Biking in Japan - Kyushu
A little more about that bike trip I just got back from...
First, the basics... (you can click on most of these images for larger versions)
Well, I guess it depends on what you consider day one. The actual first day of the trip consisted of six hours on the train to get from Tokyo to Hakatta. All was not lost however, as we spent the night eating at one of the famous yattai street-side food stalls. Fatty fatty ramen, oden, beer... it all brought back memories of my days in Kyushu University when I would stop by the yattai for a quick bowl of ramen on my way home from the bar in play district, Tenjin. Inevitably, there would be a drunk salary man there insisting that I accept his offer to buy more beer for me. No such luck this time, but we were lucky when it came to finding a place to set up camp. Hakatta station is open all night, and filled with homeless people, so we just set up tent there. Our bright yellow tent didn't quite blend with the brown boxes, and it was extremely hot and loud, but it was an interesting experience.
On Day 1 -of riding- we awoke and packed up around 5:15 because we were told the police come through every morning at 5:30. After a relaxing breakfast at Mr. Donuts (enough Mr. Donuts to last for at least two more years), Tomoe wanted to check out Kyushyu University where I (and later my sister and her husband) spent a year. It was just as unkempt and run-down as I remember.
As we left, heading for Dazaifu, a famous temple where school kids go to pray for good grades, it started to rain a bit. This would normally be fine, but combined with getting lost because we hate riding on the car-polluted main roads, it turned a bit ugly.
By the time we arrived in Dazaifu however, all was well again. This was probably the twentieth time I had visited Dazaifu. As a foreign student in Fukuoka, every new acquaintance one meets insists on taking their new foreign friend to Daziafu to show them the beauty of Japanese culture. I remain a bit skeptical of the power of the temple... if I see a study showing a correlation between a students grades and their proximity to the temple I may believe that there is something to all that praying (and donating) that is going on at the temple.
Anyway, we left Dazaifu hoping to make it to Hita by nightfall. Had we followed the busy route 386 through a valley, we would have made it, but instead we opted to climb a mountain which slowed us down, but oh-was-it-worth-it. Following 509, and then a smaller road through Nihara, was one of the best few hours of biking I have had in all our bike trips through Japan. The views were great, the road passed through a mixture of small villages, field, and forests before we arrived at the top. Unfortunately, by the ride down it had already gotten dark, but it was fun none-the-less.
We didn't make it all the way to Hita, but luckily it is Kyushu, where there are Onsen baths in every town. We stopped in Haki taking a well-deserved bath at a rather boring hotel. It was not until we started searching for a place to set up tent that we noticed a much more local, interesting, and cheap bath tucked away on a side street. Oh-well, it was still worth the 800 yen we payed.
After a great dinner at a local Izakaya, we set up camp under the roof (it was cloudy and looked like rain) of a road-side vegetable stall that had closed for the night.
Again, we woke up early hoping to get out of the vegetable stand before the owners arrived to open for business.
Following some side-roads through the fields in the valley between Haki and Hita, it took about an hour to get to where we had originally intended to camp. There we stopped for breakfast from the supermarket, as well as to see if I could get a new tire for my bike.
Due to some confusion about the three types of inner-tubes sold here in Japan (English, French, and US), each having a different style of nozzle, I had mistakenly purchased English style tubes while Tomoe's hand pump only works with US style. So long as we are in a city, English style is no problem, but if the tire should puncture on top of a mountain (as had happened on a previous trip and, as you shall soon read, would happen on this trip) it could be devastating.
I was not able to find a US style tire to use with her pump, but the nice old man in the bike shop sold me his portable English/US style pump for 500 yen. I was happy. (this is intended to be a little foreshadowing).
Leaving HIta, we again decided to bypass the crowded route 386, fowling instead, route 48 over the mountains. Yet another great biking road of Japan. (I have been thinking I should make a book about great biking roads in japan.) I judge a "great biking road" partly by my ability to forget that we are walking our heavy bikes up a hill for hours. This time was easy to forget because of both the scenery, and also because we had a stash of dirt-cheap umeboshi and pears left over from the previous day's lunch at a local farmers market.
After a quick lunch of onigiri and Pocari Sweat, from a local convenience store style place this time, we faced the choice of going over yet another mountain pass, or following the car-polluted valley.
Our original goal was to go to Beppu, but there were a few problems with that now.
- if we go to Beppu today, we have to retrace our same path back the next day on our trip to Aso.
- in order to get to beppu we have to take a crowded, dangerous, ugly road.
- we are already behind schedule.
Tomoe came up with the great idea to stay at Yufuin and just take the train to Beppu and back to Yufuin the next day. This would give us a rest, as well as prevent us from having to cover the same road twice.
I would have been fine without Beppu, as I had been there once before with my Parents. While I think it was good for them, it was nothing I expected Tomoe to enjoy. The main draw of Beppu is that it has a lot of onsen. It also has some different colored hot springs that aren't baths, but some people like to look at. Imagine Yellowstone in the middle of a city -but even more Disney-ized and even more expensive (each hot spring has an entrance).
It's a little off-topic, but one thing I really remember about Beppu from the last time was that I got a nice minshuku (Japanese style inn where you eat traditional Japanese food, take a bath in the big hot-spring bath, wear a yukata and sleep in a futon on the tatami floor) for my parents. The place was great, and would love to stay at someplace like that, but the first thing I said to the nice old lady running the place was that my dad is deathly allergic to shellfish. "no shrimp, no crab, no oyster, no muscle, NO SHELLFISH. If he eats it he will die!", I says. After a nice bath, the dinner came out (and it was beautiful and delicious) but after a few bites my dad feels his throat puffing up. Sure enough, there is shrimp, muscles, and probably various other shellfish I can't identify in almost every dish.
When I asked the old lady for something else, she says "He should try it... he may like it."
Anyway, getting back on topic, we decided to take the mountain pass and stay in Yufuin, which is also famous among Japanese people (I had never heard of it). The road was not so much fun. While I can handily going up for a few hours before going down, I hate roads that can't make up their mind. This one went up and down and up and down. The only redeeming quality was that it was on the border of a Japanese Self Defense force training ground. While this was only evident by a few jeeps filled with troops passing by on the almost empty road, the novelty factor was still there.
As bad as the up-down pass was, the downhill into Yufuin was brilliant (as most down-hills are).
Yufuin is famous (it is even the setting of a recent NHK drama) and therefore filled with over-priced onsen. We, however, used the locals bath which was only 100 yen. Sitting in the break room enjoying a beer afterwards we struck up a conversation with the locals, discovering that some of them come there twice a day -despite the fact that they have onsen water coming into their own home as well.
After dinner at another izakaya we spent that night in a parking lot.
Getting up early again, we checked the train schedule to Beppu discovering that it took a long time and was expensive. Luckily, there was a bus that was quicker and cheaper, and passed by better scenery.
We went to Beppu and partly followed a walking tour recommended by the crazy lady at the tourist information center. As expected, we were too cheap to visit any of the Disney-style multi-colored hot springs. Beppu wasn't anything special and the only value was that found in avoiding the regret Tomoe would have felt if we had not visited it while we were so close.
We got back to Yufuin around 2 and left around 3.
We had intended to take the "Yamanamai Highway" recommended in our Touring Mapple 7. I am glad that we screwed up and found ourselves following another road south. Instead of going back, we decided to improvise by crossing a smaller mountain pass that leads to the same destination.
Along the way we passed an amazing little one (steep) road town that I dream of living in. I just have to hope that Tomoe's company opens a new office there.
After that town, we followed a road that was marked as "daato" (in katakana) on our map. Neither of us knew what that meant until, after a few near getting lost, we turned onto a steep "dirt" road. (get it? daato = dirt.)
We were to follow this road for about 2 km until we come across another road on the right. It was not until it had grown dark and we had climbed and climbed the daato road for much to far that we finally came to the top of the mountain. Expecting to have a nice (if a bit dark and bumpy) downhill into our intended destination on the Yamanami Highway, we instead found that we had been following a electric-pole service road that ends at the top of the mountain.
Our choice now was either to go back down the dirt road in the dark to where we "know" there is another route, or to camp there. In my opinion, camping there was one of the best things that could have happened to us. It was windy, it was on the top of a mountain, it was in the middle of nowhere, it was a clear sky, and there were more stars visible than I have seen anywhere outside of Sweden, and the Great Sand Dunes park in Colorado.
It was also a good choice to stay there that night because, as we found the next morning, the "other route" we would have taken was in terrible condition. We should have been suspicious considering the road work going on the previous day where the major road had been covered with a land-slide, but we are just a little too slow in the brain I guess.
We walked our bike up the mountain through a terrible dirt road, and then back down the other side where it was impossible to ride -especially with our heavy gear, as was illustrated when we tried to ride down and I blew out my back tire.
This is where that foreshadowing about the bike pump comes in. The tire blew out and I thought "no problem." I have a pump and a tire. I will just change it. Unfortunately, the new pump didn't quite fit with the new tire, and it wouldn't inflate, in fact, the nozzle on the new tire broke off!!! The old blown out tire was US style, meaning Tomoe's pump would work on it, but it was punctured in two places -one was fixable by patch, the other was right by the nozzle where no patch would stick. We patched what could be patched and tried our best to fill the other hole with glue. In the end, it worked well enough that I was able to inflate the tire and continue walking my bike down the mountain.
Don't get me wrong, the reason we were walking is not because of the tire... it's because the road down was worse than the road up. There were points where the road was so washed out that we had to literally pick up the bike and carry it over a crevasse where the road used to be. I can't even imagine trying to navigate this road in the dark had we decided to make a go for it the night before. Eventually however, despite fears that this road too would end (at the bottom of the other side this time), we met up with paved leading to the Yamanami Highway.
In actuality, I prefer following the beautiful foliage covered dirt roads of the mountain in the rain and soft mist than I did Route 11 (Yamananmi Highway). The road from here was filled with speeding cars, each with one, two, or three people driving all the way up to the nearby national park gist-shop where they stop for ten minutes to buy some crap before continuing on to the Aso gift-shop.
Despite Tomoe's swearing that as soon as we get down the other side she is going to stop riding, we somehow (after a big lunch) found the strength to ride on up and over the Makinoto Pass.
The road after the Makinoto Pass was a highlight of the trip. It was foggy, rainy, and cold. It was a busy, windy road. But, it was all downhill. Oh-so downhill. What's more, when we neared Aso, the are which I had mistaken (on a black and white copy of our map) as an uphill, was actually a downhill. We cruised on more and more, longer and longer, making it much further than we had imagined
After a stop at a local bath which is said to magically cure any ailments one may have, we rode the final four kilometers to the base of Aso. Here we used the coin laundry to ruin my sleeping bag, and set up camp behind the local office.
As usual, we were up early, this time we rode to Aso station where we caught a bus to the top of Mt. Aso. Again, this is someplace I have already been, and been unimpressed with, but the main value was not in actually seeing the gift-shop at the top, but rather in Tomoe not regretting missing it after being so close.
We did our best to kill the time until the next bus down. Once down, we mounted our bikes and set off on the best city riding I have ever seen in Japan. It was hours of downhill riding as we cruised from the Aso plain down to the coast where we caught a ferry over to Shimabara.
This day was, for the most part, uneventful. When we weren't waiting for a bus to escape the Aso gift-shop, we were cruising through a boring city. The only thing I really have to mention is that it is here that we set our speed record of 56 km/h maintained for at least thirty seconds.
There was a brilliant sunset, but we could only see it from behind the line of motorcycles waiting to get on the ferry. By the time I had a clean shot, the sun had sunk behind the islands.
When we arrived at Shimabara, we took a quick bath and set up camp in a museum parking-lot.
I awoke lamenting that this was to be the last day of our trip. We had originally planned to ride to Kagoshima, but our little Day 3/4 adventure on the top of Ogiyama caused us to rethink. We had intended to already be further south along the island chain by now, but by now our plan had changed. Our new goal was Nagasaki. The only question was if we should go north, following the coast, or over the famous Unzen volcano.
Thankfully we chose to go over Unzen. Along the way, we stopped at the disaster park where houses that were covered in a 1991 landslide are preserved in their post-slide condition. Looking up at the top of the volcano I imagined what I would do if it began erupting and I found myself in the path of a landslide.
The ride (or walk as the case may be) up the mountain was not much different than previous up-hills, but this time we knew it was the last one. This made it worse and more tiresome. Once we arrived at the top, however, all the suffering was forgotten. The ride down was the windingest of them all, but it also offered some of the clearest, tree-free views of the coast below. As we neared the bottom, both Tomoe and I stopped without even having to signal the other. Each of us thinking the same thing... This is our fantastical image of Japan -the farmers harvesting golden rice from a field bordering on the jagged coast, across the bay fog softens our destination's jagged sillouette.
Yeah, that was beautiful, but the rest of the ride to Nagasaki was hell. There was only one realistic route, and as such it was extremely crowded with careless drivers. To make it worse, it was several hours of up-down riding such as we had never before seen.
By the time we arrived in Nagasaki, we were more than ready to get on the train home, but we were also deathly hungry. As such, we decided to stay one more night, enjoying a meal of famous Nagasaki chanpon noodles in China-town.
Later, we took the famous trolly (100 yen) to a bath in the north of the city within walking distance of the Peace Park and ground zero. There were big statues and what not, but the most impact (on me) was a simply map showing what was where at the time the atomic bomb dropped. It showed how the roads to the right and the left were lined with noodle shops, shoe repair shops, rice-stores, and everything else you would never suspect as being threatening enough to bomb into oblivion... Yet another time and situation I have difficulty empathizing with.
Cheap as we are, instead of paying 100 yen for the tram, we walked back to Nagasaki Station to pick up our gear from the locker. The rest of the night was spent with a bottle of famous Kyushu potato wine, shochu, and nearby Okinawa style brown-sugar ume-shu (plum wine), sitting in a park where 26 catholics were martyred in 1597, on a mountain side overlooking the city.
Nothing happened this day other than waking up early to catch the bus which I had mistakenly thought left forty-five minutes later than it actually did. We arrived just as the bus was about to leave, and in our rush to get our bikes de-assembled and packed into the luggage area, we lost both Tomoe's helmet, and my tent poles.