Thursday, 30 July 2009

Day 798 - Fukuoka

Rain was forecast for our departure from Nagasaki, it never happened. The rain that is, we did depart! It was hardly fun heading north out of town, Nagasaki is nestled between the hills, that means everything is crammed in the valleys, so it was a long drag out of town. The roads quietened down a little, but they were never they nice bay side remote roads that they looked on the map. The highlight was finding a Shinto temple that wasn’t even marked on the map, a big place (photo) with a big sack full of Yen thrown at it and nobody there. The pool was stacked full of hungry fish. We threw some food in creating such a frenzy that some of the fish were completely out of the water. After a pretty uneventful day we turned off the main roads onto a little deserted road heading along the shoreline. As I was heading down a hill at about 30km an hour I rode through what looked like a few leaves, but after the recent rainfall they contained little surprises in the form of rocks. I hit one full on, a hefty whack with both wheels. Thankfully I managed to remain upright and there is no visible damage to the wheels. We made our way down a steep track to camp at sea level beside some rice fields, complete with water running into them. The view across the bay to the sea on one side and hillside house was lovely. I seemed to be driving Christine mad, for some reason she doesn’t like me picking the scabs off my knee…..that will teach her to push me off my bike! The day had been dry all day, it was wonderful to be camping in decent weather again on dry solid ground. The evening was very humid, we stayed outside until the bugs forced us in. The outer sheet was kept undone at the back and front to let a little more air through. I woke during the night to see flashes of light, rain was surely on it way so I got up to pitched the tent correctly. Within half an hour the rain arrived, normal service was resumed, it was torrential and by the time it stopped half an hour later we were again lying on waterlogged ground. We had cleaned everything whilst we had been in Nagasaki, what a waste of time!

The following day was back to the main road bash. Most of the population of Kyushu live across the north of the island, there was no pretty, quiet route across, or at least we certainly didn’t find it. By afternoon the weather was deteriorating, drizzle set in, which turned to rain. At the supermarket stop we decided not to cook but to just buy snacks. We found a spot easily enough, on a small hill overlooking the bay. It looked an ideal spot, it had even stopped raining, we changed our minds and decided to cook. We hadn’t even unloaded the bikes before we realised we had a serious mosquito problem here. We changed plans again and abandoned the cooking. That was such a good move. By the time the tent was up we were both thoroughly bitten. Once inside we could at last relax in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be coming in through the mesh. I could hardly believe just how many mossies there were, there were literally dozens of them buzzing away at the mesh, trying to get in for their all you can eat buffet. A couple of guys were in vans around the corner from us, they came over and gave us some eggs. Isn’t that typical, the night we are not cooking and we are kindly given food that needs to be cooked.

By morning and a night of drizzle, it was time to make a move, there was nothing for it, we had to get out of the tent. We got packed as quickly as possible, but we still took a hit from the mossies. As much as I love camping, the desire to continue with it is wearing a bit thin. It is either too hot and humid, soaking wet, or full on bugs that want to take chunks out of you. Well, if you are really lucky you only get one of those, on an average day you will get any combination of two, on a bad day you get the lot! We only had a short ride into Fukuoka, a big sprawling city. We checked into a dry, mosquito free hotel with air conditioning and went off for lunch then to Canal City. It basically a modern shopping centre (photos) with the buildings in different and striking colours, set around pools of water. On the hour the fountain did different displays to music. There was a fountain there like I have never seen before, it was brilliant. Instead of pushing water up from below, this one dropped water from above. In doing so it made different patterns and shapes and even writing in both positive and negative, I cold have sat and watched it for hours, very clever. We also watched a guy doing a half hour juggling show. At the end everybody left, but we sat around for a while and he came over and talked to us. He was a Canadian, now living in the north of Japan. He has been here for 7 years now. He was a really nice guy, we sat and talked to him for about half an hour and found out a little of what it is like for a foreigner to live in Japan. As we had expected, the foreigners are never really accepted, they are treated well but are always viewed as outsiders.

So Fukuoka marks the end or our tour of Japan, our 3 month visas have all but expired, we have to move on. Japan and the Japanese people have been very good to us, we will both be sorry to leave. I will take away fond memories. I would highly recommend it as a place to travel, it is about as safe as anywhere could possibly be, there is a lot out there to see, it’s a very different culture and the lifestyle seems relaxed. We have not experienced or seen any aggression, not even in the driving. On one occasion we heard somebody on a mobile phone who was clearly angry, that is the only time in 3 months here that we have even heard a raised voice. The Japanese are not the most outgoing of people, but ask anybody even a simple question and they will do everything they can to find you an answer. It has been a pleasure to be amongst them for a short time, I leave with the utmost respect for them.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Day 795 - Nagasaki

There seems to be hardly an inch of flat ground on Kyushu, though we did find just a little as we departed Kagoshima, but before long we were climbing again. We had expected it through, we could see on the map we were heading for a pass, though heading up to an unknown height from sea level can be a bit daunting. This one wasn’t too bad, gradual and peaking at 405m (photo), though on a busy road. Pay back time came immediately with a swift decent to Satsuma. Having stocked up on cheap tomatoes from a roadside veg stall we headed out of town.

Judging by the map we had a climb to start the following morning too, though this one wasn’t marked as a pass. We had turned onto the route 504, it was much quieter. Half way up the climb the road narrowed to single track, the rain started and we were heading into cloud. It was steep too, a horrible climb that seemed never ending though we eventually reached the pass at 638m, a rather unexpected bonus. Christine didn’t see it that way, she wasn’t over pleased. When she arrived at the top she ranted on that she had had enough of these climb, “I just wish one day we could have a bit of flat cycling and make a bit of good progress instead of this endless energy sapping slog”. She had a point, progress had been slow. We were aiming for a ferry that was about 65km from were we had camped, we thought we would make it there easily by early afternoon, yet after 1¾ hrs we had only covered 13km. As ever, it is almost impossible to judge how long it will take you to get anywhere. We descended to the next town and from the map it looked flat from there onwards. Flat in Japan means there are no major climbs, but the road was up and down the whole way, as you reached the top of one hill the next one was lurking just around the corner. But we made the ferry taking the 16:40 crossing. We had expected a deserted little island, but as we docked we could see it was far from that, we were arriving in a big town, something that rather messes up plans to find a camp site as soon as we disembark. Thankfully we did find somewhere fairly soon, up another steep hill, the steepest of the day. It was warm, we sat out in the dark and were amazed at how everything was soaked in condensation by the time we turned in, that said the nights are still very humid making it very uncomfortable in the tent.

From our camp spot we dropped back down to sea level. The road hugged the coastline for the next 35km, it was sheer pleasure the whole way, not too hilly, not too hot and glorious scenery the whole way. We passed through little fishing villages, cut in around bays and out around the headlands, the views were changing all the time. We passed bushes that attracted the butterflies (photo), massive great things that flit impatiently from flower to flower. There are few fruit tree in Kyushu, but Christine has honed her skills on spotting vegetable stands. She picked up 5 peppers for just 30 Yen, that is so cheap, about 4p each, that I don’t see how they can even grow them for that price. Today was also the day that Christine had been looking forward to, we only had a few hills, we were making good time. We had hoped to reach the next ferry at the top of the island by the end of the day, we arrived early enough to make the 3pm ferry. Christine generally cycles a bit slower that me, so I stop every now and then and wait for her to catch up. As we were heading for the ferry I thought we could get the 3pm ferry at a push, so I pulled over to wait for Christine and suggest it to her. I was amazed to find her right behind me, “Don’t stop” she called out “I think we can make the 3pm ferry if we are quick”, and with that she was gone in a flash. I had trouble keeping up with her. She stopped at another veg stall for a quick check and was back behind me just a couple of minutes later, whistling a happy tune. It seems she has a mean turn of speed when she wants to get somewhere. Once off the other side the weather was still glorious, so we carried on along the coast. We reach Harajo. It had been built up most of the way so as we thought it may take some time to find a campsite we decided to start looking early. It didn’t take long to find a spot after all. right next to the beach, but there were a few too many people around for our liking, we decided to head to the nearby spa, have a good scrub down and return a bit later when hopefully it would be a bit quieter. The spa was fantastic value, the pools overlooked the sea and even better, there was a nice tatami rest room where you could chill out and drink green tea whilst feeling nice and clean. We went back and set up camp only to find that it was the local dog walking route, though nobody seemed bothered by us being there and just gave a cheery “Hello”.

After a fantastic day with constant blue skies we were very surprised to be woken the following morning by rain, so having got further than expected yesterday we were already an hour late in starting. It eased of but continued to drizzle, though it was still warm so jackets weren’t required. We are back on Japanese breakfasts, miso soup and rice, though we both find it somewhat lacking and are usually hungry before we have got too far. This morning was even worse, after just 7km I felt a total lack of energy, though thankfully we reached what we believed would be the only supermarket of the day, stocked up on food and sat down and had a second breakfast. We were heading for the Mount Unzen Disaster Memorial Houses, we reached there, the village of Shimabara, just in time as another heavy shower set in. Mt Unzen is another very active volcano, in fact it was the scene of Japan’s most recent big eruption, in 1990. There had been minor eruptions leading up to the biggest eruption and everybody in the area had been evacuated, but the biggest eruption caused a huge pyroclastic flow that ran down the mountain side at approximately 100km/hr. 41 people died that day mainly firemen, policemen and journalists. A whole village by the sea was engulfed by the flow and that is what we were visiting. The houses still stood, but the volcanic ash came to the rooftops. About 6 houses had been left as they were as a memorial to the tragedy. We also paid a visit to the Memorial Hall, more a museum. Not much in the way of artefacts to see, but as with all Japanese museums made very interesting in a very imaginative way. It included a film on a 180 degree scene where you stood and watched the film on a base that moved and shuddered and blew hot air at you. From there we started our ascent of the mountain, the weather wasn’t looking good, but we hoped to get about half way up before looking for somewhere to camp. We came to a flat area and decided to camp there. The weather was looking rough, I wasn’t over happy about camping there as it looked as though it might flood, but we didn’t know if we would find another spot, or if it would actually rain, so we decided to stay there. Just as we had finished eating, it started to rain but thankfully only lasted about 5 minutes. As the evening wore on there were a continuing number of flashes, but no thunder. The cloud was thick enough to stop us seeing the lightening, the wind was picking up too. During the night there was heavy rainfall which thankfully was again a shortish shower. At 5am it started again, though this time it really meant business. It was hammering down, it didn’t appear to be stopping either. The wind picked up even more battering the tent, the thunder and lightening were getting ever closer. It seemed relentless, one enormous clap of thunder was very close by and made Christine scream, “Aren’t you afraid of this she asked”, “No not really” I replied “I don’t like it but I am not afraid. The worse that can happen is we get flooded, the tent breaks and we get very wet, but we will pull through”. “Well I am terrified” he told me “I wish it would stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop”. It didn’t, it didn’t even seem to let up. Normally when it rains you can hear the drop of water on the tent, with this you couldn’t, it was just a solid deluge, continuous. “Please, please, please, please, please, please” Christine cried out and her head sank into her hands. Every now and then it seemed to ease a little only for it to resume full pelt a few second later at which Christine would cry out “No, no, no, no, no, no, no”, I don’t think she like thunderstorms. It lasted an hour and a half, it was miserable, I just couldn’t believe it could rain so much in such a short time. Once it eased I got out to assess the damage, we were completely waterlogged, an old nearby tarmac road was a stream. The tent had remained solid against the wind and rain, but water had come in through the groundsheet.
We packed up quickly, I was relieved that we had got away so lightly with it. We carried on with the climb to the village of Unzen, I was amazed to find that the road wasn’t even flooded. Before long we were heading into the cloud. We passed the turning to Nita Pass, it was closed. We arrived in Unzen in thick cloud. It is another thermal village, we walked around the thermal springs but it was difficult to tell what was steam and what was cloud. The atmosphere of the place was somewhat ruined by the pipes that criss-crossed the area running water to the hotel spas. We decided to go to a spa ourselves, we made it there just as it started to rain hard again. Having had another good scrub down and relax in the very hot pool, we sat in the rest area and eat and drank green tea until the rain had eventually stopped again. We then descended the mountain on a back road that was remarkably good. Before long it was time to find a place to camp for the night. Needless to say everywhere was water logged. We found a spot that showed signs of water having flowed over it the previous night, but it was unlikely to happen again so we set up camp. Before we had even started cooking it started to rain, we quickly got in the tent and had everything covered up. It was thoroughly miserable. It was still very hot and humid, the last place we wanted to be was in the tent and to make matters worse we still had to do the cooking, that would make things even hotter. It rained hard, the ground unsurprisingly became waterlogged very quickly, I could hardly believe it, less than 12 hours after having felt we had got off lightly, we were right back in it. It wasn’t as bad as the previous night though, there was no wind, thunder or lightening and the rain was nowhere near as intense, but it was still totally depressing. We talked about it, then discovered we both had wanted to stay in a hotel that evening but had both thought the other wouldn’t want it.
The rain eventually stopped. It started again at 3am, this time hard and persistent, right the way through until 7am, I thought it was set in for the day. The whole area was a quagmire, we couldn’t get in or out of the tent without making everything wet and muddy, for the second night running rain had come up though the groundsheet due to the small lake we were camped in. It started to rain again as we packed up. We set of wearing jackets, but they we on and off constantly for the next hour until I decided I would just leave it on and sweat it out. The rain got worse the nearer we got to Nagasaki, it ended up torrential, water was cascading of the hillsides. I had to wait at the top of a short climb for Christine, when she arrived she said “I just can’t continue like this, the wind stopped me a number of times and I can’t see a thing”. I could see what she meant, there were droplets of water all over her steamed up glasses, it must have been hell for her, so I was completely sympathetic and said “You have to be strong, you can make it, there is only about another 10km to go”. She was fantastic, she carried on without complaint. We made into the centre of Nagasaki totally soaked through, checked into a hotel. We couldn’t use the room until 3pm, so we changed and dried ourselves of in the loo and went to a lunchtime buffet, after what we had been through it was sheer bliss. We did a bit of sight seeing in the afternoon including a temple in the shape of a turtle. The old lady there gave us a tour, she was a real character, telling us stories and ordering us around, “Right, you stand there, you, stand over there and take a photograph”. I didn’t even want a photograph, but did as I was told, then when it was taken, “Right, swap over, you stand there, you stand over there and take a photo”. Whilst we were there a Hungarian guy arrived, “It’s 200 Yen, quickly, give me the money”, I don’t think he really wanted to go in, but was too afraid to say no.

This morning at breakfast we read the English language newspaper, we saw the headlines “Death toll rises to 7 as rain lashes Kyushu”. The deaths had been caused by landslides. In Fukuoka where we are heading next, they had 608mm of rain in just 2 and a half days, we had got away with it lightly by the look of it. The main tourist sight of the day was another very sobering experience, the A-Bomb Museum. Totally absorbing but very different to the one in Hiroshima. There was far less personal stuff, but it was still heart wrenching to take in. On the morning of August 9th 1945 a US bomber took of with a nuclear weapon, it’s primary target was the town of Kukora, it circled over it but the cloud never cleared, so it left and set course for Nagasaki. There the same thing happened, then just as it was about to return to base at 11:02, there was a small break in the cloud, it could see it’s target and the bomb was dropped. Nagasaki had been chosen as it was home to the Mitsubishi Shipyards and a number of weapons factories. Within seconds of the blast anybody that was within a kilometre of the hypocentre and exposed in the open was dead, within minutes thousands were dead, in total some 74,000 people died in the blast. I was amazed to see whole photographs of whole areas razed to the ground, yet the charred human remains were clearly visible. It was a living hell. Next to the museum was the memorial centre (photo). At the centre was a glass column containing 27 shelves. Each carrying 9 volumes of the names of all the people that perished as a result of the blast. Looking towards the column was the direction of the hypocentre some 300m away. There was a monument in a Peace Park at the spot of the hypocentre, fitting indeed, yet in Hiroshima all that marked the spot was a plaque on the wall. The afternoon was spent in total contrast visiting another museum, at Dejima, originally an island run by the Netherlands, the only area that was open to foreigners before Japan opened up about 150 years ago, it was there as a trading post, life there must have been very strange indeed.

Tomorrow we move on for Fukuoka, rain is forecast.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Day 788 - Kagoshima

It’s only been just over a week since the last post, but it has been a fun packed week.

We left Beppu on Sunday morning, it was hot, blooming hot. We cycled along the coast for the first 12 kilometres to Oita. The sea haze/mist was so low that we could only just see the tops of the palm trees that lined the road. Thankfully it was flat, sweat was already pouring off of us, the humidity was very uncomfortable. It wasn’t long before we left the coast, visibility improved considerably but the humidity didn’t. We had to cut across country on the back roads, in Japan back roads normally means hilly and today was no exception. To make matters worse there was only one road marked on the map, but once on it there were junctions every kilometre or so. I guessed wrong which meant we cycled up a very steep hill only to come to a dead end. Once back on the right road we were still climbing, it was hardly fun, it was just plain hard work. We ended up on a section of unopened new road, I had no idea where it would take us but it was going in vaguely the right direction. At the far end I helped Christine down the steep steps off an unfinished bridge that brought us back to the old road. She was shattered and soaked in sweat and not too happy about the situation, “We should never have come to Kyushu, we have made a terrible mistake” she told me. She was drained of energy and lay out on the road panting. “We are going to have to change our plans, there is no way we can continue with the mountain roads ahead of us” she told me. She had requested this a number of times in the last few days and until then I gently persuaded her to continue with what we had planned, but right now we had only just climbed to 150m above sea level, I had to give in, “Don’t worry, I already agree with you, there is no way we can do it in this heat, it will take forever” I told her, at least that should give her a little lift, but I was surprised to hear her say “But I want to go up Mt Asosan”. I was quick to answer “There is no way we will make it, we have just climbed to 150m and you are knackered, Mt Asosan will be about 10 times that amount, in this heat we have no chance”, “FUCK YOU!” was the instant reply, delivered at some considerable volume and with just a hint of passion. Christine isn’t always the easiest person to please, it has to be said. With no signs in English and no road numbers it was a case of just following the compass, but it wasn’t long before we reached our intended destination of the stone Buddhas at Ukusi. These were wonderful old images in the rock face, but covered with a roof for their protection, something very different to the other Buddha images we had seen in Japan. By the time we left it was still unbearably hot and humid, but it wasn’t long before we were heading up an old track, forcing our way through large fallen bamboo to camp near a pond. With the fallen bamboo and the state of the track we were unlikely to be disturbed, nobody had been up here in months. It was 9pm and had been dark for over an hour when I could here people working nearby, but we couldn’t see each other so I just left them to it.

When we left the following morning all the fallen bamboo had been removed, so much for nobody coming up here in months. It was another hot day, the humidity relentless and energy sapping. The road rolled along all day, we oozed sweat on the up hill sections, the down hill bits offering the only chance of a breeze. As we were heading through a town I was cycling right behind Christine when somebody stepped off the road right in front of her, her brakes immediately went on hard, I couldn’t react quick enough, swerved to avoid her, hit her back wheel and ended up in a heap in the middle of the road. I was up in a shot and did my best to show that I am still a true British male and immediately blamed her for it by shouting and ranting on at her. In reality it has been an accident waiting to happen. A number of times she has braked hard when I have been just behind, but I have always managed to swerve and miss her, but the truth is I have just been cycling too close for comfort. No damage was done other than a cut knee and severely damaged pride, this being the first time I have taken a tumble on this trip. We stopped at a supermarket for the daily food run. We have been having bread for breakfast and the brands change in every region we pass through. Here I found the perfect loaf, at least according to the bag “Soft and Soft: So soft I eat delicious”, well that just had to be the one for us, but hang on, what’s this right beside it, a brand called “Pot Belly”, it wasn’t going to be such an easy decision after all. We started a long climb just before we needed a place to camp for the night. Christine had dropped back a bit in the heat, I waited for her arrival and instantly knew she wasn’t happy. “You always manage to ignore all the water taps, now we have to keep going until we find some water” she ranted on. I can’t say I was too worried about the water situation though. Ten minutes later we had water and another 15 minutes we had a nice little campsite on a path of recently cut bamboo with shade and even a breeze, just what we needed.

The morning continued with a climb. Today was the day we would be ascending Mt Asosan, so we were predicting to climb to about 1100m, we were starting at around 500m. With that in mind we got off to a really early start, setting off a good 8 minutes earlier than usual, that should do it! We climbed gently on the main road, but already early in the morning it was too hot. I hoped the town of Aso would be at around 700m leaving us with a 400m climb to the top, but with about 6km to go before Aso we were already up to 750m, things were looking really good. Then all of a sudden it turned very sour, before us lay a wonderful view across a huge crater, the problem was that Aso was sitting in the bottom of it, within minutes we were back at 500m, it was very depressing, we had to start all over again, though not before we had worked our way through another box of ice-cream. The ascent up to the volcanic crater lake was unusual by Japanese standards in our experience, we left the tree line behind and were climbing through open mountainside (photo) with great views all around. With open countryside it was good cattle grazing land, we saw grazing cattle for only the second time since we have been here. There were plenty of road signs warning of large animals, there were also plenty of Japanese people getting out of their cars to have a look at them, a rare sight here indeed. Actually the gradient remained manageable and it wasn’t as bad as we expected, apart from the last kilometre to the lake, that was steep. It was also a toll road and despite being told it was 100 Yen for bikes we were allowed to head up for free. Despite Christine questioning a few days ago whether she could make it up the mountain, she had done it with relative ease. The volcano was very active, we were looking down into a crater, but most of the time all we could see was steam, only occasionally could we see the green water of the lake itself. Whilst we were up there the weather closed in, it looked as though a storm was heading in our direction. We started the descent but soon found a very nice spot to camp with a good view of the mountain, and what was even better was that at this altitude it was so much cooler, oh it was bliss. Before long the wind picked up, the clouds descended to us and the mountains disappeared, we didn’t care though, the cool weather was exactly what we needed.

By morning the cloud had lifted, but the wind had increased, typically we would be heading into a head wind. Despite the wind trying to stop us, especially when we passed through a tunnel, we completed the 11 km off the mountain in approximately 20 minutes. Down at the bottom there was no noticeable wind, but the heat was once again very noticeable. We passed through a small town, the only likely place we could get food. We sat in the cafĂ© area of the supermarket and demolished another box full of ice-cream whilst old men sat around watching baseball on the television whilst drinking suspicious looking stuff from jam jars. We were then into another climb, a truly horrible one. It wasn’t that steep, not even that long, even the heat wasn’t the main problem for a change, right now it was the tunnels that were the problem. The road was pretty busy and we passed through about 10 tunnels on the climb, they were all narrow so had poles in the middle of the road to stop drivers crossing the central lines, but for us that meant they would either squeeze past us or a line of traffic would queue up behind us as we crawled up the hill, not nice, not nice at all! We stopped for lunch in the comfort and shade of a bus shelter. Nearby was a farmer’s veggie stall where everything was a real bargain compared with the supermarkets, huge, huge cabbages for just 100 Yen (Approx 66p). Each farmer had their number and price on the veg, then all you had to do was put the right money in the appropriate money box, another indication of just how honest the Japanese people are, I just couldn’t see that working in Europe. The weather was turning during the afternoon. We took shelter beside a house as a heavy shower passed over. I had been so looking forward to cycling in the rain, a lovely change from the heat, but when it arrived it was icy cold, shelter seemed a much better option. The climb to a pass marked on the map turned out to be much lower than we had expected, a real bonus. We were heading downhill at speed and for a change we were ahead of schedule for the day. But it’s either up or down around here so soon enough we were climbing. We turned onto the back roads again through a steep valley, camping was going to be a challenge. In the end I resorted to asking a guy if we could camp on his narrow bit of grassland beside his rice paddy. He kept wobbling on about gasoline and even showed me a 5 gallon container of the stuff, but we eventually got permission. As we set the tent up he brought down a massive board of wood. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with it so used it as a sort of ground sheet and very good it was too. It even made a very good card table. Later in the evening he came down with a huge bottle of Saki and three glasses. Having poured himself a wee dram he poured out two huge glasses for us. He then started talking to us, we didn’t understand a word, but we were good listeners.

Before we set off in the morning our host was back giving us a bag of rice balls and offering us the use of the loo in the house, at least I think that was what all the miming was about. We declined so he gave us a shovel and told us to bury our poo! I have never felt that comfortable about doing a poo when overlooked by so many houses so the shovel was decline as well. The day started with another climb from 500m to what we had expected to be about 750m. It was already hot when we set off. Before long we were passing huge worms on the road, a good foot or more long and an amazing florescent blue colour. It was a lovely twisting climb on a small very quiet road though the gradient was a bit steep, but 750m arrived and there was still no sign of a route out of the valley. We eventually reached the pass at 1139m making it a very slow start to the day, the exact opposite to yesterday. The weather had changed dramatically, there were once again heavy rain showers. After a short steep descent we reached the main route 388. Main! It was only just wider than the little road we had been on, there was no traffic and we were once again descending steeply down a twisty road, a horrible descent, slowly, slowly, hard on the brakes, all that effort to get up the hill and we are paid back with this….yuk! After about 7km we rejoined the route 265, this was a much nicer road even if we did have to share it was another car. This was gently down beside a stream, a real delight to be riding on. We reached the town where we would shop, though there was very little on offer. We managed to scrape together a few veg then continued. Another thunderstorm was heading for us so we took shelter in a garage just as we were heading out of the village, a good move as it just tipped down for the next 15 minutes. Once again we were climbing slowly on a wide open road, though we couldn’t understand why there was nothing else on it. It was soon to be become apparent. We rounded a bend and instantly the nice new two laned road became single track and as rough as anything we have seen in Japan. We were once again heading for another pass, sweat once again pouring off us. The climb was another nice one though felt that much tougher being that much later in the day and with the extra load of water for the nights camping. There was nowhere to camp, the roadsides were very steep, we would just have to keep going until we eventually found something. We arrived at the pass at 750m, one of the few areas with any flat land, so we thought we had better take it. Once again camping higher up was so much cooler, it’s amazing what difference a few metres can make. When it was dark we were treated to a really nice display. All around us were fire flies. They fly around very gently and gracefully looking like they have 2 green flashing LEDs attached to them. I don’t know what bit flashes, I guess it’s their nose. If it’s their arse then they are flying backwards. There were dozens of them. Looking through the darkness of the pine trees was like looking at a load of flashing Christmas tree lights, wonderful stuff. We watched mesmerised for ages, a great end to the day.

The following morning started wet, very wet indeed. I set off wearing a rain jacket, just what you need when it is still hot, but with the descent off the pass we wouldn’t be pedalling for a while. The bad road continued made worse by the torrential rain. At least the descent wasn’t a steep one, though the narrow road was littered with debris, sticks, branches, rocks and streams of water, progress was very slow and with great care. But it wasn’t bothering me at all, I felt on such a high, this was wonderful cycling. If you look at the 265 on the road atlas we have it looks like the main route down the centre of the island, yet here we were on a tiny little road with not a single vehicle around, we had the road to ourselves for kilometre after kilometre, it had a really remote feel to it and I loved it. But the rain doesn’t last too long here, soon the sun was out, the jackets were off and we were back in normal sweat mode. Then all of a sudden the road opened out to 2 new lanes again for a fast a furious couple of kilometres before it was forced back to single carriageway and through a tight and steep valley. Having passed a small reservoir we were soon climbing. For some reason I liked this one even more than the others, I felt good and strong. From a long way off I could see the pass above us but it didn’t daunt me, I enjoyed it the whole way. I waited a short while for Christine at the top before a real slalom of a descent quickly twisting left right, left, right down the hillside. Near the bottom it started to drizzle. Christine was just a few minutes behind me but had been caught in a couple of really heavy showers and was wet. After lunch in Suki and a 10 minute nap on a bench we were on a fast roller coaster of a road generally heading downhill to Kobayashi with great mountain views behind. We had dropped right down to under 200m, that meant the heat was unbearable. We were now becoming experts at spotting the roadside veggie stalls, there was always a bargain to be had. At one Christine found a watermelon for 200 Yen and couldn’t resist it. 200 Yen! Could that really be? This was exactly the same type of melon we had seen in supermarkets for 3000 Yen when we arrived in Japan at the beginning of May. Before long we were heading up another climb and looking for a camp site, though this time I had the pleasure of full water bottles a full water bag and a bonus watermelon. We had trouble finding a place to camp, the fist time we have struggled since we have been on Kyushu, but we eventually found a spot beside a track heading through some woods. Once the breeze had dropped down the humidity was very uncomfortable. Once in the tent it was horrible, very stuffy, no air movement at all. Christine demanded “What do you suggest we do about it”. I rather got the impression that it was my fault, my doing and I had to sort it out. “Well we don’t have any air conditioning so I guess we just have to lie here and try to go to sleep”. It wasn’t long before she stormed off and slept under the stars, yelping when a spider landed on her. I tried to calm her down, but it just seemed to make things worse, I left her to it.

By morning Christine said she had got little sleep but she did apologise for the way she behaved the previous evening, though she did say “I am glad you are back. You weren’t here last night, Arsehole had taken you place”. I still couldn’t really see what I had done wrong. We had camped just across the road from Miike Lake so had a nice view first thing in the morning to another volcano on the far side of the lake. It wasn’t long before we arrived in Kirishima Jinja, a nice little town with a shrine which mythology states is the birthplace of the Japanese culture. It was a Saturday so there were plenty of visitors. Also there was a strange mask museum where we were the only visitors and were even given a welcoming barley tea when we arrived. It is also a spa town, so not having had a shower for about a week we made the most of one. We were the only ones there, though the outdoor spa on the upper floor was very exposed as you walked around naked for all the world to see. From here we descended to sea level, with the drop in height came the rise in temperature, it was very hot. We did the supermarket run and sat in the cafe with a cold drink. I thought it was pretty warm inside, that is until I went outside again and realised I had been sat in air-conditioning. We rode beside the sea, heading south alongside the bay towards our next target of Sakurajima, a large volcanic island that we would cross to reach Kagoshima. With the sea and a breakwater to our right and steep cliffs to our left it wasn’t looking good for a camp spot, but at least it was nice easy flat cycling. We had to take the first road that climbed the cliffs to get away from the main road. We soon found a spot, but the price was that we had worked up a great sweat. The mosquito welcoming party was out for our arrival, a sort of meals on wheels! The heat is becoming unbearable, we were both relishing a hotel with air-conditioning the following night. Cooking a couple of months ago had been such a joy, but in this heat the last thing we want is a cooked meal, food is becoming a real problem, we can’t survive on salads the whole time. To save lunch costs we had been preparing food the previous evening but by the time we are eating them they are already going off. There was no chance of Christine sleeping under the stars for a second night running, she would be eaten alive. She suffered the heat with far more grace than the previous night.

As we departed quickly before too many mossies would notice, we had a wonderful view of the volcano. After another 10km we were crossing a bridge onto a lava field. A little further on we stopped at an observation area. This is Japan’s most active volcano. The last major eruption was in 1914, it lasted over a month. At the time it had been an island separated from the last by a channel of water 400m wide and 70m deep. It spewed out so much volcanic rubbish that it completely filled the channel joining it to the mainland. As we looked up at the mountain there was a huge clap of thunder, though seconds later we realised it had been the volcano, black smoke was belching out of it (photo). We had time it perfectly, that was an amazing sight and something I had never expected to see. That left us on a high for the rest of the day. We continued along the ’lava road’ to pick up a ferry for the 10 minute crossing to Kagoshima. The place instantly felt different to other Japanese cities to me, it felt more European. As we started looking for a hotel we were surprised to find them full as we discovered it was a holiday weekend, great! Instead we found a buffet at a posh hotel. It was great food and great value, especially for the amount we ate. We booked ourselves into a hotel along the main street that was closed for some procession. It seemed to be a service for all the different types of martial arts, where men, women, old and young (photo) came together at a Shinto type ceremony. We were oh so glad to be in that air-conditioned room, with the ceremony outside it was the end of a very good day.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Day 779 - Beppu, Kyushu Island

We left Tokyo the easy way, by ferry to the island of Kyushu. Our original plans had not been to go there, but they seem to change week by week, so that is where we are heading. The ferry didn’t depart until 19:00, so we had another whole day in Tokyo. Being as we didn’t have any tickets we decided to head down to the ferry terminal and get them as early as possible, well, by mid day at least. Once we had tickets in hand we went to explore Tokyo Bay area. This was much more like the Tokyo I had expected to see, ultra modern with mono-rail transport, big fast roads and high rise apartments, it seemed a completely different place to the Tokyo we had already seen. We decided to head for the Panasonic centre, it was free after all. Wow! We were impressed. Part of it was really just a showroom for their products. Even the flat screen televisions impressed me with their picture quality. I guess technology has advanced considerably in the 2 years that I have been away, though most of it will have passed me by. It was very much a hands on place, very enjoyable. Actually, so enjoyable that we spent about 4 hours there leaving us only enough time to stock up on food before heading for the ferry.

The ferry left bang on time, but it was full of surprises for both of us. It was pretty small, bordering on tiny. We had to book a cabin, even though we tried our best to buy a ticket without one. But there were so few passengers, probably no more than 20, the rest of the ferry was filled with containers. With so few passengers it meant that there were no proper dining facilities, so we were relieved to have bought some food as we will be on board for the next 2 nights. Food was available from vending machines and there was a good supply of microwaves, so it was all very much do-it-yourself. Amazingly there were not only showers but also an onsen, so I made the most of it and had a dip, though at time it felt more like a wave machine, not as relaxing as one on land. The crossing was about as calm as it could get, though it still enough to make Christine sea sick, something she wasn’t best pleased about. By the second day I could tell something was not quite right with her, she had gone right off her food. She tried to eat in the evening but dashed off to lie down well before she had finished. I sat with her, she wasn’t happy. She kept saying “Tomorrow is my birthday, this is no way to spend a birthday”. I kept assuring her that she would feel much better by the morning, though she refused to believe me.
At 05:40 we docked at Kitakyushu, bang on time after a 36hr journey. As I had predicted Christine was feeling much better, though she seemed to be amazed by the fact. Once on the road I couldn’t really make sense of the map, the signposts didn’t match anything on the map, nor did the road numbers, so I just navigated by the compass. It was only after about an hour that I eventually realised that the ferry had docked about 20km from where I had expected, on a north/south coastline rather that the east/west one I had expected. I guess that explains why the sea was in the wrong place when we cycled away from the ferry! Even though we had set off so early it was stinking hot and oh so humid. The first road side temperature gauge had registered 31 degrees, it felt it too. The northern part of the island is all industrial, so it came as no surprise that we were heading south on busy road, there wasn’t much that was nice about it. After about 30km we stopped for a snack. Despite a day of doing nothing yesterday and what felt like 2 good nights sleep, I felt so tired, all I wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep. We carried on though, Christine cycled in front and all I could do was watch her back wheel, I have no recollection of anything that was around me, I was just fighting to stay awake. I promised myself if I saw a bench in the shade I would stop for a nap, but you don’t notice many of those when all you can do is watch the back wheel of the bike in front. It remained hot, we were both covered in sweat. We spotted a supermarket. We did need some food but we both had thoughts of other things….air-conditioning. We sat inside and ate our lunch, but the humidity was still lurking outside, waiting for us. We carried on slowly, it was hard work even though it was flat. We were heading for a Shinto Buddhist shrine at Usa. As we arrived we passed a large sign telling us we had arrived….”Welcome to USA”. The shrine was well worth a visit, though as always seems to be the case with Shinto temples it was a long walk. The shrine was pretty extensive with a great big bucket load of orange paint splashed all over it. There weren’t many people there, though there were small groups of businessmen there (photo) though we couldn’t agree if there were there to pray for the contract they had just signed or one they were about to sign. We filled up on water, we were getting through a fair bit, then went in search of campsite. We needed to get away from the main road which tends to mean heading up a thumping great hill. We were climbing steeply on a very narrow road each of us trying to decide how much further we would go before suggesting we turn back, when all of a sudden, right beside the road appeared a small section of wood that was dead flat perfect for camping. So despite Christine’s concern about the weather forecast, that it would rain all day on her birthday, we hadn’t had a drop, though we still ended up pretty wet. As dusk approached we were left with a dilemma, do we sit outside and take all the mosquito bites or do we sweat it out in the tent. We chose the latter, though it was so hot and sticky that we chose to take the tent outer off, if it rained we would have to act fast, but it seemed the best option.

It didn’t rain. When the alarm went off at 5:30 it was even reasonably cool. By the time we were on the road again it was heading for 30 degrees and sticky hot again, just what we needed as we started a short climb. One more short climb and we were descending into the seaside town of Beppu, Japan’s No.1 spa resort and home to lots of thermal activity, a sort of tacky version of Rotorua. We did a tour of the hotels, we were nice a early and desperate for a cold shower and a room with air-conditioning. But Japan is a country of rules, rules that everybody sticks to, rules aren’t for breaking in Japan. One of the more annoying rules for us is the check-in time at hotels, normally 3 or 4pm. It was only heading for 1pm as we checked out the rooms. We decided to take the one that would let us check in early, but none of them would, despite the fact we had seen rooms that were ready for immediate use. But being cyclists we did what come naturally when you can’t check into a hotel, we went to another hotel and had an ’all-you-can-eat-buffet’ and despite the hot weather we both managed to pack away a good amount, including 2 bowls of ice cream in my case. The Japanese are only small people therefore they only appear to nibble at food. So for the ice-cream came little plastic containers…pathetic! I did a swap and used a soup bowl instead, it was wonderful, it was fantastically cold, bliss. During the evening Christine went to sample one of the local specialities, a sand bath. Basically you lie down and get covered with 40 degree sand, buried with your head sticking out. Once you are completely cooked, about 10 minutes, you get dug up and thrown into a shower. Being buried alive is hardly my idea of fun, I declined the offer.

This morning dawned wet…ooh heck it was wet. Wet, wet, WET! We were thankful to be staying in a hotel, so we just sat it out for a while doing odd jobs on the bikes, doing the washing etc. By 1pm we decided we just had to go and suffer the rain, but by the time we started cycling way from the hotel the rain stopped, amazing, we didn’t even get the slightest bit wet. We climbed away from Beppu to the suburb of Kannawa where the closer we got the stronger the sulphur smell became and the more plumes of stream we could see. We went to visit one of the thermal pool with water at around 90 degrees and some of the nearby mud pool. It was all very different from New Zealand. Not much of a natural setting here, the pools were surrounded by manicured gardens, worth a visit in their own right, but not what we had come to see. Unfortunately they cash in on the tourist attractions here as despite everything being very close together they are all separated and you have to pay at all of them individually, hence we only visited the best two sights. Come evening we made more of the spa town by heading off to an outdoor spa. This was unusual for Japan as the open air bit was mixed sex so we could be sociable for a change. It was wonderful to be sitting in a hot pool and looking along the beach to the mountains beyond.

Tomorrow we leave Beppu and head further south across some of the high ground. Christine is dreading that in the humid heat, but today’s rain has cleared the air somewhat. The are plenty more spas around Kyushu, so as long as we visit the odd one she should be happy.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Day 774 - Tokyo still

Ok, you are in for a real treat….a very short blog entry.

So our time in Tokyo is all but over, and I have to say I have been a little bit disappointed with it. I guess it is all about expectations. I had expected the place to be exotic, a sort of Japan full on. But it hasn’t been, though I have to be honest and also tell you that I haven’t really done the place justice. Too quickly we have been overcome by the masses of people, the constant vibe. The place is heaving, full of young trendy people that make us look exactly like what we really are, scruffy herberts. It is all a far cry from the countryside where old ladies walk the streets bent up double over a trolley or tend the fields, it’s hard to believe that they are both the same country. Yet Tokyo hasn’t really been the hi-tech place that I had expected either, in reality is has just been another big ordinary city. There are plenty of sights to see, well spread out, but nothing that we have seen has been really wow, it has all been a bit low key. I don’t dislike the place, but I haven’t fallen in love with it either.

Getting into the place by bike was easy, very easy. Getting around has also been easy on the subway, but getting out of the stations….well, that is another matter. We thought the massive station in Kyoto was badly designed and confusing, now we just realise that it was just a normal Japanese station, they are all like that. Two times we had the misfortune of passing through Shinjuku station. It a big station. The main line passes through as do 4 underground lines. The place has 60 exits and apparently 2 million people a day pass through it every day. I dispute that figure though, I believe it should be nearer 500 thousand, it’s just that it takes about 4 attempts on average for each person to find a way out. We had the pleasure of crossing from the east side to the west side of the station. It is impossible to just walk straight through, probably due to all the train lines. There is no straight passage through, you end up in a warren of little passages passing through stores and markets. To make matters worse you can’t get through on just one level, you have to go up and down stairs too. It is all rather like a giant 3D puzzle. There are maps on the walls at various points, but they are put there just to piss you off, they even show a direct way through from where you are standing, but it doesn’t exist, at least not on the level that the map is on. It takes ages to get through, you get completely disoriented and by the time you get to see daylight again you have no clue where you are or what direction you are heading in. For us it was the worst of the stations, but so many of them are totally confusing.

Now the whole time we have been in Japan we have seen yellow tiles on the walkways. They are everywhere, some even carry on into building and lead up to reception desks. At times walkways double as cycle paths, but these yellow tiles have 4 ridges on them making them horrible to cycle on. It was only the other day that we discovered what they are for. It’s obvious really, they are for the blind. They were even there in the photographic museum, though I am not sure why a blind person would want to pay good money to go there.

Today we visited the Imperial Palace, another place that you have to book yourself onto a tour via the internet. The tour was pretty dull, but it was worth it just to see they way security handled the people. We were all made to walk 2 abreast the whole time and talked to through megaphones. Anybody stepping out of line was soon put right. We didn’t even get to see inside and to make matters worse it was pouring with rain, though thankfully they had provided us with umbrellas, but we were still soaked by the end of it.

So tomorrow we move on to pastures new. We have enjoyed our stay, but neither of us will be sorry to leave, we are both yearning for the countryside and a bit of solitude, peace and quiet.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Day 771 - Tokyo

Finding our way out of Aizuwakamatsu couldn’t have been easier, out of the hotel, turn left and follow route 121 south, job done. It was another stinking hot day, but the plan was to get to Nikko in 2 days, arriving there as early as possible, so we wanted to get as far as possible on the first day, not so great in the heat. Nothing much happened, progress was slow as we made our way up to another pass, though thankfully the gradient was gentle the whole way. Needless to say there were the obligatory tunnels, including the longest we have used in Japan so far at 2.5km. There are plenty of longer tunnels on the big main roads, but we do our best to steer clear of those. After a short descent we were climbing again, ever slowly upwards. Another tunnel signalled the pass itself, then at long last we were heading gently downhill. When it came to camping we used our usual tactics, find a reasonably likely spot, then one checks it out whilst the other goes on and checks any other likely spots. I found a suitable spot, went back to collect Christine then we both returned to the spot. As we arrived back there was a big commotion in the trees as in the short time I had been away a whole herd of monkeys had gone into the trees and our arrival had frightened them off. It’s seems to be more like camping in a zoo these days with this incident closely following encounters with bears and snakes. We weren’t sure if they would come back and be a bit inquisitive, so to be on the safe side we locked all the bags together. It drizzled all night, non stop, we were surely in for a wet day tomorrow.

They didn’t come back and what’s more we didn’t get the wet day either. It drizzled as we departed and headed down the valley. It wasn’t long before we were twisting and turning alongside a wide shallow river course, we could see the road ahead crossing bridges and eventually disappearing into a tunnel. Tunnels were again a theme of the day though thankfully they were short. The Japanese love their tunnels, any scenic route is guaranteed to have a few and new tunnels are being built all the time as long narrow loops in the roads are cut off and replaced with a tunnel. There are also kilometres worth of ‘rock sheds’ and even more of ‘snow sheds’, a reminder of just how tough life in the mountains must be here through the winter. We were making good time to Nikko, until we saw a sign stating the temples and shrines were a further 8km away, a bit odd as our map shows them in the centre of the town. Confusingly enough there was another bit of Nikko that was set well apart from the main town and that is where we needed to get to and to make matters worse it was up hill the whole time, Christine was certainly lacking in enthusiasm for the ‘bonus’ climb. We arrived at midday and went in search of the Youth Hostel which we had booked ahead, the place was a bargain price so would surely be full. On arrival we were somewhat surprised and quickly understood why it was so cheap. The place had excelled itself, it was a dump. Accommodation is expensive in Japan, but it always a good standard, so your grotty cheap Asian accommodation just isn’t available here, but this place had obviously found a niche in the market. Ok, it was cheaper than the hotels we had stayed in, but not much cheaper, yet this place came with as many amenities as my tent. Actually, my tent is better with the amenities, it isn’t so far to the loo. We had booked in for 2 nights, but after just dropping our stuff in the room we had both decided we would only stay for one night. We were in walking distance of the main sights of Nikko though, so were there within minutes. There are a groups of temples and a mausoleum on a steep wooded hillside, all very different. We looked around about half of them during the afternoon saving the rest for the following day.

One of the features of the Youth Hostel that you don’t get with my tent was the friendliness of the hospitality. Checkout was 9am, by 8:50 they were watching over us and looking at the clock, we were glad to leave. Strangely enough the place comes highly recommended in the guide book, I can only assume that they didn’t actually stay there. Having locked the bikes and left them at the edge of town we wandered up the hill to see the remainder of the temples. Surprisingly we had saved the best until last, very atmospheric with steep steps leading through the green and damp forest to beautiful gold covered buildings (photo). To make things even better we were almost alone. Only when we were leaving were the coach loads arriving. When we eventually left we were glad of the 8k climb the previous day as we were heading back to Nikko main town, so it was a downhill breeze for the first 8km. Heading out of Nikko we were in for a pleasant surprise, not only did it continue gently downwards, but we were also passing through a lovely cedar avenue that went on for the best part of 10km. It was like going through a tunnel of tree, made to feel more like a tunnel by the wall that lined the side of the road (photo). Only at road junctions could you see beyond the avenue to the normal countryside. With the end of the avenue came the end of decent countryside, from there on in it was pretty much urban sprawl the rest of the way. We just seemed to pass through town after town, row after row of neon lights, things weren’t looking good for a place to camp. We kept going until we reached the area where the map showed a river a little away to our right. We found a small turning amongst the houses and rode along it to see what we could find. To our surprise within a couple of hundred metres we were looking out across rice fields to a high river bank beyond. We went over to the river bank and soon found a perfect little campsite, right on the bank of the river, but with a sheer 4m drop just inches from the edge of the tent. We could hardly believe how idyllic it was when we had assumed suburbia was all around us. We could hardly believe our timing either, no sooner had we got the tent up than it started to rain. It was just light drizzle but enough to make us wet. During the evening the rain got a little harder. I think I stated in the last blog update that Christine likes to have something to worry about, well tonight was no exception, “What will we do if it keeps raining?” she asked, “I suspect I will just go to sleep” I replied “but feel free to go for a little walk if you like”. I know, I know, sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but she was worried that the rain would cause the bank to collapse and we would end up in the river. She normally worries about the slightest traffic noise, but tonight we were amazed to have got completely away from that, but she still needed something to worry about. I let her beat me at cards, rummy this time, that kept her happy.

It was still drizzling the following day when we left. We knew we had a main road suburbia bash for the last 70km into Tokyo and the drizzle was hardly going to enhance it. The roads were narrow in places which meant that the passing lorries came mighty close, but other than that it was all fairly uneventful. I had always dreaded the ride into Tokyo, I had always assumed it would be big roads, flyovers, big junctions, fast traffic, but it was none of that, just single carriageway the whole way apart from a 10km section of dual carriageway which we even managed to avoid. It could hardly have been easier, there was only one road number to follow too, all we had to do was go straight on at every junction. Christine had been worried that we would become separated and one of us would get lost, but it really was very easy, though hardly pleasurable. Once checked into a hotel we could at last relax. The loo has a strange feature in that it runs water as soon as you sit on it. I guess that is to disguise any potentially embarrassing noises, though I find it a little ironic that some loos have a sink like thing on top of the cistern to save water, yet to counter balance that this thing flushes water away just for the fun of it. We took the subway across town to Shibuya. What a confusing subway map, there are rail lines all over the place, but it is so easy to use. As well as a name for the station and the line, each station has a number. Our nearest in on the Ginza line and is numbered G18, so all you have to do is watch for the station number which appears electronically in the carriage and also numbered on the station…a piece of cake. Shibuya is one of the districts that comes alive at night, a flood of neon lights that adds a strange atmosphere to the place. The place was heaving (photo). By the station is a statue of a dog called Hachico. The story goes that it used to walk every day to the station to meet it master from the train, then one day his master died, yet the dog returned to the station every day for the next 9 years. Now there are seats around the statue and it has become one of Tokyo’s most famous rendezvous landmarks.

Today we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Parliament building, a massive thing (photo) where over 10,000 people work. We even had a free view from the 45th floor and lunch in the workers canteen on 32nd floor. The canteen is typically Japanese, first you look at the preserved meals in a glass cabinet, then put your money in a ticket vending machine and take you ticket to one of the many counters where is prepared freshly and very quickly. Post lunch was a visit to Yodobashi, rumoured to be the largest camera shop in the world. Well, it may be, but it seems to sell far more lap-top computers than cameras.