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 café 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.


S said...

Reading your blog is very educational so I thought I would give you some info in return.The blue worms you saw are Pheretima sieboldi (Siebold worms) and they like the rain and volcanic terrain.

S said...

Also, watch out for the eclipse tomorrow.

Caff said...

So. How was the eclipse? We wait with baited breath!! :-)