My Bicycling Adventure

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Japan: Kyushu

Fukuoka - Arrival

We were instructed to be at the ferry terminal at 5.30pm to collect our boarding passes and check in our bikes.  Boarding started at 7pm but the boat didn't actually leave the port until 10pm.

The boat surpassed all our expectations. Other than a large Korean walking group there were just a few other passengers. The cabins were very comfortable. We had bunk beds but there were also Japanese style ones with mats on the floor. Toilets and showers were communal and everywhere was clean and neat.

There was a small restaurant but using it was not as straightforward as it may seem. The menu was displayed outside and available in three alphabets, Japanese, Korean and English. To order food you had to put money into a machine and press the button for the dish you required.

Arriving at Fukuoka

 Sounds simple but the buttons only had Japanese and Korean labels. It took us ages to work out which one had the corresponding sequence of squiggles to the chosen dish. Then we had to hand the dispensed tickets to the waitress who delivered our food trays.
Assembling the bikes

By the time we woke the following morning we were already docked at Fukuoka and just had to re-assemble the bikes and ride into the city.


 Leaving the gear at the hotel we set off to organise a Japanese SIM card for the phone.  Having done this in every other country we have visited we didn't anticipate any problems but eventually gave up and decided to do without Google maps and the tracker for the next four weeks.
The ten bean varieties

So we did a bit of sightseeing and fortified ourselves with some Nepalese ten bean curry in tiny little basement  restaurant where we were the only customers.

We had read that Japan has a law which bans cyclists from riding on pavements. What we found is that all of the places we visited now have shared use signs for all pavements where it is physically possible to ride a bike. Cycling is very popular here but most people use their bicycles in the towns. The majority have utility type bikes with mud guards, baskets and back racks. There are very few mountain or road bikes.

Fukuoka to Karatsu - 55km

Fukuoka Tower

Steve had one last try to get a 'pay as you go' SIM on the way through Fukuoka but could only get a six month one which was too expensive. We rode down to the harbour and along a cycle route on the pavement, past the fish market and the Fukuoka tower.

 Beyond the city there is a long section of elevated highway, with the old 202 road running below it. After a few kilometers the cycle path ends and the road splits into two with a carriageway on each side of the highway. The highway is level but the old road climbs up and down at the side of it and is narrow with no hard shoulder.
Island shrine

Beyond Itoshima the old road follows the coast along the low rocky cliffs. The bays had narrow yellow sand beaches and the sea was flat. We stopped for a picnic lunch near a rocky islet with a shrine accessed by a narrow concrete bridge.

As we ate and had a paddle the rain swept down the hill at the other side of the bay. We only got a short shower but the higher hills were shrouded in black clouds.

Further along the coast we turned off onto a lovely quiet road through a tall pine forest bordering the  beach. The rain caught up with us here so we were glad of the shelter from the trees. We had planned to ride to Yobuko, a little fishing village at the end of the next peninsula but the weather persuaded us to stop at Karatsu.

It was a struggle to find a hotel in Karatsu, we are lost without Google maps. By the time we had found a reasonable motel it was pouring with rain and continued all night.  It was so heavy we got a taxi to the nearest restaurant, only 700m down the road.

 It was a typical Japanese place with low tables and cushions on the floor. With no wi-fi to use the phone translator app we asked the waitress to recommend something. She returned with two squid, lying on a platter of ice, with part of their flesh removed and cut into thin strips to eat raw. They were still waving their tentacles and looking at us with their huge, accusing eyes. We made a mental note for the future to always make sure the food we ordered was dead.

Karatsu to Imari - 69km

Coastal views leaving Karatsu

The rain had stopped so we decided to continue on the road round the peninsula to see Yobuko. There was a strong north easterly wind as we rode north past rocky cliffs and numerous small rocky islands.

Fish market
 Yubuko was a lovely little fishing village with just enough balance between being a tourist attraction and authenticity.

On this weekday morning there was only one coachload of elderly Japanese tourists. The street was lined with stalls, manned by even older residents...........

Sea Urchins

.......selling dried fish,  fresh shellfish and sea urchins. In comparison, we were youngsters. One shop owner let us leave the bikes in her garage while we wandered round and had coffee.

Coast bridge
Along the northern coast, the road climbed higher to traverse several high bridges over long sea inlets. The harbours here were full of expensive cruising boats, no scruffy, working fishing craft.

Black Kite
Above our heads were flocks of large raptors, black kites, which feed on the fish waste and also are fed with bread by the locals. Being such a windy area there are also many wind turbines.

It was quite a tiring ride with lots of ups and downs. After passing the Genkai  nuclear power plant the traffic increased, and the road climbed a longish hill with narrow lanes, no hard shoulder and lots of heavy lorries.

This section of road is being widened so should be better in future. A man backing his car onto the road  gave way for Steve to pass, but did not see Karen. He reversed into the back of her bike, hitting the panniers but causing no permanent damage except to her nerves.

Terraced fields

Along the west coast there were lots of small villages and farms in the steep sided valleys and terraced fields stretching to the sea.

Bridge adornment

Imari, famous for its ceramics, is a smart little town with pavements surfaced in gravel and pottery fragments, which glisten in the sun, and bridges decorated with examples of its art.

Imari - Haika - 65km

Okawachiyama Street
Before leaving town we needed cash but struggled to find an international ATM and then it refused to give any cash. Having no SIM we wanted to ring our bank on SKYPE but there was nowhere with Internet open at 9am.

Terraced kiln

The next two hours was spent riding up  to the village of Okawachiyama where there were once many kilns producing pottery.There are lots of old  kilns here but few actually producing pottery now. We wandered around the steep, narrow pedestrian streets looking at expensive pottery in the shops and the old kilns.

Returning to Imari was easier, being mostly downhill. We found the only Internet access in town (according to Tourist Information) and managed to contact our bank who assured us there was no problem with our cards. Very few Japanese bank ATM's accept international bank cards. The best option is the Post Office, which has international ATM's in most of its offices.
Huis Ten Bosch Hotel

Once we had plenty of cash we set off south on the 202, following the river valley which is also shared by a small private railway line. We headed for the coast, hoping to find some accommodation there. We passed the Huis Ten Bosch hotel which is a huge European style building, dominating the skyline for miles.

 It was obviously way out of our league so we continued south for about ten more kilometres, but there was just one motel which was closed. Enquiring at the 7/11 we were advised that the nearest hotel was 30km further. So we turned back and returned to Huis Ten Bosch, thinking it was worth asking. Riding over the bridge to the hotel there was loud 'Disney' style music playing over loudspeakers. The large building we could see from the road was only one of several World themed hotels on the site but they are all over 200 pounds a night.

So, in an increasingly bad mood, we rode back to Haiki and found a hotel there, only 35km from Imari, so 30km of wasted energy. Rather than expend more energy searching for a restaurant we decided to eat at the hotel. With low expectations we went into the deserted dining room but the food was actually extremely good.

Haiki to Nagasaki - 65km

Old bus cafe at Huis Ten Bosch

This morning Steve set off to go for breakfast with his t-shirt inside out, a sure sign of early dementia.
There was 15km of very familiar road to start with, retracing our route back to Huis Ten Bosch. The same loud Disney music was still playing on the loudspeakers.

Turning off we headed towards the Expressway, turning off just before the slip road onto a minor road which is signposted as a cycle route to Nagasaki. For the next three kilometers we could enjoy the sunny blue skies and lovely coast views in peace with no traffic.

Traditional Japanese garden above rice paddy
Joining the 202, we crossed  a high bridge over the very narrow sea inlet into Omura Bay. The water is very deep, between high cliffs, with swirling currents. This obviously used to be a busy tourist spot before the Expressway was built. But now the cafe and picnic areas are deserted.

At least there was one of the millions of drinks machines that line every road in Japan. Even on the most deserted highway, in the smallest village, at the top of a mountain, as long as there is an electricity supply there will be a machine dispensing hot or cold coffee, tea and soft drinks.

Tranquil Omura Bay
We continued south on the 202, following the coast, climbing over a couple of headlands. There was a separate cycle path but it kept changing from one side of the road to the other and varied in quality from rough and narrow to smooth tarmac. It was frustrating because it always seemed to come to an end at a blind bend, meaning a risky crossing of the road.

Racks of cut rice
Most of the agriculture is rice, with small, terraced fields. With no access possible by machine the harvest is still done by hand, the cut rice suspended on racks to await threshing.

At lunchtime we sat on a little quay with views over the flat calm bay, watching the amazing jelly fish swimming in the shallows.

For the last 15km the road went through sprawling urbanisation and shopping malls approaching Nagasaki. It was busy, but had a smooth  cycle path. Coming into the city, it was a shock to see the old streetcars (or trams as we know them) still running along the modern, high rise lined streets of Nagasaki. All of the pavements in the city are shared use and plenty of people cycle there, weaving through the crowds of pedestrians.

We called into tourist information at the train station (usually here in Japan) and picked up an English map and booked into a hotel for two nights.

Nagasaki - Day Off

Our hotel was just across the road from Dejima, the old Dutch port that we had  read about in the book
 ' The Thousand Autumns of  Jacob de Zoet' . It is being slowly restored to how it looked in the 17th century and was a very interesting place.
Ground Zero

No-one could come here without visiting the Atomic Bomb museum and the Ground Zero memorial park. It was a very emotional experience, especially reading some of the personal accounts of the bomb survivors.

Sufukuji Temple Gate

 One of the abiding memories of all the survivors is the lack of clean drinking water after the bombing and their unquenchable thirst. So the museum and park have many pools and fountains of clean, sparkling water.
Spectacles Bridge

We enjoyed riding on the old trams and visiting some of the old temples on the hills above the city.

Restaurant Family

On the first night we set out to find a Chinese restaurant recommended in Lonely Planet. Not taking a map with us and trying to find it by memory, we walked into a little local eating place about two doors down from the one we were looking for. It was a lucky find, run by a friendly family, full of locals (it only needed 10 people to fill it) and with wonderful sea-food.

China Town at night

 The second night we made it to the Chinese and had another fabulous meal.

 Nagasaki to Kumamoto - 80km + ferry

We climbed out of the city along a back street running parallel to the 34 on the hillside.  There was climb to about 200m but a tunnel at the top saved another 100m of toil. Even better, there was a separate raised pathway to cycle on, and good lighting. By now it was raining and grey so despite the fact we could have seen some lovely views across the sea, we just had clouds.

For lunch we stopped at a 'Farmer's Market' shop which had a help yourself set price  buffet. An hour later we found a bakery for coffee and cakes. There was a car ferry from Shimabara to Kumamoto at 3.45pm and we reached the outskirts of the town thinking there was plenty of time to spare. But it was at least 5km further, the rain was pouring and we thought we might miss it. We sped down to the gate, Steve ran across the car park to buy tickets and we were the first passengers to be loaded.

It was a 40 minute ride across a calm sea and then a further 15km to ride into Kumamoto, racing against the setting sun. We knew there were lots of hotels in the city but we couldn't seem to find any of them. At last we found a newish hotel that we could afford that also had a good restaurant.

Kumamoto to Choyo - 40km

The breakfast was really good and the sun was shining so today was going to be much better than yesterday. We had booked into a bed and breakfast close to Mount Aso, one of the active volcanoes on Kyushu island. Thinking to avoid the heavier traffic on the main road, we set off up a narrow minor road through the suburbs. It turned out to be a bit of a rat-run, with all the local drivers having the same idea as us.

We dreamt of finding a really good French bakery but had no luck. The road continued up the east side of the river valley, through small agricultural villages, rice fields and bamboo. There were many old wooden barns with earth covered bamboo slat walls, gradually crumbling away.

Shirakawa gorge

After 25km the road starts to climb as it comes to the edge of the Aso caldera. There were 500 meters on highway 57 before turning off onto the old 174 which continued to follow the Shirakawa  river up a deep gorge. One of the bridges here was being repaired and east bound traffic was diverted onto the busy 57 but there was no-one working today so we rode over the bridge on the other side of the traffic cones.

B and B cat

At Choyo we turned off to the little railway station to get directions to our accommodation. The old station building has been converted into a cafe so we eventually got a cake and coffee and only another 2km to get to our bed and breakfast.

Mount Aso - Day Off
Aso Caldera

We contemplated riding up to the summit of the volcano but, having the World's biggest caldera, it would be a long ride. Instead we did the trip by public transport. The b and b owners gave us a lift to Tatano station as they were going shopping. From there we caught the train to Aso town. The huge flat caldera area has many towns and miles of rice growing in the fertile soils.

Nakadake Crater

From Aso town there is a regular bus up to the volcano. The active crater, Nakadake, and the cable car to it, were closed because of dangerous gas levels.

Kijimadake Summit
Instead we climbed to the peak of Kijimadake, one of the neighbouring summits to get a view of the steaming crater.

Walking the crater rim

The walk back down, around one of the inactive craters, through shoulder high grass on a very rough and loose path, was exhausting. The hillsides around the summit of the volcano are used for beef cattle grazing, their smooth grassy slopes contrasting with the forested lower slopes.

Choyo to Taketa - 55km

This morning we continued up the Shirakawa valley towards Takamori. On the outskirts of the town we stopped for coffee at a photographer's gallery. He had some amazing pictures of the locality. Close by was the Shirakawa Spring, with gallons of crystal clear spring water bubbling out of a sandy river bed. We drank the water to get energy for our climb back over the side of the caldera.

Jagged caldera peaks
A gradual uphill followed, through conifer forests. The evidence of the damage caused by the 2012 floods was everywhere, with huge chunks of concrete torn from the road sides and crash barriers washed away. One of the bridges we had planned to cross had been completely destroyed and we had to make a detour back to a lower bridge.

Having expected a difficult climb it was a shock to realise we were descending again and starting the long downhill to Taketa. We turned onto the 135, a narrow minor road with no traffic on it. Even this top section had not escaped damage and several sections of road edge were completely unsupported above the river valley. After only 5km the damage was more comprehensive and the road closed. We had to make another detour which meant more climbing across four more shallow valleys.

Taketa was a touristy town with a few small hotels, none of which was outstanding. We booked into the nicest one and set off to look for food. Using a map from the hotel we headed down a dark, unlit alley way to find the only restaurant with an western name 'Bistro and Cucina'. The only person there was the chef. He produced an amazing French  four course meal for us including boeuf bourguigon, Camembert cheese and chocolate gateau......formidable!

Taketa to Saiki - 70km

Before leaving we had a quick tour of the town including the castle and a pretty temple on a rocky hillside with some interesting stone carvings.

Temple Carving

 The route to the 502 involved climbing up into the old town and through a tunnel under the rocky ridge that surrounds it. Most of the day's ride was following the 502 towards Saiki. Most of the way it was a gentle descent and the road was quiet until lunchtime.

Harajiri Falls
We took a detour to view the Harajiri falls and have a coffee break. There were four tunnels along the way. Only one of them had a separate cycle path.

Approaching Saiki the traffic numbers increased so we turned onto a cycle path along the banks of the  river. It was busy with schoolchildren riding home on their bicycles. The city was one of those places where it is difficult to identify the centre. We rode around a bit and found the railway station with tourist information. No-one spoke English and there was no map with hotels on.

A few streets further was a large modern hotel. The car park was empty and there was no-one around. But the receptionist insisted they were full. So we rode back up the main road to a scruffy tourist hotel that at least had comfortable beds. It wasn't cheap, at 50 pounds a night, not including breakfast and had no wi fi.

Saiki to Sukumo - Ferry

It was raining again as we left the hotel and rode down the road to find breakfast and buy food for our boat journey. The ferry terminal was just down the road from where we had stayed and there was no problem getting the tickets. We waited in the shelter of the terminal as the boat arrived and unloaded its vehicles and passengers.

Seats, what seats?

 We were boarded first and went upstairs to check out the facilities. That didn't take long as there were none. The only food or drink was from vending machines. There were no seats, just matted floors to sit on and a blanket for cushioning cost 100 yen to hire.

Sailing Japanese style

There were few other passengers so we lay on the floor for most of the three hour crossing. The sea was quite rough with the strong winds so sitting up, on the floor, with no view out of the window was nauseating. From Sukumo port it was a 4km ride into the town with the rain still pouring down. We booked into a hotel on the outskirts of the town centre. It was still raining at 7pm as we walked round the corner to a Chinese for dinner.

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