1. Kyushu

Kyushu: I was on Kyushu from Mar 16 to Mar 25.  It was still pretty cold and I had rain on 5 days.  In all I rode about 730 kms.  I gradually saw more and more sakura, though how they blossom in this weather is a mystery.  While on the coastal road I was riding mostly in urban conditions but I did have some nice forays onto rural roads while in the mountains.

Mar 16. On Kyushu at last (120/240 kms)

The room lights in the boat came on about 5:00; we were already docked in Kitakyushu.  I finished packing, had a noodle bowl for breakfast before they began to let people go down to their vehicles.  I headed off in the complete dark a bit after 5:30; it was pretty cold but at least not raining.  I flailed about a bit getting out of the ship yards as there was little traffic and still no light.  Out in town I was basically guessing as to what to do so I just kept riding.  After a while I did see a route 10 sign and so I was on the right road, at least for a few kms.

Kyushu

Traffic was picking up as the light began to filter through the clouds and so I just kept on going.  I was on and off the sidewalk, mostly on because of the traffic off whenever I felt the traffic let up.  On the sidewalk, the bumping over the little concrete kerbs was slowing me quite a bit, so the road was preferable.  After an hour of this it was obvious that I was no longer on #10.  A compass reading and a road-side ask had me turn about and retrace quite a bit. The highway makes a number of right angle turns and the bike sidewalk often leaves the road, adding one more issue to riding the sidewalk..

I had a second breakfast at about 8:00, still in the city and quite tired of it.  Around 9:30 I was sent away from route 10 and was finally doing some “narrow road” riding and loving it.  I began to notice the very fine looking Japanese houses, many of which had small Japanese gardens.  I felt these might have been country homes of wealthy city people, but more and more I saw them as farm homes although not all were grand looking or well landscaped.  I guess I got a bit carried away with my peaceful riding and gradually began to worry about when I might come back to #10.  Finally I decided I better head perpendicularly towards #10. I made what I though was a sharp left turn and began climbing up over small mountain ridges, most of which were steep and strenuous.  I even went through a couple of tunnels.  And then I hit a real “narrow road”; in fact it was barely one lane and obviously not trafficked at all even though it was still paved.  I actually caught up to a farmer in his little truck.  He looked at me strangely but seemed open and so I gestured that I needed to know if the road continued on.  He seemed to understand and indicated that I should follow him.  We went a couple of kms during which time the road merged with a couple of others and got better, to an intersection.  He gestured that one way it would head south west the other more east which is what I was trying to do.  This road climbed the biggest ridge I had encountered; it was also steeper and only just clear of snow probably not used in the winter.  I was on this road for half an hour and saw no other vehicles.  After a wonderful switch-backing down hill, I was in another quiet valley and it was now completely obvious that all this effort to get back to 10 was not working.  I would have to head almost north, back-tracking significantly.  My day’s destination was now shot, and so I gave up and just fired on down the valley and some time later and after some more road side asks I hit 10.  I think I had gone over about eight of these little ridge and valley combinations, any of which would have led me back to 10.  Oh well, I loved it all.

Wheel #2 Destroyed

Back on 10 I soon found a place for a late lunch and began thinking about where I would get to that night.  I had already done well over 100 km, although I certainly had not got a 100 km down the road.  After lunch I had to get used to the sidewalk and the damned kerbs again.  After the narrow road riding it was quite a downer.  I was either consciously or sub-consciously trying to make up some time and was blasting down a hill, on the sidewalk, never a good thing to be doing, when suddenly and for the first time, instead of the kerb dropping down to the road it rose up to act as a barricade.  It was about 15 cm high and all I could do was to try to jump it, as I was going much too fast to stop.  I cleared with the front wheel but the back with my entire load hit hard.  I stopped and looked sickeningly back at a big wow in the wheel.  I dragged the bike over to a little area with some benches around a few roadside kiosks and tried to true the wheel but I guess I knew from the beginning even if I got it to turn it was probably weakened far too much to carry me and my stuff.

I went into one of the kiosks and with my phrase book indicated that I needed a bike shop.  A woman ran out and soon came back with a young girl who took me to a communication centre to see a young man who could speak very basic English.  He came and looked at my bike and asked politely if he would let me load everything in his van and we could go looking for help.  Yosuke, as I came to know him, just dropped everything and off we went.  We first arrived at what would be the ultimate back alley bike mechanic.  There were bikes with two decades of dust on them.  The only tools I saw were hammers and tongs.  We were told by the man’s wife that he was sick today. I am sorry to say that I was kind of happy to hear that.  The next place we went to was in Nakatsu, a reasonably large city.  This was a bike/antique shop combo.  They even sold a few of the street bikes you see everywhere.  This man knew right away that he was not up to working on it, but made some phone calls and a few minutes later another guy arrived with a 700c 32 spoke rim.  I was beginning to wonder how many wheels this man had built, but … beggars and all that.  He finally decided that as the new rim was not the same depth as the old one the existing spokes would not be the right length and he didn’t have any. He suggested a bike shop in Oita, an even bigger city about 80km down the road.  Yosuke now took me, at my request, to the train station.  It was still only about 3:00 and I might be able to at least set something in motion.  The train people told me that I could not get on the train with my bike stuff even if I knocked it down.  Yosuke immediately said he would drive me after work, at about 6:00.

The reason I am going into all this is to illustrate how incredibly compassionate and generous people like Yosuke are.  Just two days ago I had the same experience in Tokyo and here I was going through it again.  Back at his work place I sat in the van reading and he headed into work.  A few minutes later he came back with a map from the internet to the bike shop in Oita.  A few minutes after that he came back and told me it would take a week for that bike shop to get repairs for the wheel and that I should come in and talk to an English speaking girl.  Shirin, an Australian here teaching English has somehow been brought into help as she is reasonably good in Japanese.  I pointed out that all I need was a bike shop that carried 700 c wheels that are already built, and I wrote down the attributes of the wheel I needed.  I had now given up any thought of repairing the old one and suggested that I leave everything here and take the train to Fukoaka, where I have no doubt that I could find a new wheel. Yosuke went away yet again and came back with word that he had found a wheel in Kitakyushu, right back to where I had started the day and that the shop was open until 8:00.  The Australian girl indicated that he was bound and determined that he was going to see me through this himself.  His boss told him to get going now well before his quitting time as it would be an hour and a half for us to drive to Kita.  By 7:00 my repaired bike was in the van and we were on our way back to Nakatsu.  It took the obviously experienced bike guy in Kita. 15 minutes to move my cog set over to the new wheel, mount the tire and tube and give the whole bike a good once over.   It cost me $250, but what would it have cost in any other country?

By 9:00 Yosuke had me checked into a hotel in Nakatsu and we were in a Yakatori place having beer and eats.  He let me pay for dinner and drinks, but the gas, his time and effort – no way.  A long story, but so important to get the flavour of Japan that I have begun to taste.

Besides this incredible human experience the hotel that he put me in was very well appointed and, with nice hot and cold buffet breakfast, cost only 3300 yen, less than $40. It is a chain and they have 100s around the country and so this may help as I head down the road.  I guess there is no ill wind that doesn’t bring some value.  I am also a bit more committed to taking it a bit easier and reading all of the signs as I head down the road. Perhaps I have had my last mishap.

Mar 17 – To Yufuin (70/310 km to date)

Yufuin, my destination of choice today is a small onsen (hot spring) town in the mountains between Beppu, the prime onsen destination on Kyushu and Aso, the big volcanic area I am kind of heading toward.  I have naturally lost a bit of confidence about route finding and survival bike riding but perhaps I can do better today.  I started on highway 213 merging into 10 near Usa. In the 60s a lot of things were manufactured here (made in USA).  I sort of stuck to the sidewalk for the 20 km of connected cities trying to go a bit slower. And then I struck out on a route finding mission into the mountains to find a back way into Yufuin.  I got onto 387 then 42 then 500 and then a service road, all climbing more or less until I was 5 km from Yufuin, then a big drop down to the hostel a couple of kms up the steep hill from town.  Everything worked out as I envisioned today, even to finding the hostel without having to ask in town which would then involve a ride back up a steep hill.  It restored some of my confidence.

I arrived here at noon, and the hostel guy let me leave my stuff even though they didn’t open for registration until 3 or 4.  I dropped the rest of the way down into Yufuin, found lunch and then coffee and rode around town a bit getting the flavour of the town’s tourist attractions.  I didn’t go to an onsen because the hostel has one and that will be just fine for me.  The ride back up the hill was pretty tough but without a load just doable.  I checked in and spent a half-hour in the onsen.  Like the sento, you go in and wash yourself well supposedly sitting on a little stool and rinsing off with a bucket.  I have only been alone for this part of the ritual so I stand up and use the shower nozzle for rinsing.  No doubt I will have to learn the Japanese way before long.  There is no sulphur smell to this onsen and other than the nice rock work around the pool it is hard to differentiate from the sento I was used on the ferry.

I have purchased supper and breakfast and there are about 15 of us eating.  The young guy running the hostel is a stickler for details and everything is set out before we are called in.  Each dish is in the exact position and the food is artistically arranged on each plate.  They brought out a slice of pizza during the meal; I think in part to assuage the ravenous appetites of the 10 guys here on a high school graduation outing.    Each had had multiple bowls of rice from the big pot and hence the concern.  My table companions are all middle aged ladies on holidays and they did their very best to communicate with me but as usual I feel like such a dolt not being better at learning a few words.  One comes to climb one of the volcanoes every year.  I also had a visit with a German guy about my age from Finland who is working on WOF placements around Japan for four months.  He is at this hostel for two weeks.  This has been a good day.

Mar 18 – Struggling in the Rain (35/345 km to date)

My goal today was a hostel somewhere up in the Aso-san volcanic area.  I figured it would be about 75 km and 1000 m of climbing.  I almost froze to death on the 3 km plunge down into town, and then struggled a bit to find the right road out of town.  I am doing the Yamanami highway, but it does not start in town and so there were no signs.  Once on the way it was steep climbing usually in my lowest gear.  I still could not warm up because the wind was in my face and brutally cold. When the climbing got really hard bringing a little sweat when the wind hit full force I began to shake.  After some 15 km of this I hit a little downhill and then I got really cold.  I stopped to put on more clothes and then the rain started.  At a very nice restaurant I stopped for coffee and the woman kept bringing snacks and supplemented the coffee with tea.  I guess I looked pretty bad.

I heaedd out from this oasis and the rain started again immediately so I stopped at another way-side place for another half hour.  I made another 5 kms before the rain drove me into a third restaurant for an early lunch.  I spent almost two hours there and never did really warm up.  The rain had now settled in and I began to ask about places to stay.

I ended up in a cabin type of place with a kitchen and room for about eight people.  It cost me about $60 and I needed to use one of the meals that I was carrying.  I filled the small deep tub with hot water and soaked for about an hour while the cabin was warming up.  I caught up on my computer work and worried about the weather.  I felt under-prepared for this kind of cold.  As I sat the sun came out but the wind was if anything stronger.  I felt that I could creep along up this mountain with wind or rain but when I am hit by wind, rain and the steep road I am just not getting anywhere.  It was a worry day. Yesterday I was lucky, today not, I hoped tomorrow would be better.

Mar 19 – To Kumamoto (110/455 km to date)

When I went to bed I never considered that I would have made it to Kumamoto and visited one of my two Kyushu objectives before an early check-in to a hostel.  I made breakfast in my cabin and was on the road about 7:30.  It was extremely cold with the wind somewhat less but still very tough riding.  But it was not raining; in fact the sun was shining. Thankfully I began to climb steeply immediately.  I was dressed about half-way to my maximum for cold conditions and was barely able to keep warm with the effort.  There was ice in the road cracks where the water had remained after the rain.  I saw hard icicles along the road side.  After less than an hour I could look back and see that I had gained a lot of altitude. At Minto pass I stopped to try to figure out where I was.  I still did not know how far I was into the ride nor what climbing I had yet to do.  I could look across at the volcanoes but they were still a bit cloud covered and so I had no idea what I was looking at.

I then began a long cold run down.  Lots of switchbacks, but kind of fun as the direct sun helped dull the cold.  I still had to brake, primarily to keep from getting too cold. Near what I thought was the bottom I stopped in a tourist shop, had a coffee and worked to bring the feeling back in my toes.  I then continued on into what could have been Alberta foothills grasslands.  I came to a lookout and could see another significant drop ahead of me.  I guessed that this could be the viewpoint that is marked on my maps.  I was much ahead of where I expected to be.

After this drop I soon connected with the road intersection that marked the end of the Yamanami Highway.  I was now of the mind to carry on into Kumamoto.  There was no way that I was going to cycle up Aso-san.  I had had enough of the blistering cold wind and the climbing ahead looked too much even on a nice day.  The city started at this point and for the final 50 kms I was on industrial roads.   This came to mean some sidewalk riding, but in this case there was a pretty nice shoulder so mostly I was on the road.

In Kumamoto, I first went to Suizenji-koen.  This is a large garden built around a large spring fed pond.  Of note is that the garden was built to represent the 53 way stops on the old Tokaido road, connecting Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo).  All I could pick out was the Fuji-san representation, but the sakura have started in earnest.  There is more grass in this garden than is common as it is fashioned as a strolling garden and that I did. It felt so nice to be warm; I could even sit and drink in the views without shivering.  I am down out of the mountains.

I checked into a hostel and then did a ride into town centre where I got ferry information and a first look at Kumamoto-jo, one of the three most important castles in Japan. Kumamoto is another pretty large city.  I did 20 km just checking out these few things, all near the centre of the city.

Mar 20 – to Shimabara (30/485 km to date)

I returned to Kumamoto-jo at 8:30, having packed up and checked out oft the hostel ready to move on.  The castle was built around 1600, at one time had 5.3 km of walls, 49 main towers and turrets and 29 gates.  The castles were a necessary part of feudal Japan and this castle withstood a number of assaults before being burned and partially destroyed during the Seinan Civil war in 1877. Reconstruction began in 1960 and still continues today.  The main tower has 4 floors of museum, mostly in Japanese only, and two more floors of observation.  In the museum are 1000s of names of contributors to the restoration are painted on little bamboo sticks.  I also visited a number of the smaller towers and buildings.  The size and scope of the castle almost dwarfs Kumamoto today, it is hard to imagine how impregnable this place must have been before gun power was in use.

Kumamoto Port is about 25 km from town centre and it was a bit of a race to see if I could beat the rain, which had begun to threaten while in the castle.  I had an hour ferry crossing to Shimabara and with the rain about to let loose I checked into a hostel.  There was a thought of heading partially down the road to Nagasaki, but a bird in the hand…

I did a quick pass of Shimabara-jo, also impressively rebuilt and then walked around an area where Samurai lived, right close to the castle.  Samurai, were not very high up the social ladder in feudal Japan, but they had to be looked after and the little houses seemed pretty nice to me.

It has been raining hard for over an hour as dinner time approaches and I would hope that it gets it out of the system.  I was lucky as today is a bit of an off travel day and was able to dodge the rain.  Tomorrow though not long will be a full riding day.

Mar 21 to Nagasaki  (80/565 km to date)

I was out the door about 7:15 and after a MacDonald’s breakfast, definitely not up to Japanese standards, on the road heading roughly NW along the coast into a strong wind. It was sunny, which was a relief after listening to the rain pelting the hostel through much of the night.  I had to go around a headland, about 30 kms during which time I would end up going mostly west.  After that I did a short cut across the narrowest part of the peninsula and that was the only time I was not into the teeth of the wind.  My final 40 kms was along the coast again but now with a continuous series of hills to climb and descend.  It was only about 70 km to get to Nagasaki but the wind and then the wind and hills made it a tough day.  I had a nice lunch near the top of the last climb just before I left the major road which was entering a tunnel.  The bike sidewalk veered off at the last moment and continued a bit higher and then did its own tunnel on a tertiary highway.

Once again I rode through industrial districts almost the whole was which means that I was on and off of the sidewalks but I am getting a bit more used to the process.  With the strong headwind there is a mental in addition to the physical fatigue.  I think in large part it comes from not hearing anything.  I can’t hear my bike which means that the gears don’t get trimmed and cars suddenly appear on your shoulder. If there is one I almost always use the bike sidewalks going up long steep hills and in the wind I use the sidewalk if I need a mental brake from the hectic traffic.

I got to my hostel a bit after noon and then headed to the Atomic bomb site.  There is a thought provoking museum and a black obelisk marking the point, 500m below which the bomb was detonated.  There is also a Peace park with fountain, and sculptures.  The major sculpture is a powerful looking man pointing to the sky indicating the potential of more nuclear blasts.  He holds his other hand out in a conciliatory fashion indicating that perhaps there are better ways of resolving things than by dropping big bombs.  It is hard not to be moved by this sort of thing.

I also rode into the people parts of town and watched people doing their Sunday afternoon thing.  There is an interesting Chinatown here, and I ended up in the old red-light district that is now the entertainment section.  Nagasaki is an easy town to like and not so big that it is daunting to get around in.

Mar 22 – to Karatsu (110/675 km to date)

I was on the road early with an almost flat tire which I didn’t notice until I was a block away.  I noticed that the valve cap was gone and the stem was unscrewed, so I just pumped it up and hoped that someone or somehow the air got let out.  I headed up the long easy hill north out of Central Nagasaki and hit a MacDonald’s about 5 km up.  My reasons for using a MacDonalds are that they are quick and I get coffee with a refill.  The tire air seemed to be holding and so I continued along.  I was doing #206 along the west side of Omura-wan, a large inland sea, which could easily be a lake.  The road basically followed the shore for over 50 km, which meant a little up and down.   I was not fighting the wind for the first time the views were fine and so I was having a good day.  As I neared the north end of the sea I climbed a bit and began to have some great downhill runs.  The traffic was moderate which for Japan is about as good as it gets.  I had a roadside snack and then a second one and kept an easy pace into Karatsu, arriving about 2:30.

I stayed in a business hotel for 5,000 yen, my most expensive place yet.  It was just ok.  I have no idea why the Nakatsu Toyoko Inn which was much nicer was so much less.   This is one of the Saga ceramic towns and so I did a walk about and had a look.  At one elegant place I saw cups for $10,000 and vases for $20,000.  Even in a normal store cups sell for $30.  Not that I am in the market but I guess I won’t be buying much.

This was a pretty easy day, and also pretty uneventful.  Tomorrow it is on to Fukuoka the fourth largest city in Japan.  I will probably take two nights there to collect myself a bit before leaving Kyushu.

Mar 23 – Fukuoka (75/750 km to date)

I was a little lazy this morning and so it was about 7:45 when I stepped out of the Karatsu business hotel I was in.  It was raining hard so I stepped across the road and into the little breakfast place a little shaken.  I had become used to nice mornings and rain in the afternoons.  The lady showed me two different menus, both in Japanese, but she was quite animated in her descriptions also in Japanese.  I pointed to “udon” which she agreed to. The bowl of udon noodles came in hot water with a raw egg and some other things on the side.  I added soy sauce, whipped it a bit and was going to add the egg to the noodles but she stopped me and had me fish out a few noodles at a time and coated them with the egg mix.  It tasted very good.  To the tea that is always brought immediately she added a cup of coffee and then rice and things wrapped in sea weed.  I have been finding this sort of breakfast much tastier than my MacDonald’s breakfast combo and at 300 yen it was half as much.

Back in the hotel I pulled out my rain jacket and pants put plastic bags on my feet and pulled out my rain gloves.  The rain had let up when I got on the road but it was still kind of drizzly and the roads were wet.  Out of Karatsu I had about 5 km of riding down a tunnel of trees which almost kept the road dry and the wind at bay. Surprisingly I had some nice sections of country riding, some stretches where I was right on the Sea of Japan; if I toppled over the guard rail I would be swimming only a few miles across from South Korea.  As expected though much of the ride was through a succession of towns and I was forced onto sidewalks periodically.  As I entered the 20 km of riding that would be Fukuoka the rain began to pick up in earnest.  I had to ask the whereabouts of the hostel having first found the Hakaka Rail Station.

Once in I found everything that I needed as this is a hostel heavily used by the backpacker crowd.  It was too miserable to head out and do any touristing and so I had a takeout meal and coffee. I finally did a wash and will tried to download some photos.  I booked in for two nights.

Mar 24 – Fukuoka

It was raining quite hard when I walked down to the station this morning.  It would be a great city to visit by bike, but I thought I decided to stay out of the rain for one day.  I learned how to get on the metro and ended up in the town centre in an area called Tenjin.  I came away without my compass which is always a mistake when it is raining or cloudy so I wandered a bit.

One of the top ten sakura sights is here and I almost gave it a miss but after a light breakfast I noted that it was not too far away and the rain had let up a bit.  Maizuru-koen has about 1000 cherry trees and they seem to be well into their prime.  As the cherry trees in blossom are not a riotous sight anyway the muted feeling today in many ways was in keeping.  I almost had the park to myself; the only others out appreciating the spectacle were other retired folks.  What made the couple of hours so special was that the park is build around the multiple levels of walls that at one time were Fukuoka-jo. Fukuoka-jo, was one of the prime castles in feudal Japan, but they have not reconstructed it, which makes it more attractive in some ways for me.

I made a brief stop at the Art museum, had lunch in Tenjin and then came back to give my bike a good oiling.  I am never able to get my bike inside here, and so even though it is under a bit of cover it is subject to the blowing rain.  I also dragged out a tarp, which hopefully will keep a bit of the rain off of the nice leather seat and handle bar wrap.

Mar 26 – Off Kyushu to Shimonoseki  (100km/850 km to date)

It was raining in the morning as I did a noodle cup and yoghurt but at 8:00, when I got my key deposit back it was barely sputtering.  Route 3 ran by a block away and so it was no trouble getting on the route out of town.  What does that mean?  I did 100 kms today and was never out of town but at least it felt good when a new town seemed to take form.  The longest and ugliest part of the day was getting out of Fukuoka but I never really had any trouble. Of course I was on the sidewalk most of the time.  I was routed off onto 495 after about 10 km, which was going to be a much longer run but I really had no choice in the matter as the bike friendly road/sidewalk conditions simply stopped at the junction.  On 495, I was able to go a bit faster as I used the road more than the sidewalk and then, after about 25 km good fortune shined..

495 seemed to make a sharp left turn and rather than head abruptly away from where I wanted to go I stopped to address a friendly looking service station attendant who sent me on what looked a minor road in response to my request for Kitakyushu.  Soon it was sputtering a bit harder and I felt the need for a coffee pick me up so I stopped at a wonderful pastry place.  They had some enormous purpose built ovens and were churning out all sorts of miraculous things.  I had three of them and all the coffee I wanted.  While I was stoking up the sputtering stopped and I found myself on my map.  It looked like I would be doing a run in between #3 and 495 for much of the way, and not doing significantly more distance in the process.

I was still bounced on and off #3 periodically but just followed the road and my instincts.  Getting through Kitakyushu was a bit of a drag and then I found that I still had 25 km to go mostly through the shipyards and big industrial plants I encountered when arriving on Kyushu.

I was more or less keeping an eye on the railroad lines, as I knew the vehicle road led to a no-bike access bridge.  I was looking for a tunnel that apparently could be used by pedestrians or bikers.  I assumed it might connect to the rails.  But when I was well past any possibility of connecting into the rail crossing I finally able asked someone who understood what I needed.  I was sent on a quiet road along the shore, a couple of hundred metres below the car bridge.  I was riding slowly along this road and finally saw a building with the name Kannon Tunnel but no English.  I wheeled my bike over to an elevator, pressed the down button and a few minutes later had dropped a few hundred metres.  The tunnel had only people, not even other bikers.  I got on my bike and zoomed down passing people and then an easy peddle back up.  I resurfaced in another elevator to be met by an attendant who smilingly told me I wasn’t supposed to ride in the tunnel.  He also pointed out the little box where I could deposit 20 yen.

So endeth my Kyushu experience.

The Shimonoseki hostel is a few hundred metres up a steep hill with an incredible view of the bridge and the straight separating Western Honshu (Chugoku) and Kyushu.  I deposited my bags, went into the wharf area for a bite to eat and was back at the hostel for a 4:00 check-in.

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