Day 1 – The Bath at the Top of the Mountain (Nagasaki to Mt. Itayama)
The evening before we left Nagasaki, our hosts drove us to Mount Inasa, a large hill to the west of the city. Every day, boatloads of Chinese tourists arrive at the port and take a bus up this hill to admire the view. They are joined by carloads of Japanese tourists, and somewhere in the mix is a small sprinkling of other tourists (like us). The view of the city was incredible, and to witness all the twinkly lights spreading out for miles was a wonderful reminder that the people of Nagasaki did not simply lie down and die after their city was blown to pieces. The scars of the land have healed, and everyone under 75-80 will have no firsthand recollection of the incident.
We left Nagasaki with only one thing on our mind: where will we find an onsen? As I described in my last post, we are now practiced onsen users, and the location of these magical houses of steam and minerals have begun to dictate our destinations in Japan. Caroline found a very nice looking one on the map.
“But it’s up a mountain,” she said gravely.
This was no matter. We cycled on surprisingly flat roads for all the kilometres required to reach the town of Sasebo. Caroline’s new rear wheel was rattling, so we found a Sports Depot to see what the issue was. After an hour, the mechanic had tightened two spokes and trued the wheel without charge. A nice gesture, but also appropriate considering we’d bought the wheel only a week earlier from another Sports Depot.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Here,” we replied, showing him our map.
“Eeehhhhhhhhh????” he said, and looked shocked beyond belief. Japanese people do this often, we are slowly discovering. Think of the word ‘air’, but drawn out much like Tim Allen’s peculiar grunt on Home Improvement. “Up a big mountain!” he said, once he’d recovered.
“It’s okay,” we brushed his concerns off. How hard could it be?
“Be careful,” he cautioned, “Many big mountains in Sasebo!”
Well, he was right. In all of our short cycling lives, the most difficult ride has easily been ‘Aunty Audrey’s Hill’ in Taipei, but on this day we finally found a climb that surpassed it. Darkness was gathering as the road began to head upwards, and the city thinned out until it was a dense forest with a house every half kilometre or so. These were the weirdos who live alone in the hills – every country has them, and one day, with luck, we will be them. The road snaked up through the darkness, and the critters of the night began their screaming. We each have three lights; one of Caroline’s was broken, one was dull, and the other one was passable. I had two passable lights, and one that kept changing its functions every time I hit a bump. Bright. Rapid flashing. Dim. Slow flashing. Morse code for SOS. Repeat. Repeat. I sweated and cursed under my breath and uselessly smacked at the crappy light.
After 6 km of very steep hill, some of which was so steep that the bikes had to be pushed, we found our prize: here, surrounded by absolutely nothing, was a luxury hotel and onsen. Oh, how we bathed.
Of course, the hotel was well out of our price range, and so we slowly rode down unlit roads until we found a patch of grass upon which to set up the tent. The night was cool, and through the tent opening we could watch the moon rise up from behind the surrounding mountains to the east. A gentle breeze blew through, and it was the first really comfortable, non-sweaty camp we’d had in Japan (or Taiwan, for that matter). The very big mountain had been worth climbing.
Day 2 – The waraji of the Samurai (Mt. Itayama to – almost – Fukuoka)
With the morning light, we were able to survey the surrounding area. We’d camped next to a building that Google maps described as ‘City or Town Hall’. The remainder of the area seemed to be set aside for crops and solar panels. Japan is the world’s 3rd largest producer of solar power (arguably the 4th largest producer if you count the Sun, which you should), and supplies just over 3% of the nation’s power.
A mountaintop shrine was in close proximity to our campsite. Shrines like these are dotted all over the place in Japan. They usually consist of an ornate archway with a couple of hanging bells, twin statues of lions – usually one who has a ball and a triumphant grin, and one who doesn’t have a ball and seems annoyed by the smugness of the other. The shrine we visited was peaceful and picturesque in the morning glow of the mountains, and we relished in this small break before the climb ahead. I’ll go further into what these shrines are actually for in a future post. Maybe.
The aforementioned climb happened with much grunting, sweating, and cursing the fact that we ever bought bicycles in the first place, and then all those bad feelings vanished when the drop down to the next town of Karatsu seemed to be, in our favour, disproportionately long and smooth.
Karatsu was rather quiet, and the hot sun forced us to take refuge in a little cottage-style cafe where we ordered two ginger ales.
“Can we charge our phone here?” I asked the owner.
“Hai!” he replied.
“We are cycling,” I said, by way of conversation.
“Ouh.” He seemed impressed.
“Eeehhhhhhhhh????” There it was again.
After the owners (the man and his wife) learned of our travels in Japan, they brought us out two free slices of homemade cake (one chocolate and one blueberry), and gifted us two little sandals made of coloured beads.
“Is called waraji,” he told us. “It is to move forward and not look back,”
The waraji were traditionally made and worn by the Samurai, which made these little sandals a particularly cool and thoughtful gift. Let me tell you, there was an awful lot of bowing from all concerned parties as we exited the cafe. I think they were still bowing as we closed the door and rode away. And yes, I am aware of the irony involved in getting a gift the symbolises ‘never looking back’ and then writing a blog post about it.
The coastal road towards Fukuoka held a strong headwind, which made for difficult cycling but excellent kiteboarding. Having never kiteboarded in our lives, despite living in a city where it was an extremely common thing to do, we were content to watch. Several dozen surfers were also trying their luck, but the waves were too small. Wind was king on this north eastern Japanese coast.
Further along the coast was an onsen, so we bathed and tried out the electric foot massagers. In the waiting area of most onsen you will find various coin-operated massage equipment, comfortable seats, and several vending machines. To describe these massagers in one word is easy: painful. After inserting our newly cleaned feet, the grunting beasts pressed down on the top while two rounded cylinders drove into the sole, slowly moving up and down the foot. As we sat wincing, we noticed there were a lot of younger people at this particular onsen, and they were all drinking milk coffee from a vending machine. Evidently drinking milky beverages after an onsen is common practice. We would be experts in no time. We had even bought our own special onsen towels.
Camping happened in a park sandwiched between a highway and a beach under a darkened pine forest. Kids in a nearby playground set off fireworks, but they cleared out by about 8 p.m. It was only when the sun began to rise in the morning that we discovered how obvious our campsite was; the darkened pine forest was only 20 x 20 trees evenly planted. We could easily be seen by the elderly locals performing their early-morning shuffling – they smiled and greeted us with ohayou gosaimasu!
Day 3 – A Tunnel Under the Ocean (Fukuoka to a patch of sand near Shimonoseki)
It was a lengthy urban sprawl up to the very top of Kyushu island. Today was the day that we would finally make it beyond the third-largest island in Japan – an island only 500 square kilometres smaller than all of Taiwan. As is often the case with self-created milestones such as this, it wasn’t a particularly nice or interesting cycle. We mostly kept to the busy highway and passed the same stores again and again: Aeon. You Me. Family Mart. 7 Eleven (or ‘7 & I Holdings, as it is known in Japan). Lawson Station. Yellow Hat. Sports Depot. Enneo. Esso. Coco. Circle K.
“Do you want to see what Pachinko is?” I asked Caroline.
We had seen large, glitzy, casino-looking buildings with ‘PACHINKO’ written on them ever since we’d arrived in Japan, and had been curious about what they were. We’d asked our hosts in Nagasaki, but they’d been a bit vague with the answer. As far as we knew, they were a type of slot machine.
We found a particularly large Pachinko parlour with its own multi-story car park somewhere along the highway. The entrance boldy had (in English) “Self-trust is the key to success” written on it. We pushed open the first set of doors and instantly heard a small commotion. It was only when the second set of automatic door slid open did we hear the full noise. Here are some metaphors: it was like being in a concrete tunnel filled with speeding trucks. It was like listening to the static on a TV if the volume could reach jet engine levels. It was what Niagara Falls probably sounds like at the point where it hits the river. It was like ten thousand silver balls being clunked around inside a glass container.
No, wait, that last one wasn’t a metaphor. Pachinko is where you have a bunch of metal balls in an upright box like a slot machine, and you turn a crank which shoots the ball up like a pinball machine. There are various rules associated with how quickly to turn the crank and where you want the ball to land, but that’s essentially it. In large parlours like the one we had just entered, there are rows of hundreds of machines almost completely occupied by hapless addicts.
Gambling, oddly enough, is illegal in Japan. So why are people so obsessed with Pachinko? Because it’s found a kind of loophole where people can actually gamble for money while playing a game that is evidently incredibly addictive. To ‘win’, you collect silver balls (somehow). When you have a pile of balls, you can get them exchanged for chips. You then take these these chips to an out-of-the-way location that the Pachinko parlour dealers refuse to acknowledge exists, stick your chips in a drawer, close it, and then when it opens again there is money inside. With thousands of addicts nationwide, It’s an absolute scourge, and our little walkthrough was probably about as close to actually having my mind blown as I think I’ve ever gotten. We walked out of the smoke-filled neon hell-hole, open-mouthed, laughing a little nervously, completely baffled by what we’d just seen. Absolutely batshit crazy.
At the very top Kyushu Island, in the busy, touristy town of Moji, there were three ways to cross over to Japan’s largest Island, Honshu: bridge, ferry, or tunnel under the sea. The tunnel was the cheapest and most interesting-sounding available option (the bridge was not open for bicycles or pedestrians), but that was for tomorrow; we had a plan to utilise a nearby onsen and camp in the green patch shown on Google maps.
The plan went all to hell when the onsen didn’t exist, and the green patch was an inaccessible mountain. By this point it was getting dark, and we had to make a decision about what to do. There is never an easy answer when you are in a foreign environment, so we decided to take the undersea tunnel and try our luck camping on the other side. At this point we were a little bit miserable; we’d been mentally ready for a cleansing onsen after our day of cycling, and a nice ocean side park to pitch our tent – but disappointment must be taken alongside satisfaction. I’m sure there will be a Japanese proverb for that somewhere.
Okay, I found one: “Issun saki wa yami” which means, “It is dark ahead of you,” which means, “Expect the unexpected”.
And hey, why not? Here’s another proverb from the same website: “Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu” which means “If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub,” which means “Nothing can be achieved without effort, suffering or hardship.”
There was no park on the other side of the tunnel, and we were forced to cycle in the dark for 10 km before finding a gritty patch of sand next to a gymnasium. It took a solid rock to bash the pegs in enough to hold the tent up, and with the illumination from the gym lights and the nearby highway, it was a rather miserable attempt at sleep.
Day 4 – Luxury (A patch of sand near Shimonoseki to Yamaguchi)
I had been slowly getting sick over the past few days, and waking up at 5 a.m. sore-throated and red-eyed in a tent on a goddamn sandy running track to the shuffling sound of old people was not a happy time for me. It was time to blow our budget back the stone age and book a Japanese hotel. The cheapest hotel we could find in Yamaguchi, the next big town, cost far more than we’d ever paid for any other accommodation on this entire trip (see the archives page to know how long that is). It was 4 times more expensive than our second-most-expensive-ever hotel in China, and that was a luxurious hot spring resort. The price? About $110.00 USD – which doesn’t seem like much to some people, but our little jaunt through Asia would have been substantially shorter if we’d been forking out that kind of cash the whole time.
So we cycled there along highway 2, and checked in. It was worth every penny. The bed was a cloud of marshmallow. There was a full-body massage chair in the room itself. The adjacent onsen – usually over 1000 yen – was heavily discounted for hotel patrons, and would have been worth the 1000 even if we did pay that much due to the sheer luxury of it. Not only were the showers compartmentalised, the body soaps were many and expensive-smelling, and there were bubble jet areas, weird electricity pools that shocked you gently (don’t ask me how that works), and a jungle gym thing for stretching your shoulders while your bottom-half was underwater.
We finally had the time, space, comfort and inclination to watch “The Hateful Eight” (loved it). We lapped the comfort up like thirsty dogs, because we knew that tomorrow we’d be back in the tent.
Day 5 – “Oh my god, I missed an entire day” (Yamaguchi to somewhere)
I’m going to level with you here: I completely forgot this day existed until seeing the two photos we actually took on it. Neither of us remember much about the ride, but we did cycle to an onsen in the hills, had dinner at said onsen, then camped in the adjacent park.
Day 6 – “There is a deer outside the tent” (Somewhere to Miyajima Island)
The next stop on our journey was supposed to be the very famous Japanese city of Hiroshima, but we decided that Hiroshima might be too busy to find a camping spot. Our plan was to find a quiet area just outside Hiroshima, spend the following day exploring the city, then find another camping spot outside it afterwards.
“What about this island here,” suggested Caroline, pointing to an island very close to Hiroshima on Google maps. There was dotted line leading to it, which meant there was a ferry, so we decided to head there.
Turns out that Miyajima Island – for that’s what this island was called – is considered one of the top three scenic spots in Japan (as to who decides these things, I am not sure). Tourists love a good ‘top’ something, or ‘biggest’ something, or ‘only’ something, and so we were joined at the pier by hundreds of people. The journey was fast and cheap, but the future of the ferry seemed uncertain with the construction of a new bridge to Miyajima. The bridge was still in its infancy; a tractor on a barge dumped huge loads of rocks into the ocean, turned, repeated. Soon, access to the island would be even easier than it already was.
There are deer on Miyajima. Very tame deer. So tame, in fact, that they strut over on their outward-facing skinny deer legs and shove their deer faces into your personal space to see if you have any food. We didn’t have food (they seemed partial to icy desserts), and all we could give them were pats which seemed to mildly irritate them more than anything. The picture of the gentle, noble deer I had in my head before coming to Miyajima island melted away when I saw one face-deep in a rubbish bin, its front legs scrabbling in mid-air to try and gain footing, its rear legs wobbling in an attempt to keep the whole situation steady.
We walked the bikes down the manicured sandy streets, where shops sold overpriced beverages and wooden spatulas as souvenirs. Deer harassed people – some scared, some delighted – or lazed about in groups, posing for photographs and begrudgingly allowing children to run greasy fingers down their furry antlers. The island had an abundance of natural and man-made beauty (and I mean man-made; women were not allowed on Miyajima originally) but, like all heavily touristed places, much of the magic felt lost due to the tramping hordes.
All the famous stuff and crowds were to the right after exiting the ferry, but the place we had in mind to camp was on the left. After we saw the sights, we headed left and almost immediately after turning a corner were faced with a barren island. Deer still hung around in groups, but apart from them the place seemed like any other small Japanese town we’d seen: extremely quiet. Warnings dotted the road claiming penalties would be imposed on those who did not register to camp or pay the fee. Okay, we thought, we’d done so much free camping that paying this time would be fine.
The campsite was large but somewhat neglected. There was only one other tent on the grounds, and piles of rubbish were strewn about. It was in close proximity to a swimming beach, but that too was covered in bits of rubbish.
“Sorry,” said the person at reception after we’d paid, “there are no showers.”
So we used a hose.
We had our pick of platforms, and it was a good thing we weren’t on the dirt: the rain came down in buckets and dribbled slowly into our now-apparently-not-so-waterproof-tent. But the rain did stop eventually, and our sleep was peaceful. In the morning I opened the flap and saw a deer grazing nearby. It was a rather dramatic thing to witness at five in the morning.
Day 7 – Passing through Hiroshima (Miyajima Island to underneath a bridge in Kure)
We were back on the mainland after taking the early-morning ferry, and our cycle took us straight up Highway 2 to Hiroshima. We didn’t spend very long in the city, but of course we made a solemn stop at the Peace Park and took a tour through the memorial museum. It was much busier than the museum in Nagasaki, but it told a very similar tale. One thing we didn’t see much of at Hiroshima was information about the war; the reasons the bombs were dropped; the arguments for and against the bombings; the atrocities committed by all sides leading up to the decimation of this now thriving city. The focus at Hiroshima was primarily on the destruction and the horrific aftermath, and in this way, both museums seemed to complete each other.
We rode on towards a park that promised showers and camping. The showers were available, but the camping was not, so we showered and continued through several terrifying tunnels (narrow “bike” areas filled with sand, grit, and mud) to the town/small city of Kure. We rode all over it to various unsuitable parks before finally settling on a grassy spot under a bridge. The view from the tent flap was of a Pachinko parlour over the river, flashing with glittery lights. We watched the latest episode of Mr. Robot (have I mentioned before what a damn good show that is? We are living in a golden age of television), and then lay down on inflatable mattresses inside sleeping bag liners. It seems strange now, but despite the flashing lights and uncomfortable TV episode fresh in our minds, it was actually quite a restful sleep.
Honestly, I never know where to stop one of these diary entries and start the next. With that said…