Japan’s Mainland: Kagoshima to Nagasaki

Before I begin, I should note that immediately after the events of my previous post, things fell nicely into place. We spent two more nights in and around Motobu (one night camping in a park filled with cats; the other at a hostel), and took leisurely day trips to various island beaches and the impressive Churaumi Aquarium. This incredible aquarium was home not only to deep sea animals which they’d somehow fished up without the poor little bastards vomiting their guts out, but it also housed a tank of giant Manta rays and, unbelievably, Whale Sharks.

After all this excitement, we took a 24-hour ferry ride from Okinawa to the mainland, stopping at Kagoshima. It was a comfortable ride; the beds were arranged so that your head was in a small private bubble, but your legs were free to attack the legs of the people lying either side of you.

So here are some photos of that, then the cycle diary will begin:

Churaumi Aquarium

Whale shark at Churaumi Aquarium

Churaumi Aquarium

Garden eels

agu pork

Okinawan pork chopped from the Agu pig. So very tender.

ferry okinawa kagoshima

ferry okinawa kagoshima

Not so private, but comfortable.

Day 1 – Software Pastor (Kagoshima to Satsumasendai)

The ferry dropped us off early in Kagoshima. It was too early for the city to be open, so we didn’t hang around to check it out, instead opting to begin our cycle towards the cluster of islands beneath Nagasaki. Here on the mainland, it was all too clear that we had arrived in Japan proper. Everything seemed manicured, and the hilly green world we drove through appeared to be straight out of an anime: towering bamboo forests and triangular fir trees; rice fields and houses with ornate rooftops; cutely beeping pedestrian crossings and disembodied speakers playing Japanese music at strategic times throughout the day; Golden Orb Spiders, smaller than their Okinawan counterparts, had webs slung up messily between every roadside railing – it all felt very neat, and compact, and safe. If you looked beyond the cars roaring down the highways, the pace of life seemed very slow and relaxed here in the south.




The entrance to a kiln.

Caroline spied a field worthy of our tent (ie. a patch of flat grass in close proximity to an oddly American-style takoyaki diner). It was connected to a church, and so we decided to knock on the door and ask their permission. I pressed the doorbell, and it was a very fortuitous press indeed.

“Konnichiwa?” asked the surprised the woman who answered.

“Eigo ga wakarimasu ka?” I think we both said in awkward unison (do you understand English?)

She motioned for us to wait, and then ran off to find a man who did.

“Come in, please,” he said, and offered us suripa (say that aloud to know what it is. Add an ‘s’ to the end if you’re stuck). “What happened?” he asked.

“Well, nothing,” I replied.

“Please sit,” he said, motioning to a table. The woman had scuttled off to prepare nashi pear, Japanese grapes, and glasses of water. “So what happened?” he asked again.

“We wanted to know if we can camp in your field.”

“Oh, it’s not really our field. But you can stay in here if you like.”

We didn’t have to look around the comfortable, carpeted, air-conditioned church hall to immediately agree.

The couple were Mr. And Mrs. Matsumoto, and ten years ago they had decided to leave their church in the neighbouring Kumamoto Prefecture and set up a new one in the Kagoshima Prefecture. The venture hadn’t quite gone as expected. Mr Matsumoto initially claimed to his friends he would bring 10,000 new followers to Christ, but so far his parish was sitting at around 20 souls.

“After we moved here and built this church, I very quickly didn’t have any money. So I prayed, ‘How can I get more money, God’, and I did not get an answer. So I fasted for forty days – I still took water, and juice, but no food. On day 27, God gave me an idea. I had never made software before but God told me to learn how to write software. So I read many books about writing databases.

“My friend runs a construction site in Kagoshima, and they have no idea how much money they are spending each day – they simply write expenses on a bit of paper. I spoke to my friend about how I was learning to write software, and he asked me if I could write a database to keep his company expenses together. So I did, and when I showed him, he said, ‘This is good! Let’s sell the idea!’, and he called up all the other construction companies and sold it to them, and now there are hundreds of companies using this software to keep track of expenses.

“It is very simple and very cheap to buy, so we made it downloadable and now there are companies all over Japan using it and paying an annual subscription.”

I asked, “So now you can focus on growing the church?”

“Soon,” he replied, “But right now I’m working on an upgrade.”

As if giving us their house to sleep in wasn’t enough, Mr. And Mrs. Matsumoto insisted on taking us out for dinner. They also insisted that we order anything we liked, and made several recommendations from the menu. I imagine that it was about as Japanese as a Japanese meal can get; we sat on tatami mats and ate various sushi and sashimi, there was a lot of bowing and smiling from the staff (“They are happy to see foreigners,” explained Mr. Matsumoto), and we chatted about Japan’s history, the future of our host’s church, and our plans for the next few weeks of cycling.


After dinner, they told us it was the final day of Obon, which meant a 2-hour fireworks spectacular in Satsumasendai city.

“Two hours?” we exclaimed.

“Yes. How long do fireworks normally last?”

“In New Zealand? 20 minutes if we’re lucky.”

And so we drove into the city and caught the last forty-five minutes of explosions erupting and echoing off the surrounding mountains. Many young people had turned out to witness the spectacle, and we were delighted to find that many of them were wearing the traditional yukata, or summer kimono. Our already very Japanese night was amplified.

We had a fantastic night’s sleep on the floor of the church, slowly nodding off to the sounds of Mr. Matsumoto’s eldest son’s album – he was a professional jazz pianist in Kagoshima.


Day 2 – Hawks at Dusk (Satsumasendai to Shimoshima Island)

As of late, Caroline has been crocheting fat little cats to give to people as gifts. She left two of these plump felines and a thank you note to our generous hosts, and then we stepped out into the damp, dew set morning. Utterly refreshed and satisfied, we powered on towards Nagasaki.

Dumpling kittys

Dumpling kittys

The route we decided to take led through a cluster of islands with either bridges or cheap ferries between them. Mr. Matsumoto had shown us a map of the area, and told us which route would be good to travel. It was a day of many hills and drink breaks – especially on the small island on Nagashima, and our focus was broken often by the intense heat and humidity.

pokemon go

This was something about Pokemon Go, but we’re not sure what. It was at a train station, so no doubt it was a warning not to play.


The island was covered in these cute bottle windmills.

The island was covered in these cute bottle windmills.

The ferry from Nagashima Island to Shimoshima Island couldn’t have been easier. Men with flags waved us into a park at the front of the queue near the ticket counter, and after paying 1600 yen for four tickets (2 humans + 2 bikes) we sat in the air-conditioned waiting room. The ferry took half a hour to cross, and we had a comfortable lounge in which to recline.

ferry nagashima

ferry nagashima

comfy ferry

The sleepy port town of Ushibuka was our arrival point. The streets were narrow and twisting, and were lined with various closed stores. As we had seen before in Japan, there were also a lot of cats roaming about, glaring warily at us. A series of small bays held fishing and leisure boats, and the many homes were almost touching the edge of the water. An oddly out-of-place highway towered over the village and harbour, creating the oceanic equivalent of a canopy walk; its edges dropped back down to sea-level at either end of town. Perhaps the village officials were given a large infrastructure budget and were unsure of what to spend it on.

We found a beautiful site to camp, high on a cliff overlooking the western horizon. We sat and ate bento box rice as the sun set, and witnessed dozens of hawks searching for cicadas while the crows screamed at them. There was a bathroom at the park, which meant there was an evening ‘shower’.


Ushibuka town


A shrine in Ushibuka




Day 3 – Getting Nude with the Elderly (Shimoshima Island to Unzen)

We hadn’t had a morning shower, and asked at a local convenience store where we might find an onsen. Onsen means ‘hot spring’, and these communal baths are dotted all over Japan – although we never found one in Okinawa. The store owner beamed and gave us a map to follow, and we followed that out of town to a structure bearing two cone-shaped wooden towers. We had found an onsen, now we just needed to figure out what the hell to do in an onsen. There would no doubt be some sort of protocol to follow. The last thing we wanted to do was cause great offence with some trivial error.

We entered together. A lady waited behind a counter and bowed slightly, probably sensing our confusion. We explained that we couldn’t speak Japanese, but she understood perfectly when we said ‘onsen’, and she pointed out a ticket machine. This particular onsen was 500 yen each, and we so slipped in a 1000 yen note. The machine spat out two tickets, which we straight away gave to the lady. She led us to the bathing area, and showed us which door was for male, and which was for female.

From here, for better or worse, you are stuck following me.

I walked into a very tidy changing room and had the option of lockers (100 yen) or baskets (free) to place my belongings. As I was disrobing, the door to the hot spring area swung open and I witnessed an old naked man helping to walk a very old naked man out. I entered the steamy bath room and was met with a row of showers, four different baths with different labels (written in Japanese, of course), and plenty of nude elderly men. I knew I was supposed to shower first, so I approached the assortment of shower heads and plastic stools. Men seemed to be sitting down to shower, and so I copied them. There was a bounty of nourishing soups and facial washes to choose from, so I happily cleaned off the grime in my awkward, seated pose.

I chose a hot spring at random and luxuriated. I was fairly certain that the different labels described different life-enhancing minerals contained within the steamy water, but there was no way for me to be sure. My strained shoulder muscles (cycling is killer on the shoulders) gave up complaining, and my hundreds of mosquito bites eased to a point where they could be ignored.

I didn’t last long in the hot spring – maybe 10 minutes, but the discovery that one of the baths contained cold water was welcome. I’m not sure if I was supposed to climb all the way into the cold bath – nobody else was – but there I sat, cooling off on this particularly scorching south Japanese day. As I got up to leave, an old naked man offered me the bucket he’d been washing himself down with. I accepted.

Then, if memory serves me correctly, we cycled all the way to the northern tip of Shimoshima Island, took another short ferry over to Unzen, then found an area to set up our tent. Our strategic camping location was in a quiet spot right by the beach in close proximity to a hose. After dark we went swimming in the sea and enjoyed the bioluminescence near the surface, then we showered using the hose. It was a great success.




Day 4 – The Warmth of Obama (Unzen to Nagasaki)

We had a choice on this day. We could either cycle up to the top of Mount Unzen, an active volcano, or not do that. We chose to not do that, and when we finally arrived in Nagasaki after climbing far too many hills to be acceptable, we believe we made the correct choice. Had we added the volcano into this already punishing day of cycling, I think we may have, at some point near 6.00 p.m., simply fallen off our bikes into foetal positions and alternated between shrieking and sobbing as we hugged our legs to our chests. The sobs, of course, would be void of tears due to the lack of salvageable water left in our bodies.

But let us rewind. Our first stop was the small, seaside town of Obama.

Obama was gushing with farty mist; plumes of sulphur from Obama’s inner core sprayed upwards and evaporated into a foul-smelling assortment of hot springs. The nearby active volcano Mount Unzen, which famously enjoys killing people (14,524 people in 1792 and 42 people in 1991), is responsible for Obama’s gaseous eruptions. Unapologetic for the frequent discharges, Obama welcomes people to enjoy soaking their feet in the flowing mineral waters, and bathing in the many onsen. We took full advantage of both these opportunities; our onsen was a much less expensive and simple version of the previous day’s. A single stream of water came from exposed pipes, and there were no luxurious bottles of hair treatment available. This last issue was resolved nicely when a friendly naked man offered me his shampoo.

A strange rock caused by lava flow

A strange rock caused by lava flow


Onsen. It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to take photos inside, so this will have to do.






As I alluded to above, the remainder of the day was difficult. The sun was very hot in the blue sky (there had been no sign of rain since our first two days in Okinawa, two weeks ago), and there were many hills and ridges to climb. Nagasaki city is spread out down a valley that leads to the ocean. Rather than a flat plain, the valley is a series of bumpy hills nestled among mountains. This rugged layout is the reason that when the US dropped their second (and final) nuclear bomb, the devastation wasn’t as widespread as Hiroshima.

We found a couple willing to host us on the website Warm Showers, which is like couchsurfing for cyclists. They lived by a bay in the south western part of Nagasaki in a lockwood-style home. The house was relatively new and thoroughly modern. The toilet was entirely operated by wireless remote control, from the lifting of the seat to the flushing, and a magical box of light and colour sat in the kitchen acting as a microwave, oven and steamer in one. We ooh’d and aah’d and enjoyed our two nights under a real roof.

We only got to spend one full day in Nagasaki, and we spent nearly all of that day at the war museum and Peace Park. Needless to say, it was harrowing. The museum did an excellent job describing the history around the bombing, including matter-of-factly stating atrocities committed by the Japanese too, rather than skewing the facts or observing it from a single angle. There’s no point in me writing too much about it here, suffice to say that it was a horrific event to have happened, and it was probably not entirely necessary.

nagasaki hypocentre

The hypocentre, or spot 500m directly below the bomb as it exploded.


The spiders, like the locals, now thrive in the once-decimated city.

The spiders, like the locals, now thrive in the once-decimated city.

peace park nagasaki

This buff fellow is the centerpiece of the peace park. His right hand points to the sky (for obvious reasons); his left hand is to symbolise ‘no more’; his right leg is meditative; his left is ready for action.

The memorial hall for the victims. Thousands of names are encased at the rear.

The memorial hall for the victims. Thousands of names are encased at the rear.


And on that note, I’ll leave you here.


Just an ordinary train