Here is my report on cycling 5 days in Japan from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan: from Izumi to Fukuoka.
Getting to Izumi (right down in the south of Kyushu island where Thomas, my Belgian guide, lives with his Japanese wife Yuko) was very straightforward. The staff at Tokyo Narita Airport pointed me in the direction of the coach that took me straight to Tokyo’s domestic airport, Haneda, in about an hour and a half. I then took an internal flight to Kagoshima, and another airport coach direct to Izumi. The hotel in Izumi arranged by Thomas was nice with its own mini onsen (spa room with hot baths). Thomas and his wife took me out for a lovely meal on the first evening.
Yuko made me a wonderful breakfast in the morning – rice, vegetables, meats. We then sorted the bikes and had a test ride to look at some ancient samurai houses in the neighbourhood. After some tea back at the house, we set off. The country is very beautiful but fairly hilly and pretty hot at the time of year I did it (high 30s). You do get used to it though! The rural countryside is sort of a sub-tropical Switzerland, and the coastal villages a little similar to northern Spain. We cycled along the coast most of the first day and took a ferry to an outer island. We stayed the night on a sort of fishing village on stilts in a bay. We caught a couple of tiny mackerel so luckily we had brought some emergency supplies of chicken and rice just in case! It was fun and very atmospheric trying to catch our supper in the twilight and watching the full moon rise.
In the morning we ate breakfast prepared by Thomas mother-in-law at her bakery and brought with us. She makes a series of different filling encased in pancake dough – ham and egg, sweet white bean paste, sweet dark bean paste, custard and chocolate. After taking the boat back to the shore with our bikes, we travelled a fair bit of the way along a coastal road that hugged the cliffs. Think the Amalfi coast. Along the way we saw a few Japanese shinto shrines. They celebrate the natural environment so the shrines have rocks and branches and things like that. We also went for a swim in the sea – it was gorgeous – and saw squid drying in the sun. They chop them up when dried and have them as bar snacks. We ended the day at the ferry port where we will catch the ferry tomorrow to the nagasaki peninsula. The places we are staying in are traditional Japanese bed and breakfasts. We sleep on mats on the floor and the table is very low. There is also some sort of shrine in the ones I have stayed in so far- in this one its a sort of wood sculpture and some dried or plastic flowers. Day 2 ended with an amazing fish supper – red snapper baked in salt, sashimi, an enormous and very tasty scallop, and award winning fish soup (the owner proudly showed us an article about her win). The fish soup was almost French in being thick with fish and shellfish.
In the morning it was smoked fish with tofu for breakfast. Perfect for a hard days ride but not my taste for every day! We then caught an early ferry across to the Shimabara peninsula. The ride around the coast was stunning. We saw plenty of the coast and the fish farms that pop up at regular intervals. In Obama we stopped at an onsen (natural hot spring water baths) for a soak and wash. And bought take away croquets and sushi for lunch at a farmers market (and had a sneaky 20 min siesta outside). After a hard days ride of about 90 kilometres up and down hills along the coast, we crossed the Nagasaki peninsula and zoomed down the hill into nagasaki city, using the old post road over the final pass. In the city we visited the old Dutch trading post of Dejima, Glover Garden with old colonial houses, as well as a ride to cool down through an air conditioned shopping mall complete with McDonalds. The end of the day saw us ride through the dusk of the city to our ryokan where we had a simple Japanese dinner. The landlady reminded me of a 1970s seaside guesthouse owner in the UK – she insisted on being paid within 5 minutes of our arrival. And was then very insistent on timings for our all meals. That was today – quite tired now!
Day 4 started with a visit to the Nagasaki Peace Park and Atomic War Museum. It was harrowing to say the least and I am still not sure why it was necessary to bomb both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The fact that the Americans also dropped radio transmitting devices to measure the “quality” of the explosion was a little chilling. Outside, there was a golden sculpture of a god of wrath pouring trouble down on innocent children. A bit of a poke at the Americans I think. Most of the day’s ride after crossing the hills surrounding Nagasaki, was alongside a picturesque bay (once we were past the airport!). Although we had to ride along the highway for a chunk of the trip, Thomas found quite a few detours through rice paddies, small villages and alongside the bay and a lovely bike path through cherry trees alongside a river. We stooped for lunch at a very quiet restaurant in a shopping mall in a small seaside town. The chap running it (in fact clearly the only person ever there) had his office, several hifis and many pictures of Audrey Hepburn scattered around the room. And actually the Japanese curry wasn’t too bad! A few more miles and a short ascent brought us to Arita – a city and area well known for ceramics. It was hot and humid today – remind me next time to come in the spring (to see the cherry blossom) or later in the autumn in say mid October!
Our last day started with a gentle ride around town to look at the pottery shops. The factories were closed as it was Saturday. We then visited the ceramics museum which had examples of all the different types of pottery and techniques used through the ages. It really brought home how close China and Korea are to Japan with clear cross influences. A beautiful shady narrow road led us up over a pass out of Arita, and a few miles down the road to a pretty little pottery village in the mountains where we saw an example of the kilns they build: the kiln has a number of chambers leading up a hill, so they can fire a lot of pottery from one heat source. We then made good progress along the highway to the coast, stopping en route for the largest noodle dish I think I have ever seen – amazing how much you can eat when riding 6 hours a day! We worked our way through an atmospheric forest along a track and then followed a mixture of the coastroad and small roads through paddy fields. It was pretty and most importantly by this time for both of us, flat! (although a bit of a headwind). We ended the day cycling around Fukuoka along the seafront, which was lovely, and through a beautiful park with lake. Thomas took me to the hotel and then went off to sort getting the bikes shipped back to his home.
Well what can I say in summary at the end of the trip. So many highlights: the Ryokan – especially the landladies(!), the fishing village we stayed in, the beautiful narrow mountain roads, the lovely coast which varies hugely between craggy cliffs and quiet sandy beaches, and the friendliness of the Japanese. Thomas was an outstanding guide – almost always out in front as windbreak, and having done lots of route planning to take the smallest and prettiest roads. I would love to come again and do another route.
Toby Strauss. September 2011.