Japan - 2018


Round from Yufuin

 Half of us had gone native at breakfast. The left side was reassuring, pancakes, coffee and muesli. The right side was a trip into the unknown. Armed with a dish divided into 9 you could fill it with little portion of green things, pickled things or pieces of fish, though how do you eat a soft boiled egg in a bowl with chopsticks? You need to allow a few minutes to get anywhere in Japan. Being such a polite country, with the receptionist, doorman and gardener all bowing you felt you had to reciprocate, which takes time and allowance. The two religions in Japan are Buddhist and Shinto and with 100 million souls in Japan they need a lot of temples. Rebuilt every 25 years from wood and with a concrete arch we explored a Shinto temple, but not along the centre as only gods can do that. Shinto’s worship anything, trees, sky, rocks, so summoning at least one by clanging the enormous bell seemed a chance too good to miss and the lightning bolt just missed us as I created a bit of a racket. The 5km climb past Mt Yufudake was steady along a perfect road, with the bonus of a fruit fest at the morning stop. Coffee, tea, bananas, oranges and apples washed down with nuts were the reward before descending down and south along route 620 towards Tenjinyama. The Japanese have invested heavily in the roads and railways. Even the smallest road has concrete embankments and railings along the sides and all around were paddy fields at the point of planting fed by gurgling springs. The wide valley was green and picturesque as we headed to lunch at Tenjinyama Station. Sandwiches munched and local children’s bicycle chains oiled preceded a steady climb back to Yufuin, first along a minor road that criss crossed the railway and finally along 6km along the main 210 road where the box like cars politely passed us. Tea or hotel was the final question. 8 of us chose tea. Green tea is important in Japan and China, much like alcohol in Europe and much time is spent perfusing it properly. A 3 minute timer signalled the first brewing at 30 degrees, a second at 60 degrees and a final 1 minute brew at 90 produced 3 tangy cups from a tablespoon of green tea. The final act was to mix with soya sauce and eat with chopsticks, delicious. Back at the hotel the Onsen beckoned. Dressed in a robe that should go below the knees you enter the inner sanctum. Surrounded by ‘no photo’ signs you disrobe with only a flannel to hide your modesty. Into the water at lobster heat and place the flannel on your head, then make light conversation with your fellow butt naked traveller with the mountains as a backdrop. A final spruce in a room full of men’s products and you’re done and so was I, as being a modest type, this was an experience that many but not I were totally confident with.

 Yufuin to Aso

 A beautiful sunny day as we cruised out and along the river. Reflections in the paddy fields were followed by Christine’s wish, of a tractor planting rice in a tiny paddy. In the rest of Asia the women would do the planting, but as there was a machine involved it was the husband who piloted, but his wife wasn’t taking a back stage as she guided him about the tiny plot. Onto the backroad and a steep climb through the forest with a babbling brook on our left. A teastop with a view where all the shops had closed down followed by a descent into the Aso-Kuju National Park and its smouldering volcano. It should have been charming but the climbs, undulations and flats were surrounded by wall to wall traffic. Motorbikes in convoys and the little square cars now favoured, littered the surrounding and deafened the ears. ‘It’s a W/E’ smiled Ken. A slight respite was afforded by turning to the viewpoint. Aso city is in the middle of a massive Caldera, so you need to get up and over the mountains. The view from the top was amazing. Shimmering paddy fields freshly filled and planted surrounded by mountains. The descent was fast and having negotiated the flatlands, looked at Aso Temple in the process of reconstruction after the earthquake before hotel, banquet and bed.

 Aso to Kumamoto

 The rain thudded down as we gathered outside full of another Japanese buffet breakfast. Jack and Christine were almost totally native resplendent in Japanese Robes. Kumamon, the prefectures mascot was on hand to give us a send of as we pedalled into the murk and the first climb of the day. A few cows with enormous numbers sprayed on their sides was as good as it would get, though it did perk up briefly at times. Over the top, a coffee stop with strawberries and another long hard climb before a stop at a 7-11 with sugary highs. It had started to rain again and my gag to Steve that we could only get wet once was greeted by, ‘no twice because we’d dried out once’ The steep hill full of traffic beckoned so I set out ahead of the pack to plough up the road, stopping briefly to admire the other road ruined by an earthquake. After that it was downhill along a deserted road that seemingly went on for ever through the forest spitting you out into deserted villages and endless agriculture with every spare piece of lad filled with paddy fields, autumn barley or bean plants. I was going pretty well now as I steamed into the outskirts of Kimumoto, shame it was still over 30km to the finish. The ride to the hotel was endless, yes it was cyclepath half way then shared pavement but in the rain your nerves were frayed and it was a relief to get to the Dormy Inn and a free coffee. In the evening we split several ways. We ate at a cheap place where you selected the meal from a machine, pushed the money in and got an order number. The fried chicken and shrimp was a nice change from the previous formal dining.

 Kumamoto to Amakusa

 Kumamoto beckoned and it seemed a shame not to look at it as we’d made such an effort to get into the place. Ken led us on a tour round the walls, though you couldn’t see much inside as it was destroyed by the earthquake a few years earlier (2016) The walls were curved but even that didn’t help from the force of nature with much debris in evidence. The central city was OK whilst the older houses outside were flattened, testifying to improved building regulations. We left along the river and backstreets lined by houses who’d got the pruning shears out and fashioned the trees.  The path was wide, not unlike the Netherlands and the plastic polytunnels added to the effect where orange trees were closed inside First sight of the sea and the long thin fishing boats, then the hard pretty climb along the 58, without a single car which was fantastic as could hear the birds tweeting in the forest that surrounded us. Over the top and quite a sight where the land between the forest and the sea were filled with polytunnels. On was way down a small tree with huge fruit made us wander what was inside. Seeing one split open on the ground revealed oranges. The orange theme would continue along the coast as 10’s of outlets sold them wrapped in bunches of 5-6.  Tasty as well, as I inadvertently pulled into one for a smiling buyer to hand me his last two segments. We arrived at the coast in time for the Soya factory tour. Aged for 5 years it sat in vats before being bottled. They also made miso , added to soups we had had that almost every day since arrival. Most popular were the ice creams and at 70 YEN, good value and welcome on such a warm day. The coastal area we were cycling is no longer naturel. The road took much of the beachfront, with the seafront protected by a 3 metre high concrete curve that just ran and ran into the distance. There was little beach, just rock sinking below the surface and with no waves a small slick with wood and various detritus littered the surface. The cyclepath ran and ran. Surface slightly worse than the road, it was often on the seaward side, protected from the road by a raised concrete rail. I slowed to enjoy the evening light with its fishermen on piers, decreased cars and quieter moments. The evening was drawing in and I enjoyed people watching and the sound of the sea, to arrive at the hotel where everyone had enjoyed the Onsen in their light blue and white robes which half wore to dinner and what a dinner it was. A mixture of tastes and surprises. The heater was used for rice this time with local seafood such as octopus and a fish in a central wooden boat were used to complement the sense of occasion.

 Amakusa to Hioki

 Half holiday, half Japanese game show, it was up early to breakfast and cycle 84km to catch the ferry at 1320, now pushed back to 1440 to give a bit more time. Hot again, we’d had one wet day so far and the temperature was due to hit 30 degrees. The coffee stop arrived, right by a pharmacist. Finally I could see why the Japanese lived for so long and there were 2 oxygen beds that you could use and most concerning where the 4 enormous clamps that locked you into this coffin from the outside. Claustrophobia nightmare. The day continued along the coast with sun drenched views of distant hills over the sea as we ducked and dived past inlets and coast, but never far away from the influence of man, either with harbours, rigs or the incessant concrete lined sea shore, though with everything else so scenic, it was a minor distraction. It was all very pretty, but at the back of your mind was always ‘ Will we get the ferry’ 3 of us arrived at the ferry point last , 30 minutes before the 1440 ferry, perfect. A 30 minutes ferry ride and another island. I was transported to the train station with written instructions from a very organised Ken and even had the train ticket prices. The others had a hilly 24km in 2 hours to catch the train otherwise the broom van awaited.

 Amakusa to Matazuka

 No-one would want to do the washing up in Japan as the bowls mounted up. We were starting to get the hang of things but adding tiny fish to rice with an almost raw egg and sesame seeds did make a Master chef show seem tame. Out and along the coast, busy road then at 9.4km swung right onto a cyclepath that dipped its way through the countryside passing fields and coasts. Built from an old railway line, it was a lovely distraction along with massive suspension bridge and singing school children.  At coffee I tried Japanese Crochet under the watchful eye of a lot of octogenarians before moving on further south.  Lunch in a cat park contained a sperm whale that had been dissected out and displayed in a huge cabinet, and bizarrely it performed, blowing a water jet out accompanied by Japanese commentary. The  sandwiches at lunch went down well. The herbal cold drink of green tea, herbs and bits of grass was the worst thing I had ever tasted. The evening meal at 2000 YEN was an absolute bargain. The usual mixtures of small bowls, but this one had a twist, fish head soup. Jack loved it as he picked away at the head finding all sorts of good stuff and I joined in. The lens of the eye was the best bit

 Matazuka to Ibuzuki

 Breakfast and away. Centred in the green tea growing capital of Japan we rose through the rows of tea plants clipped in such a way to allow maximum mechanisation. Teams of gardeners layed black sheeting over some rows to increase the sweetness of the tea, whilst attendant fans whirled gently to avoid frost contact, this was high tech stuff. We stopped at a tea factory for sweat green tea, green tea ice cream and for everyone to acquire teapots, tea and containers to take back home. “It’s the prettiest section now’ enthused Ken and we then headed across the plateau with mountains and yet more tea flanking our ride. Descending to the coast, our morning coffee stop featured the Kaimondake volcano. Dormant since 885AD, we were to cycle around the base of the 924metre perfect cone on our way to Ibusuki. The Botanical Gardens at Kagoshima were for many a highlight, for others it was the huge mango ice creams that its café served. For 5 of us it was to be the sand Onsen at Ibusuki. For 1200YEN, you dressed in a gown and were led to a shaded area by the beach for a lady of at least 80 to pick up a shovel and bury you up to your neck in volcanic sand. Broiling gently in the heat watching the clock was supposed to be super relaxing and indeed it was, but eventually cramp drove us out to the warm water pool to wash sand out of all the crevices.

 Yakushima Island

 Yakushima Island is over 95% forested and with the highest peak in Southern Japan our aim was to cycle round it in a clockwise direction. There is a main road all the time, but we were able to use minor roads for about half the distance. The cloud hung low on the mountains, but the sea views were good as we cycled the quiet wood lined roads to our first stop on a suspension bridge, where the bungy jumpers had taken the day off, but the kayakers hadn’t far below. Onwards and another stop at a Boulangerie Patesserie giving me a chance to practice my French after which we had a longer stop at Onko-no-taki Waterfall which marked the start of the real wilderness as the road snaked its way along the edge of the mountains which many tree lined drops into the ocean on the left. With 7000 Monkeys we were always going to see a few and this area didn’t disappoint, along with the deer.

So we finished and with it our 10 day exploration of Kyushua Island. Endlessly fascinating with brilliant guides, we’d all loved it.

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