals are more of an enjoyable, scenic workout.

Climbing through tea fields.

We detoured for an extra hour of climbing just to see the tanuki/ceramics village at Shigaraki, which would have been unthinkable a few months ago. That route was only plausibly a road because it was in Japan – it felt like an exceptionally switchbacked bike lane that we happened to share with the occasional Japan-sized van.

Artist’s interpretation of that bike ride.

I’m also adapting to the culture shock. This isn’t to say that Japan isn’t still constantly surprising me, but it’s less likely to do so while I’m taking care of the daily necessities – we’re starting to develop routines for shopping, navigating and finding lodging. We finally found fuel for our camp stove (which we couldn’t bring on the plane) and the world’s cutest tiny rice cooker, so we’re now able to cook for ourselves, too. Of course, the grocery store is also its own adventure; its odd to see that our touring staples of beans and oatmeal are actually quite expensive here. Brown rice has become a new favorite, especially たまご かけ ごはん (tamago kake gohan), stirring an egg  and soy sauce into hot rice.

After a few days up in the mountains, I’m a little surprised to see other European/North American/Australian  tourists – blonde hair or a snatch of English. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of being a tourist here. Japan is small and well-traveled enough such that we’re not discovering anything for anyone other than ourselves. But Japan has a special way of making you feel like you are – maybe it’s the cultural differences, or the effects of being illiterate, but its easy to fall into an adventurous daydream, with yourself as the protagonist. Every corner or side street is hiding a shrine, a garden, someone dressed traditionally or ultra-fashionably modern… As we’ve moved back into the more popular areas of Ise shrine, Nara, Osaka and then Kyoto, it’s reminded me that I’m no more or less of an “explorer” than the next person with a Lonely Planet guide.

Japan is actually a really great place to be a tourist. Domestic tourism here is clearly very popular: we’ve yet to find a tourist attraction that wasn’t lively, even during weekdays.

The infrastructure is also very kind to tourists. The omnipresent convenience stores mean we’re rarely far away from a sparkling clean bathroom or a snack, which is the opposite of our long months in the American Southwest.

Now that we’ve reached Osaka, we’re researching where we might like to go next! We don’t have a specific goal in mind, but that seems like a good way to continue experiencing Japan.