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.


  1. Glad you made it! .Ahhh Takamori....Never gonna forget that town...

  2. Your "racoon" is a Japanese badger! Niall