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.

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