It’s often hard to put into words exactly what we’re feeling, seeing, experiencing as we roll along each day which is why we like to take plenty of photos. As the saying goes a picture paints a thousand words. My cousin Margaret once asked me if our trip inspired us to be poetic which is an interesting idea. We have given it a go by documenting the adventures of our friend from Limerick, Willy, with several verses but beyond that our creative skills haven’t been fully harnessed. However Japan is the land of the haiku so in an attempt to fully embrace the culture of our next destination we’ve decided to try and capture our thoughts using the format of three lines and 17 syllables.
Country forty two The land of the rising sun What will we find here?
16th May – 4th June 2016
For some reason we arrive in Fukuoka 2 hours before we’re allowed to disembark. Japanese efficiency again I suppose. While waiting I watch the dock workers going through some synchronised morning exercises to warm them up for their day’s work. I can’t imagine many dockers in other countries wanting to do star jumps and stretching together. I also get to watch the rain lashing against the windows. Rainy season starts in June so the thought crosses our minds that this could be what we’ll be faced with for the next month, and it’s not a happy thought.
Once we’re released we get to role the bike down a pristine white corridor into the terminal building while soft and gentle music plays on concealed speakers. A fitting welcome to Japan. There’s always plenty of adjustments to be made when arriving in a new country and here one of the biggest, at least initially, is to concentrate on riding on the left rather than the right. We splash through to the town centre and hole up in a coffee shop for a few hours before setting ourselves up in a park for the night. We’d been warned that the Japanese are diligent rule followers but are also incredibly polite. These two traits are in conflict when someone sets up a tent in a park as they know it’s probably wrong but don’t want to cause offence by telling us. Many cycle tourists have been known to take advantage of this and enjoy some unchallenged ‘park life’ so we decide to do the same. Around the edge of the park a 2000m running track is being well used by some swift athletes right up until we go to bed and is busy as soon as we get up the next day too. Running is a popular sport here and everyone looks to be very good at it.
Thankfully the sun has made an appearance so we begin to explore this strange new place by making our way north from Fukuoka towards the top end of the island of Kyushu. We’re using a route laid out by Japan Cycling Navigator that promises to connect lots on interesting places from here all the way to Tokyo.
This is a land of easy living with convenience stores (or ‘conbinis‘) every 2 or 3 km and if your caffeine and nicotine addiction is too strong to go that far then don’t worry as you’re never more than 100m from a vending machine selling coke, coffee or cigarettes. It also seems to be the case that things are better if they’re cuter. Cars are little boxes on wheels, pets should be fluffy and portable, shop signs should definitely include a cartoon character as part of the logo. Even the road works use plastic rabbits or pandas to hold up the barriers.
Seven Eleven Everything we might desire Never far from sight
After Kyushu we cross the Kanmon staight on a bumpy ferry to our next island, Honshu – the largest part of Japan. On the other side a cheerful man calls us over with great enthusiasm brought about by an afternoon drinking tinned lager. He knows enough English to understand when we tell him where we’re from and instantly becomes our best friend, buying us drinks and frequently shaking our hands. His invitation to stay at his house is well meaning but given the state he’s in we decide it’s probably wise to continue on so offer an arragato (thank you) and a bow then move swiftly on.
From Shimonoseki we work our way up and over route 242 and a surprise awaits us on the top of the climb. Once we emerge from the woods the landscape opens out into a rock strewn moorland that reminds us of Dartmoor. Not what we expected Japan to look like. Dropping down to the north coast of the island we arrive in Hagi where Japan takes on a more traditional appearance with an old town of Samurai houses and immaculate gardens.
We’ve been on the road for longer than most now, over 19 months at this point, but there are a handful of cyclists out there who have committed even more significant chunks of their lives to two wheeled travel. On the road from Hagi we find Adela and Kris coming up the other way. They left their home in Poland 6 years ago and have been travelling ever since but say they are ready for the home straight to cross Asia back into Europe. They plan to take another 4 years to complete their journey. To put this into context, when they set off smartphones were very rare and the first time they saw one was in Africa some time later. They wondered why a man was stroking his phone with his fingers and just thought he really must like it! Don’t worry Mums we’re not planning to be away quite as long as them.
We’re savaged by flies one evening then see a sign warning of bears so feel slightly grateful our attackers weren’t bigger. The road back south across Honshu takes us alongside a pristine, clear river that cuts an impressive gorge through the hills.
Everything in Japan seems to be clean, crisp and tidy. The roads are perfect without a single rut or pothole. Where roadworks are being carried out a man with a flag is employed to wave us through with a deep bow as if to say “sorry for causing a delay”. We haven’t seen a scrap of litter which is amazing given that there are also no bins. Apparently the Japanese don’t like to eat while out and about so there is very little need for bins. There are places to put cans and bottles but anything else needs to be taken home which is fine unless you’re a cycle tourist without a home to take it to. We have to tie our rubbish to the bike and spend most of the day looking for somewhere to put it.
No Bins in Japan Take your litter home with you But we have no home
Back on the south coast of Honshu we scurry along the busy route 2 to Miyajimaguchi and catch a ferry across to the small island of Miyajima. As we cross the narrow Onoseto straight the huge vermillion wooden Torii gate that marks the entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine stands in the sea in front of us. While Kirsty goes in search of a place for the tent I’m busy watching one of the tame deer that roam the streets when someone calls out my name. It’s a voice that I last heard on the side of a road near Larissa in Greece back in February 2015 and it belongs to fellow cyclist Eric and with him is Charlotte. After 16 months our paths have crossed again and purely by chance! It’s amazing how small the world can be sometimes. We swap stories and, although they are taking a break from cycling just now, there’s every chance we’ll bump into each other again somewhere up the road. When and where we just don’t know though.
There seem to be as many shrines and temples in Japan as convenience stores. Climbing up Mount Missen we pass several more and then enjoy great views of the Inland Sea and Hiroshima. There’s also the Daishoin buddhist temple where we spin prayer wheels and find hundreds of tiny statues lined up looking thoughtful. Shinto and Buddhism seem to co-exist and in many ways complement each other so allegedly 80% of people would say they are buddhist while 70% say they are shinto.
That view of Hiroshima comes a bit closer once we leave Miyajima and continue up the coast. It’s a city that if history had taken a different course would probably never have gained much interest from anyone outside of Japan. But because of one horrific event in 1945 it’s now as familiar a name as Tokyo.
Riding down Peace Boulevard we arrive at the Peace Memorial Park and visit the Peace Memorial Museum, a place that brings home in graphic detail what happened when ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima. North of the Park is the ‘A-bomb dome’ the remains of a building that stood near to the hypocentre of the blast and has been left as a poignant reminder of what happened. As we walk around there are police everywhere and all the manholes have been sealed up in preparation for a visit by Barack Obama in a few days time. He’ll be the first American president to come here and pay his respects to the victims of the bombing but as one article pointed out, he’ll also be followed by a man carrying a suitcase containing the command codes for launching his own nuclear arsenal. The overriding message from Hiroshima is a call for peace and nuclear disarmament but there’s clearly a long, long way to go before that happens.
Lessons from history President Obama Please Don't press that button
We leave Hiroshima by boat and cross to Etajima to pick up a cycle route that takes us through sleepy fishing ports and past dozens of oyster farms out in the bays. It doesn’t have the big tourist attractions of nearby Myajima and so is a much more relaxed and quiet island.
The islands are tightly packed here so once we’ve made our way round Etajima a bridge carries us over onto Kurahashi for a short while before a tiny ferry brings us back onto Honshu where we ride up to the town of Kure to spend the night overlooking the shipyard, safely guarded by submarines and battleships.
Japan is made up of 6,852 islands and over the course of the next day we cross 11 of them. Hopping from one to another along the chain that stretches out through The Seto Inland Sea makes for very pleasant riding. Bridges get us over the wet bits all the way to Okamura where we arrive just in time to catch the boat to Omishima. Like all transport in Japan, these ferries run to a precision timetable so there’s not much time to get the bike onboard before we’re steaming out of the harbour. In front of us the captain pushes the throttle control forward and stretches a piece of rubber over the handles to make sure they stay in the ‘full steam ahead’ position. There’s no way he’s going to let two cyclists make him late.
Tandem travellers Island hopping through Japan See beauty each day
A few islands later and we end the day on Yuge where a bus shelter provides our accommodation for the night. That’s not as bad as it sounds as the little wooden building has a toilet, table, flower arrangement, air conditioning and a picnic table outside. It’s more glamping than tramping and it makes for a cosy home from home.
While having breakfast in the morning the shelter returns to its intended purpose by filling up with people waiting for the first bus of the day. They’re not bothered about us being there and someone even stops to give us grapefruits.
By bridge and ferry we continue to work our way across three more islands. With the sun on our backs and the sea by our side this area is living up to its title of being a cyclists’ sanctuary. It understandably attracts cyclists from all over the country as well as foreign tourists like us with the popular main route from Omonichi to Imabari following the Shimanami Kaido – the highway over the sea, using an impressive network of dedicated cycle paths and over the massive bridges linking the larger islands. The blue line that marks the way is reminiscent of the Korean paths and I should think their engineers came here to get some ideas for their own network.
We have one last ferry to catch from Iwagi and we arrive in the harbour just in time to watch it disappear out of the harbour. Of course it was going to leave not a minute later than scheduled. A lengthy wait for the next one delays our arrival in Imabari later that day but luckily our hosts don’t mind.
A strict timetable These boats wait for nobody Please don't arrive late
We’re treated to a delicious spread of red snapper, sea snail, rice and a dozen different side dishes. Tsuneto and Akiko love to have people staying and have hosted 356 guests over the last two years who find them through Warm Showers like us as well as Couchsurfing and Air B&B. It’s actually their son Fumito who introduced them to Warmshowers as he made use of the site while riding to Indonesia for his honeymoon.
Their beautiful home is very traditional with tatayami mats on the floor, futons to sleep on and paper screens dividing up the rooms. Completing our cultural experience is a visit to an onsen hot spring after dinner that is tucked away in a bamboo forest. Well fed and fully cleansed, we sleep like enlightened buddhas.
We arrived in Imabari over the 6.5km Yoshiumicho Fusuma suspension bridge and are now on Shikoku, famous for its 88 temples dotted around its coastline. Pilgrims come to this island to walk the 1400km that takes them past all of them and as we make our way down the West coast we begin to see a few. They’re distinguished by white shirts, conical hats and a stout walking stick. A small backpack contains their essentials including a book for collecting stamps from each of the temples that they visit (again, perhaps the Korean bike path designers took notes from here?). The island’s inhabitants support the pilgrims by offering them food and accommodation as it’s said that if they help the travellers they will gain favour in their next life.
Our pilgrimage is destined for the port of Nagahama where Kirsty is keen to catch the boat to a place that is close to her idea of Nirvana. Aojima is a tiny island with just 8 human inhabitants living there after most of the rest of the population left to seek their fortune elsewhere. There’s a small temple and a couple of shrines but this isn’t the reason visitors are interested in the island. This is also known as Cat Island as the humans are outnumbered by nearly 20 to 1 by their feline neighbours.
The boat pulls into a grey harbour and we’re greeted by a mass of soggy fur that comes running down the walkway to see what today’s guests have brought them. There are cats everywhere: Up on the roofs, on the piles of fishing nets, under the houses, along the sea walls and milling around our feet. This is a cat lover’s paradise and some of the other people have brought toys and treats to lure in even more moggies to play with them.
It’s a very unusual place and apart from the ferry, no-one seems to be making any money from the people that it attracts. There are no shops or cafes or souvenir stalls. There’s not even a vending machine. The residents like the cats as they think that by feeding them it brings the fishermen luck. A happier cat must be a luckier cat so if people want to come and entertain them then that’s fine by them.
Trip to cat island Dozens of cats everywhere One peed on Marcus
Nagahama is famous for it’s thick sea mist which clings to the hills and sits in clumps in the estuary as we set off back along the coast. We climb up and over to Yawatahama with a 2km tunnel truncating the top and providing some shelter from the rain. Despite being wet it’s still warm so we keep following the narrow road as it winds its way south through tiny picturesque ports and villages. On the steep hills to our left there are orchards growing oranges and lemons. Rails take small motorised trolleys up between the trees to make it easier to collect the fruit. Like in Korea, fruit is very valuable here and these oranges will sell for $2 a piece.
Eventually we turn inland and winch up the Nakao Toge Pass and down into Seiyo where we collect a drawing pin in the front tyre, our first puncture for months.
The interior of Shikoku is mountainous so now we’re away from the coast there’s plenty of climbing to be done. Our road follows a steep sided valley lined with thick pine trees and with a crystal clear river running through it. The road builders have done their best to make the route easier with plenty of tunnels cutting through the steeper sections and chopping off the tops of the hills. There are now terraces of tea plantations, perhaps the source of the bright green matcha tea that we’ve been enjoying?
Tunnel up ahead From sunlight into darkness Cars sounds like monsters
We’re been riding across the south west corner of the island and when we drop back down to the coast on the other side it’s a significant moment of the trip. The body of water in front of us is the Pacific Ocean and it’s the first time either of us have ever seen it. This really is the edge of the Asian continent and the moment is inevitably marked by a leisurely swim.
From Kochi we turn inland again with the road taking us from sea level up to 400m then down again while we search for the entrance to the ‘Hidden Valley’. Supposedly a hiding place for the fleeing samurai of the defeated Heike clan from centuries past who lived in the middle of the island hidden in this beautiful but secluded valley. It’s no longer a secret though as the power companies seem to have found it and spoilt the view by building several hydro electric plants. The single track road winds up and up with mirrors on every corner so we can see if anything is coming round the tight bends. A statue of a boy peeing into the gorge is one of the famous sights of Shikoku as are the vine bridges further up. But what we are really keen to see is an unusual village that sits at 900m.
As we approach we can see some figures fishing in a small stream. Getting closer we can see that they are not what they seem though, they are life sized stuffed dolls, fully clothed and arranged in realistic poses. Further on there’s another doll attending to a vegetable patch, a crowd of them fill a bus stop and there’s even one attempting to chop wood with a chainsaw. We’ve arrived at the village of the dolls, a project that began when one of the residents returned from living in Osaka only to find that almost everyone else had moved away. She wanted to make the village look busy again so began filling it with dolls. It must have been a huge amount of work, and it’s ongoing as she adds more and repairs or replaces some of the older ones.
This is symbolic of the problem that is common all over Shikoku as younger people leave for the bigger cities on Honshu. We’re told that property is quite literally given away if anyone wants it. Buy a house and get another one for free alongside.
The dolls are interesting but just a little bit creepy too so we continue on and find a mountain hut to spend the night in then finish off the climb in the morning. It tops out at 1400m and we’re rewarded with an expansive view back down the other side. A perfect stop for a picnic.
From sea to summit Through forest and up valley Pedals keep turning
We plunge down the mountainside. Again the mirrors on the corners give some reassurance that there isn’t a truck coming up the other way but our brakes are squealing too so everyone has good warning that we’re approaching at speed. We’d expected this to be a descent all the way to the sea but somehow a bonus hill stands in our way so we click back down through the gears and crawl over it before the true final descent into Tokushima.
We head straight for the ferry port and arrive just in time to catch the boat to Wakayama. Shikoku disappears behind us and once again Honshu looms up ahead.
One of the most frustrating thing about cycling in Japan is the number of traffic lights. Every single junction seems to have them and they take an age to change from red to green. Wakayama to Osaka is effectively one continuous city and along the length of the road there must be at least 100 junctions. That’s an awful lot of stopping and starting which makes it a fairly awful ride. We manage to break it up by visiting the home of the biggest cycle parts manufacturer in the world, Shimano, and then the nearby cycle museum. Our knowledge of the history of the bicycle is improving with every country!
Approaching Osaka itself, the roads become a tangled web of bridges, flyovers and tunnels but there are plenty of other cyclists and the traffic seems accommodating enough to give us some space. Even so we’re glad when we arrive at our host’s house and can park the bike up.
Audrey lives in a traditional Japanese ‘mansion house’ which translates as being a block of single roomed appartments. Originally from the North of France, she’s here to improve her Japanese and immerse herself in the culture. Her tiny flat is soon filled with panniers and tandem riders so we apologise for taking up so much of her precious space and suggest we go out for dinner in town.
Here are the bright lights and bustling streets that we’d been expecting from a Japanese mega city. Huge plastic sea creatures hang off the restaurants with moving claws. Neon signs advertise hostess clubs that are stacked up over several stories. In the maze of alleyways there are standing bars that accommodate 4 or 5 people at most yet somehow stay in business. We tuck into some freshly cooked Takoyaki octopus balls, an Osakan specialty, and watch the craziness all around us. Japan has a lot to see and there’s plenty more on the road ahead.
A place of wonder Everything feels so different This is the far east
Japan is a very photogenic country so there are lots more photos in our Japan Gallery.