Tuesday, 31 March 2015

out of the highlands

morning view from our camp in the park
On our way through Aso town we stop at the big Shinto shrine.  I wait with the bikes while Gayle has a gander.  "Nice gate tower" I comment when she returns.  
Later we read it is one of three largest gate towers of its kind in the whole of Japan.  The temple is thought to have been founded about 2000 years ago. Outside a shop I spot a photo booth.  Great, now I can get my passport photos done.  The options don't quite match what I require - the sizes are wrong.  But inside the booth is an option that fits.  I put in my money and ........ pull out a plum.  Photos are the wrong size and "Look, Gayle, it's changed the size of my head to my shoulders.  It makes me look like a pin-head." Gayle, fed up with waiting, takes a quick glance and shrugs "That's what you look like." Charming.

We ride through a collection of tiny fields.  Over seventy are marked out in an area that in England might be just a single field.  And then the road climbs steeply up to a look-out point on the northern edge of the caldera and we soak in another view of the volcano, still smoking today.  It's a sunny Saturday and the road is busy with day-trippers.  We follow the dips and folds in the road, weary after the last few days, and climbing steadily again towards some mountains.  We check the map. Uh-oh.  There's a pass ahead at 1300 metres.  Ooof.  When we reach a road station we decide to stop for the day.  One of the main attractions about this place is the free samples of doughnut sticks in the shop.  Treacle or honey flavour? Or both?  There's free wi-fi and a nice sunny spot to sit in the car-park.  The place is busy with bikers, all pausing to give their wrists a well-earned rest.  Just below the service area is a campsite that looks closed, but Gayle discovers a shower in a laundry room that takes a coin.  When the sun sets we pitch our tent on the grass behind the car park and take it in turns to have a steaming hot shower.  It's luxury.

Sunday. We decide to take a rest day and stay here.  A bit of early morning rain gives us an excuse for a lie-in.  By mid-morning the sun is out and everything is dry.  We take it in turns to use the computer and wander around.  The woman in the convenience store recognises us and tells us about a nearby hostel, but we seem to have everything we need right here.  In the afternoon she gives Gayle a bag of pastries.  Another of the staff in the main building gives us each a chocolate.  It seems that if you just sit on the pavement in Japan and look homeless people will bring you food.  We supplement these kind offerings with ocassional drive-bys of the doughnut sticks.  By mid-afternoon I'm feeling sick.  

this lovely lady insisted on giving us a bag of goodies to take away with us
After another good quiet camp nearby we set off over the pass - a climb that is much easier than we imagined - and begin a big descent to the sea.  Or do we?  The road winds down the mountainside and across a grassy plain before re-entering pine forest and taking another up-and-down route.  Here we come across two cylists taking a break in the shade.  They are Amy and Gijs from the Netherlands, here on a 5-week tour of Kyushu island.  
80% mountainous???
They look tired and it's only midday and we stop to eat our lunch with them and chat a bit. They have toured across the States and in Canada and Gijs has written books about these journeys.  They ask us what we think of the tunnels here. Japan has more tunnels than Norway - but then over 80% of the country is mountainous.  Those granny gears are going to take a bit of wear and tear then.  It's only after we say goodbye to the Dutch that we realise why they looked tired.  We have a massive descent to the town of Yufuin, where Frederick had snow only a week earlier.  It's set in a bowl valley surrounded by mountains and looks much bigger than we thought it would be.  It has a pretty little touristy centre of old houses around a river, with a shrine here, an onsen there.  The onsen are the hotsprings for which Japan is well-known for and we have now reached Onsen Central in Japan.  After our breath-taking free-wheel down to the town and a brief but wholly successful stop at a supermarket, - Look Gayle! Another photobooth! - we mooch out towards the edge of town to find somewhere to camp.  We find a nice grassy track next to the Shrine of a Hundred Buddhas.  This Shrine is a mossy path through the woods passing statue after statue of Buddha.  We didn't count them all but presume they're all present and correct.  We sleep soundly.
don't tell the passport office, but my photo has been touched up
wild boar are turned into cartoons
The morning brings us a switchback climb out of the bowl and to a pass leading to the sea.  The road is busy but there's a crawl lane for us.  On the way up we pause at a cafe with a viewpoint and Gayle goes to put our rubbish in the bin by the vending machine.  The owner sees her and stops her - the bin is only for the tins and bottles of the vending machine.  "Take it home" he says. Hmmm. Bit tricky, that.  The road continues its scenic route through the mountains.  The landscape these past few days has made us think of Europe.  As we descend down through woods I get a little confused with my map.  We reach a junction with traffic lights where route 52 turns right.  So we take it, descending very steeply down a side valley until, after a while, I realise that we have gone the wrong way.  Oooops.  Yes, we should turn right at lights onto route 52 but not this route 52.  Why on earth the same number is used for different roads I ponder on the long and, it must be said, rather silent climb back to the junction.  At least from now on it's all downhill to Beppu.  There's a hint of rain as we ride through the deserted streets of the town.  It feels so strange, after China and Taiwan, to be in towns where so few people are actually out on the streets - again, this reminds us of Europe.  We have promised ourselves a couple of nights in a hostel here and find one near the station with a room for £25 a night.  We unload our bikes and carry them up to the room.  "Er, Gayle, there's no bed." "Yes.  That's right.  Japanese style." £25 quid and you don't even get a bed.  There are mattresses rolled up at one end of the narrow room.  Sheets folded on top.  £25 and you have to make your own bed even though there isn't one.  But at least the walls are solid.  And the showers are scathingly hot.  Not so bad after all.

Friday, 27 March 2015

into the highlands

"Look, there's a Family Mart! Fancy a choc-ice?"
Gayle does not look half as excited as I do.
"We've only gone 2 kilometres," she exclaims. 
"But that's because you spent an hour in the supermarket."
even Buddha's feeling the cold wind
It's 11.30 am.  We're looking for the turn off that will take us away from the coast and into the hills.  We get onto a nice quiet road that follows the river and we roll along happily.  As the afternoon wears on the valley becomes narrower. We pass through small villages with not a lot going on.  Japan is different to Taiwan and China in this respect - not a lot of people out and about.  A few farmers in their open vans, some in the fields.  A road worker or five.  Roadworks look like an employment scheme in Japan - there's always at least two guys with flags controlling traffic flow, sometimes four.  The valley is becoming a gorge.  Up above us is the main road carrying all the traffic.  We know there's a roadstation coming up so we hesitantly leave the river and take a brutally steep lane up to the main road.  It reminds us of Hebden Bridge.  The main road is horrible and hard work, rolling up and down in long swoops that require a bit of work on the ups.  We stick to the bike path when there is one and happily seek refuge in some fields when the day ends.

Frederick is happy it's all downhill to the sea
In the morning we haven't climbed far when we meet Frederick coming the other way.  He's just got going as he completes a circuit back to Fukuoka where he lives and works.  Frederick came here as a student from Kenya and has now been here 15 years, so he must like it.  "I get good holidays" he laughs.  We swap information about the road.  He looks slightly pitying when he describes the onward route.  "You know that Takamori means 'high forest', don't you?" Yes, of course we did.  The road climbs incessantly but not too steeply all day.  We are too knackered to really enjoy the complete loop the road takes in order to climb onto another ridge.  There's still a lot of light when we start looking for a place to camp - a process that takes us alot of scouting around until we find a piece of land below a side road, out of sight from passing cars.  A few paces away we are afforded a stunning view of the mountains ahead and the smoking volcano at Aso.

Our climbing takes us to the edge of a huge caldera the next morning.  Emerging through a tunnel we get a view of the valley below which rings a clutch of central mountains which include the new volcano.  It's like a giant inverted rice ring.  The caldera is about 25 kilometres across to the hills on the other side of the volcano and we have opted to go straight across.  So this means descending to the valley floor and then ascending to the volcano before dropping down again on the other side to the valley floor before climbing out the other side.  Cor.  I'm sweating just typing this.  
the view looking back to the south edge of the caldera

The descent is sweet - down an old empty road which winds through cherry trees.  But whereas we have already seen a great deal of cherry blossom, here the trees are only in bud - it's colder up here, not quite spring.  The skies are filled with high white cloud and a bitter wind blows from the north west.  We shop in Takamori and I take a spill off my bike on a quiet empty street.  I'm shaken.  I am just slowly riding up the sloped kerb onto the pavement, but the sloped kerb has suddenly become a normal vertical one and I am tipped over sideways onto my arse.  Bruised hip and pride.  The poor doddery old blighter, Gayle is thinking.....
raccoon with a nice front door

The climb up through pine forest to the volcano is done in our lowest gears.  Tourists flash past in their cars and groups of motorcyclists roar and fart their way noisily along the switchbacks.  The biker gangs are everywhere and huge Harley Davidson's are popular.  But not with us.  When we emerge from the forest we are greeted with a post-apocalyptic scene of torched grassland.  I stop for a rest and a drink and a small mammal runs away, before pausing at a safe distance.  It looks like a fat raccoon.  The landscape is dry and barren, the golden grass has been burnt leaving huge areas of black earth.  There are few trees.  We think the fires have been set deliberately because they become a feature of the landscape over the next few days.  A tunnel takes us closer to the volcano cone which is sprouting a yellowy cloud hard to discern against the cloudy sky.  You can smell the sulphur.  

Tour buses glide silently past carrying their passengers to an ugly visitor centre.  We continue on, keen to get out of the cold wind.  Further along the top is a carpark with cafes, shops etc. and a viewing platform above with a great view looking back at the crater.  From here we can see the route northwards leading down to the valley floor filled with fertile fields and then back out to the original caldera rim.  Our legs are feeling it already.  

On the fast free descent we enter the pine forest once more and come across a park in the middle of nowhere.  We stop to check out access and two deer in the forest bounce away, white tails bobbing in the gloaming.  We push into the park and find a little spot away from the car park with a nice eastern aspect to catch the sunrise.  It's the perfect end to the day.

Monday, 23 March 2015

out of sight, out of our minds

In a strong headwind we push up the coast, sticking to the bikepath/pavement beside the road.  In the towns and cities many Japanese ride bicycles but generally only on the pavement.  Out on the road the drivers are not used to sharing their space with cyclists, especially ones with luggage.  So we hedge on the side of caution and plod along happy to be able to look around freely without the stress of drivers trying to push past us.  The coast is hilly but the road is fairly flat with frequent tunnels cutting through any ridges dropping down to the sea.  We arrive at Aoshima where there's a long beach and a little island shrine popular with locals.  We go over to have a look and watch as Japanese of all ages come to say a prayer or make a wish or whatever it is they are doing.  To be honest it has the feel of a very peaceful and hushed fairground as they go around the shrine and roll dice, play jackstraws, pick a fortune out of a box and there's even something resembling a coconut shy.  At every stage there is a tupperware box to make a donation.  It's a Sunday so there are plenty of visitors.  The boxes are being emptied by an attendant while we walk around, the coins jingle in his big box.

make a wish

leave a wish
We mosey along the beach and watch the wind surfers and pass families picnicking.  I go off to look for a shop and leave Gayle at the beach.  When I return she is sat with a group of men having barbecued chicken and bread and pop.  A couple of women in headscarves are sat at the next table.  The men are students at Miyazaki university, three from Egypt and one from Mauritania.  They are all academics at home and have been studying here.  The Egyptians have brought their families here too.  There's also a Japanese man whose English is quite bad and who tells us he liaises with the students and has just recently converted to Islam.  While we talk we are invited to eat and we begin devouring the lovely fresh bread baked by the women.  They insist that we take the leftovers with us - a stack of delicious flat breads.

you can't tell but the guy from Mauritius is bending his knees
We don't want to go any further today so set about looking for a camp spot.  Further along is a large sports complex with baseball park, tennis courts and a big indoor arena.  It is surrounded by landscaped gardens, kids playgrounds and picnic tables and arbors galore.  Perfect.  Except for the cat.  The cat appears when we start cooking and shows no sign of departing.  When I give chase I disturb three more hiding in the hedges.  This is their patch and they ain't going nowhere.  I insist we find another place to camp, because I'm fed up with cats clawing and spraying our tent, but it's now dark.  No matter, Gayle leads us off on the bikes to the other side of the complex.  We zip across the main driveway right behind the back of an attendant in high-viz jacket and into a lane that ends in stairs.  This means we have to backtrack to the driveway where we are bound to be spotted by the security man.  Neither of us dare look his way but we get onto a different path that takes us to the tennis courts.  There are lights casting huge shadows across the gardens on the edge.  We park the bikes and split up to find a discreet place to camp.  When I return to the bikes a security guard is waving his torch over them.  I step back into the shadows.  He walks on.  Gayle comes back and we quickly roll our bikes away.  We are stood checking out a place behind a hedge when a van comes cruising along the drive.  Instinctively we duck down.  They're searching for us!  The van slows, turns around and comes back.  We duck down again.  What to do?  We creep out and check in all directions before tiptoeing our way over to a big lawn area backed by leylandii.  Our shadows leap about in the night, as we pass from bright white lights into black darkness.  We've walked into a chase scene in a thriller shot by Orson Welles.  Dead leaves crunch underfoot.  Can they hear us??  A car slopes past, lights dimmed.  Is that a zither in the distance? We put the tent up in a shadowy area as far from the driveways as possible and get in quick.  We quickly apply the rationale of a three year-old to our situation: if we can't see them, then they won't be able to see us.  It works.  We sleep undisturbed by security men in high-viz jackets wondering what on earth we think we are doing camping in their sports complex.

In the bright sunshine of the next day we realise that actually no-one is in the slightest bothered by our presence.  It's another cool windy day on a quiet Monday with just a few locals having an early morning walk.

jam on toast, mmmmm

We ride into the city and head straight for the immigration office.  We have a 90-day visa stamp in our passports and we want to extend it to the 6 months that UK citizens are permitted.  A young man serves us and asks a few questions.  The first is why we want to extend our stay after only 6 weeks from arriving.  Once we explain about our cycle journey and the need to plan ahead he then asks about our flight back to the UK.  So we explain about taking a ferry to Korea and why we don't want to book a ticket.  He seems satisfied.  We have to write a schedule and a letter explaining how we will fund our stay and how we plan to leave Japan.  We pay a £20 admin fee.  On the letter he asks that we write "We promise not to work in Japan."  And that's all.  The process takes just over an hour and is the best service we can remember from any bureacracy on this trip.  

Now that we have the right to stay until early August I want to put into action my plan of getting a new passport.  My current one only has two single pages left and the easiest way to renew is to send my current passport home.  All I need is two passport photos and to sign a form.  When I checked the website the turnaround was estimated as 3 weeks minimum.  But that seems better than the 6 weeks it estimated when I looked in November.  I've seen photo booths regularly since we arrived in Japan so it seems unsurprising that now I want to definitely apply for a new passport I can't find a photo booth for toffee.  I'm sure one will turn up soon. 

We head along to a big shrine just north of the city and eat our lunch while watching wedding couples have their photos taken in the gardens.  There are several couples doing this and they are all in traditional dress, which makes a change from the big white frocks that seem all the rage across Asia.  Gayle goes to look around the shrine while I check out the tombola.  And then we head out of the city, stopping at a thrift store for me to buy some sandals.  The shop is busy with customers looking for that bargain designer item.  I find sandals that fit me - remarkably - and off we go. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

hanging out

did I mention the cherry blossom?
Sunshine.  Life-giver.  Laundry-dryer.  After cycling for five kilometres we come across a convenience store.  Romain had told Gayle in Kagoshima that he had found free wi-fi at most convenience stores in Japan so we give it a try now.  There's even a power socket on the wall outside so we surreptitiously plug in and wait to see what happens. Zilch.  
at the office

I go inside and ask the lady at the counter about the wi-fi.  She asks me to wait and goes into the back office.  Another woman appears.  She realises I don't speak Japanese and goes back into the office.  A man appears who speaks good English.  I'm just surprised there are so many staff in the store.  He patiently tries to help but seeing as we have no success he gives me his office wi-fi password.  Little did he realise we would end up spending the rest of the day sat outside their store.  He asks us about our journey and even brings us fresh coffee.  One of the women also chats to us and asks where will we stay the night.  We have already decided we will return to the road station - we had a very peaceful night there. "Be careful" she says, waving us goodbye. 

view from our decking

Further up the coast we detour inland to the small town of Obi, described as a mini-Kyoto because of some grand old Japanese homes.  It's kind of touristy but the homes are quite wonderful, set in traditional Japanese gardens.  The piece de resistance is the castle set on the hill.  It's a great spot.  The samurai lived around the castle - samurai translates as 'retainer' or servant, which seems a little unglamourous.  Aren't samurai warriors?  Well, maybe knights is a better term.  Japan remained feudal until the mid 1800's when a group of educated western-looking samurai (I don't mean they dressed like cowboys) ganged up and persuaded the Emperor to modernise the country. This period of modernisation eventually led to Japan's imperial ambitions - inevitable if you consider they were looking at Britain, France and America as role models.  One of the houses in Obi belonged to the diplomat that negotiated the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902 -the first to acknowledge Japan's new status in the modern world.  We mooch about and watch a little costume re-enactment of a procession that drags on a little, before heading back out to the coast and continuing northwards.  
can't beat a bit of fancy dress

This morning we had a near-miss with a driver who was too impatient to pass us with oncoming traffic.  He beeped his horn and overtook us, cutting up Gayle who was riding in front of me.  He was within inches of hitting her, swerving in to avoid the oncoming car.  I think this is the closest near-miss we've had in our whole journey.  We gave chase and caught up with the man at traffic lights.  He knew he was in the wrong and knew we were chasing him because at the lights he went around a car to get into pole position for the green light.  When I reached his car I bent his wing mirror and started shouting at him.  "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah" He was an old man.  He had a disability sticker on the back window.  I can only assume he was visually-impaired.  "Blah blah blah blah blah" I shouted.  He shouted back "Blah blah blah blah" and then we parted.  It was all so un-Japanese.

yeah, right
Our day ends on the now increasingly busy coastal road where we opt to ride on the pavement/bike path.  It's Saturday and there are plenty of cars on the road.  We reach a small hamlet on a beach deserted but for two kids riding home-made skateboards on the promenade.  We camp right on the front, on a nice grassy patch under a palm tree.  There are signs all along the front which we later discover say "Do not mess with the chain" - referring to the fence to stop you from falling onto the sandy beach.  There are too many signs in Japan, far too many.  And far too silly.

"Please do not write on the signs"

Friday, 13 March 2015

hiding out

don't have nightmares
It rains in the night and at daybreak too so we have a lie-in and wait and see.  Eventually the rain stops and a breeze dries the tent, but the skies are cloudy.  Optimistically we set off on a big descent to the coast and get caught in a downpour just as we reach a little village.  We seek shelter at the village croquet lawn.  Well, this is Japan.  There are three pitches with croquet hoops under a huge roof.  No-one is about.  We cook lunch and listen to the rain belt down.  And then the skies clear and the day brightens and so do we.  We are at the junction of the road going to Cape Sata, but neither of us fancies the detour and instead we turn northwards along the east coast before finding a new large road heading back inland and steeply uphill.  After a big sweat the road just stops in the middle of fields.  There's no obvious reason.  We take a little back road that then descends steeply down into the next valley all the way back to sea-level. What fun.  Inevitably we now have to start all over again on the climb inland and the road is ruthless.  We continue to climb without relief for the rest of the day and finally pause in an unused field perched on a ridgetop overlooking the west coast of the peninsula.  It feels like we have been torturing ourselves as well as literally going around in a circle. 
the tunnels are lit and often have a bike path/pavement

The next day is a tent day.  Rain all morning.  A little in the afternoon and more at night.  We go nowhere and let our legs and minds recover from the slog of the day before.  Fortunately we have enough water and although there's plenty of farming all around us, no-one passes by and asks what we're doing.  We don't think anyone really minds in Japan.  The following morning we're off up again, climbing to a main road that heads directly north through hills in a central valley region that is very pretty.  There's pine forest and farms dotted around and some big peaks.  Another  steady climb takes us to a tunnel that brings us out back on the east coast, with a dramatic winding ride traversing the mountains that slope seawards, before popping us out into a little village behind a long sandy bay backed with pine forest.  We shop and camp behind what looks like a community centre not far from the harbour.  In the morning we can hear announcements from the hall where the fresh fish is being sold and packed into vans.  While we're eating our breakfast a delegation appears from the intrigued staff of the centre.  There's a local and a young American - the village school English teacher - just coming to see who we are.  Perhaps we're getting a little too blase about the camping....

but how did they spot us???

The coastal road is a wonderful small and winding route that takes us past a rocket-launching centre (complete with space-themed public toilets in the carpark) before finally spitting us out on a busier main road passing through an area of urban sprawl.  The day has been cool and cloudy which suits the up and down nature of the road and in the late afternoon I find myslef puffing up another hill grateful for a wide hard shoulder as rush-hour cars and vans dash past.  Up ahead I can see another bundle of rope that has fallen off a farm truck - the kind of thing you see lying on the wayside all the time.  I'm almost cycling over it when the green rope moves and a red diamond appears.  Inside the red daimond is a forked tongue.  I shout out involuntarily as I wobble around the coiled up snake.  My legs are already jelly from the hills today, but this encounter doesn't help.  After a long grey day in the saddle we find a quiet coast road through a village of bungalows and woods before coming to a stretch of paddy fields.  The light is fading and we settle on pitching our tent for the night at the end of a farmer's track.  As night falls the frog chorus strikes up deafeningly from the flooded fields all around.

large , we think carnivorous, plant
We seem to have hit another spell of bad weather as the next day starts off grey and once again finds us climbing short sharp inclines. And long ones too.  And then it starts raining and it's not a great deal of fun.  We shelter in a bus stop and have a tea break. When there's a break in the rain we continue up the coast, passing through tiny fishing villages.  Inevitably the rain comes again and heavier.  We are quickly soaked and just have to ride through it. We arrive at a carpark with toilets and happily there's a little room for a carpark attendant that provides us with some respite.  We sit drenched and wonder about sleeping in this tiny room while the rain and wind batters the coast.  It smacks of desperation.  We eat noodles and wait it out.  Just off the coast is an island inhabited by monkeys that have learnt to wash their food in the sea water before eating it.  Hence the carpark.  While we try and dry out car after car of Japanese tourists pulls in to see if they can get a glimpse of the monkeys washing their nuts in the sea.
hipster Japanese monkeys
Thankfully, the rain eases off and we move on.  Playing cat and mouse with the rain like this can get a bit tedious and we realise that this is the price of touring Japan on the cheap.  We can't just run to the first guesthouse and wait for the sunshine.  But as always, it's never quite as bad as it first seems, and as the clouds break up and the sun reappears we find ourselves on a spectacular stretch of coastline, with islands of rocky splinters jutting out of the sea.  And to cap it all off, there's a road station with a garden where we can camp.  In the carpark we meet Eigur Toyoda, who is car-camping.  He is 70 today, he tells us as he shares his fresh tomatoes.  We talk a little of our travels and mention China.  He nods and says "Japan learnt everything from China".  It's not something we'd expect to hear said.  After a little chat Eigur heads to his car to sleep and we go off to pitch the tent.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

violent nature

It's a familiar bento box I'm having for lunch - the problem of eating take-away dinners at convenience stores is that they have a limited repertoire.  One thing I do like is that the food is labelled with a kcal value.  This is, after all, the land with the highest rate of anorexia in the world.  But I'm always looking for the biggest number I can find, not the smallest.  Gayle chooses what looks best.  And here we are, meals freshly microwaved and radiating on our knees as we sit in one of the small parks in downtown Kagoshima.  I've nearly finished my lunch while Gayle is talking about something, not noticing that two pigeons have slowly been inching their way closer to her lunch box, left casually on the bench beside her.  But I've clocked them as they mince closer and closer to those plump pieces of pork.  "Gayle, " I interrupt her, "you better watch......" Too late, the pigeons have both jumped up into the air, wings pumping, about to pounce when BAM! out of left field a hawk flies over my left shoulder, momentarily bouncing on my plastic tray just long enough to grasp the fried fish waiting for me to consume, and off away into a nearby tree.  The pigeons saw him coming.  I, on the other hand, didn't.  I'd been saving my giant fish finger, for that is my best description of it, for last.  Gayle casually picks up her box and munches a piece of pork.  "What were you about to say?" she asks.

Sakurajima from Kagoshima waterfront
The ferry to Kagoshima was a quiet affair - not many punters making the journey from Okinawa in low season.  The restaurant on board was not serving but there was a microwave and hot water dispenser if you'd brought something plastic to eat on the overnight journey.  Failing that, there was even a vending machine serving food.  We roll off the ship at about 9am and set about looking for a hostel.  We immediately get lost. There's nothing for it but to ask for directions: "Sumimasen, Miami-dori doko des ka?" The phrase is straight out of the phrasebook and at least we can recognise one of the main road names in the city centre.  The man has a think and points us back the way we have come. "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah" I look blankly in my phrasebook for the corresponding answer.  Never mind.  Back we go.  After a couple of these interactions Gayle asks "What did he say?"  I give her a stony look. 
foot soak in public hot spring on the waterfront

Happily, we find the hostel.  It's full.  But there's a guesthouse just around the corner.  We take a room for £25 - it's about the going rate in Japan. Won't be doing this too often. The mattresses are nearly as thin as the walls - and they're paper thin.  The family who run the place are very friendly and sort us out.  They speak enough English to answer our questions.  From the rooftop we can look out across the harbour to the volcanic island opposite and watch spectacular plumes of ash hurled upwards from Sakurajima.  It's no longer an island, following an eruption when lava flowed to join it with the mainland.  Welcome to Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan proper.

Down at the seafront park Gayle meets Romain, a French cyclist snoozing in the sunshine.  He tells her it's the first warm day he's had since he arrived from Korea.  We've timed the weather right then.  At the hostel we meet some of the other guests.  There's Sosumi, a student studying psychiatry.  He speaks thoughtfully and his English is quite good, though he doesn't get my joke about having malpractice insurance.  His hair is a bit fuzzy and cut like a English Guardsman's bearskin hat.  There's also a young man whose name I didn't catch, who is working here as an intern.  He gets excited and asks questions such as "Are English people unique like Japanese people?" "Do you dislike soy sauce?" and one for the budding English teacher, "What's the difference between 'I don't know' and 'I don't understand'?"

We take an old-fashioned ferry across the water to get a close-up of Sakurajima.  The volcano seems quiet today as we skirt it's southern edge on our way towards the southern cape of Kyushu.  Shortly after taking a break and taking photos Gayle looks back and sees fresh smoke/ash erupting from the crater.  The roadside is deep in ash from another day and the wind seems to be blowing it our way.  We start pedalling and ease up when we see the flume heading in a safer direction.  The road down the coast is easy and pleasant, and the sun is out.  We find road stations where local farm produce is being sold and lunch can be had.  Stopping at one the next day we are approached by a man who has just been cycling.  He comes with a gift of snacks and asks us where we are from.  His English is not great but we understand he is training for a tour of Japan later this year.  He looks like he has retired.
"My name's John", I say.  "What's yours?"
"Kurasaki Takimotoshi" I think he says, I'm not sure.  There seemed to be about nine syllables.  I'm about to ask him to repeat it when he says
"What is your name again?"
you wouldn't know it but I'm actually bending my knees to be shorter
"Ahh so. John Lennon" He smiles.  He is the first Japanese we have heard say "ahh so".  After a bit more of this broken dialogue and a surreal moment when Kurasaki begins to strum an imaginary guitar singing "Manchester and Liverpool...." after he asks where we are from in England, he then invites us to stay at his home.  Unfortunately he lives 20km back in the direction we have come from so we politely decline.  He looks a bit disappointed and so are we.  If only he lived 20km in the other direction.  
the tori is the gateway to a shrine

As it is, the road finally turns in from the coast and climbs a steep headland leaving us a camp by a rest stop high above the sea and where no-one seems to stop and rest.  There's a great sunset and we pitch the tent at the back of the site, near the woods where I spy signs of wild boar.  That morning we had passed hunters out with their beagles - one dog with a radio-device attached to his collar.  Gun shots from high up in the forest had echoed around.  They must be good hunters - we sleep soundly and undisturbed by any rooting or tooting in the bushes. 

pest control?

Monday, 9 March 2015

down and out in okinawa

We've been cycling a couple of hours when a sheet of rain hits us full on.  We have seen it coming and typically there's nowhere to escape from it. Except...
"Gayle, you've just passed a bus shelter!!"
"Back there, on the corner".
We are going up a steep hill, and we quickly turn around and coast down to the corner to the bus stop.
"That's not a bus stop, John."  Gayle is, as ever, correct.  It's a brick building housing a water pump and there's no room for us.  We merrily turn around and plod up the hill.  At the top we stop under a tree for a breather.  A group of about ten cyclists appear behind us, riding an assortment of bikes.  They are on the pavement.  
"Where are you going?" a woman asks.
"Err, we don't know" we reply honestly.  The woman laughs and shouts to her friends "They don't know where they're going!"  We catch up with them at a 'pagoda' next to a long sea bridge to an outer island.  They are from Hong Kong, on a week's cycling holiday.  Daytrippers.  One of the men weighs up our bikes. "Heavy?"
"About 50kg?"
"Slow on the hills, eh?"
He nods and smiles knowingly.  There's almost a look of pity on his face.  But he doesn't know we topped out at 4,655 metres on this journey and I really want to tell him. Oh well.  They head off into the rain and we think about camping early.  There's a track rolling up the hill opposite towards some pine trees and a radio mast.  We can get water at the Italian restaurant down the road.  We find a grassy path up on the hill and pitch the tent as soon as the rain has stopped.  We have a room with a view.
sadly not the season
The top tourist draw on Okinawa is the aquarium.  It's the second largest in the world.  Gayle noticed that the entry ticket is cheaper after 4pm so we turn up with a group of others at the appointed hour and spend a wonderful two hours or so wandering through the displays.  The Main Show is the big tank.  Before we reach it I notice a small theatre with seats so I go in to have a sit down.  In front of me is a large screen and there are a few big fish and mantas swimming around.  I'm looking into the big tank.  There's no-one else here.  I call Gayle in and we stand and watch as the fish and rays swim past.  And then all of a sudden the window is filled with one huge shape. A huge wide mouth and fins.  A whale shark - the biggest fish in the world.  Wow.  We could reach out and touch it, but for the two-feet thick glass between us.
Down below you get a full view of the tank through an absolutely enormous window about three storeys high.  There are three whale sharks and this enormous tank suddenly seems a bit small for such large creatures.

the manta is massive...
The aquarium is set in large landscaped grounds with lots of 'pagodas', a beach, toilets and rest areas with tables and chairs and wi-fi.  There are flower gardens and a large recreation of a typical Okinawan village with examples of the different homesteads over the last two hundred years, based on constructions still surviving.  Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands which existed as an independent set of kingdoms until the Japanese moved in in the 1880s.  The villages were built according to rules on social status and the geography.  We enjoy pottering around and, as we are in no rush to go anywhere, move in for a few days.  Except that even the most artful dosser would be hard-pressed to get around all the security.  So, we opt to camp in nearby locations each night and return during the day.  The nights are wet and windy but the days are generally dry, if grey.  It is beginning to dawn on us that Japan might just have weather that most resembles that of the UK.  

Nice.........is there wi-fi?
We potter about and do exciting things like catching up on 'computer tasks', a spot of laundry and looking at routes on the mainland.  We also need to research ahead for what to do after we have visited Korea.  Cycling around the back roads we come across quite a few of the old one-storey traditional wooden houses still lived in.  These are lovely and the style has been copied, sometimes successfully, in concrete but you can't beat the originals.  It seems remarkable that there are still any standing - so much would have been destroyed in the war.  
a safe arbor
We camp in a 'pagoda' surrounded by tidy allotments for a couple of nights and are awoken each morning by farmers coming at first light to tend their crops.  In the evenings we are lulled to sleep by the omnipresent tannoy announcements in each village.  No matter where we camp, we always hear the dong-dong-a-ling.  It feels a bit surreal at times - as if you can never escape.  There are signs all over Okinawa telling you your current altitude above sea level with advice on what to do if there's an earthquake and/or tsunami warning.  At 8 metres you have to clear out.  At 76 metres you are probably okay - the tsunami which took out the Fukushima nuclear plant was 40 metres high.  Sleeping on the beach suddenly seems like a risky business rather than a romantic activity.

23 metres - our last camp in Okinawa

Monday, 2 March 2015


We complete our circuit of Okinawa with a ride around the quieter northern end, where the forest still dominates the island and small villages are dotted along the coast.  We take the hilly eastern coastal road passing a few reservoirs where we can camp.  The grounds are beautifully manicured, there are toilets and picnic tables under roofs.  We start calling these 'pagodas' and welcome them when the rain draws in.  The sunshine becomes rarer and heavy grey clouds roll overhead every morning and evening.  Thankfully most of the rain comes in the night and we only have one really wet day on the bikes.  On this day we pass a man walking along the road with a trolley and an umbrella.  We stop to chat and he tells us he's walking around the island.  Judging by his speed, he'll do it before us.  We seek shelter under eaves of shops, in bus shelters or 'pagodas' to escape the heavier downpours.
local wildlife

One morning we are awoken by the 'Stars and Stripes'.  We thought we had camped in the middle of nowhere but not far along the road we come to a Marines "Jungle Training Camp".  I hope the gnats bite the marines like they bit us.  A bit further along the road are posters and a small tent with protesters against a helipad being built in the area. 
Finally we reach the northern cape and look forward to a strong wind blowing on our backs down the flat western coast road.  We've seen some locals on roadbikes riding in the hills and now we're on the low road by the sea we come across young Japanese touring in groups, usually with just a couple of panniers each.  We joke about how they probably won't get 10 metres above sea level.  Erik had warned us about the hills in the north - he had ridden the Tour of Okinawa last November with two friends and eventually they were disqualified because they were too slow - the hills beat them.  We are ready for a break and we think we have found the right place in the village of Hentona.  It's small and peaceful and there's a little patch of unused ground just by the tennis courts that looks perfect for camping on.  When the tide is in we can even hear the waves on the beach from our bed.

We hang out in Hentona for a few days.  One day there's glorious sunshine - perfect for the beach.  And then the clouds return and each night there is rain.  We are in limbo.  I don't mean we are listening to calypso music and practising how to dance under a low bamboo pole without putting our hands on the floor.  We're waiting for spring before heading to mainland Japan and we're hoping for more settled (i.e. sunny) weather so that we can visit some of the smaller islands along the way.  We resolve our internet access issue by sitting close to the nearby posh hotel on the beach.  There's a glass church (for show weddings, rather than worship) with a socket on its gatepost.  Yeah - internet and electricity.  Gayle is thus sitting on the pavement uploading photos while I am by the bikes in the carpark, sitting on the ground to sew a patch on one of my panniers.  The morning has been wet and windy but there's the promise of it clearing.  A car pulls up and a young man in a suit gets out and starts gathering things together, samples or gifts, for someone in the hotel.  I guess he's a salesman.  He tidies his hair, puts on his jacket and then spots me across the carpark.  For a very brief moment our eyes meet and I wonder if he's thinking what I'm thinking.  There he is, young and eager, in a sharp suit, hungry for success, and here I am, with a week-old beard, nowhere to go and sprawled on the ground. Poor sod.

We are awoken each day by the sound of tennis balls being thwacked around.  A group of women are clearly on a 'tennis' holiday with training each day.  But when Gayle starts chatting with the diminutive trainer she tells her that they are playing Japanese 'soft' tennis.  The ball is different, softer.  Up to that point we'd been really impressed by the standard of tennis.  Just next door is a 'pitch 'n' putt' course.  It's busy most days with pensioners playing a round of 18 holes.  There's a nice 'pagoda' here where we usually cook our tea in the evenings and a couple of times we meet Hiroshi, an old fella who speaks a little English.  He used to work for the Americans.  The second time we meet he invites me to have a go at the golf.  They only use one club - a bit like a wooden no. 2  I parr the first hole and eagle the next.  Hiroshi looks impressed.  But the ball is bigger than normal and the hole is the size of a dinner plate.  It seems that all the sports are made easier for the participants.  Before he leaves, Hiroshi fetches us a bag of chocolate bars from his car. 
the dining room
Having got into the lazy habit of eating instant noodles in the evenings in China and Taiwan, we are now happy to be cooking proper meals again in the evenings.  There are plenty of good supermarkets and having sussed out what ingredients we can find cheaply we now have the opportunity to be more creative.  So why are we eating so much spaghetti?