After a little over a week in Japan it is high time to share our first impressions. In this short time Japan has thrown some extremes at us and we haven’t yet had a moment to sit down and process everything. Today however we have some downtime. We are waiting for the rain to stop in a guesthouse in Imabari, the starting point of the famous Shimanami bike route across several bridges and islands from Shikoku to Honshu. Following is the first part of our Japan adventure, cycling around the Kyushu island.
Ohayu gozaimasu Nihon!
Good morning Japan! Our 8am landing in Japan is much softer than expected, with less of a culture shock than anticipated. Maybe this is because Fukuoka is on the rural island of Kyushu and a pretty relaxed city, or maybe it is because many things feel familiar. The fresh air from the sea, the small houses and narrow roads, the cycling people who just like in Amsterdam use the bike to bring kids to school and go to work. Everything is clean and tidy, if a bit drab: beige is the go-to colour for houses and clothing. But the weird Japan from fiction and news presents itself quick enough: as soon as we roll out of the airport we bump into two girls, dressed to the nines in sweet Lolita fashion, a particular Japanese subculture. They wear frilly pink dresses, lace stockings, accessorized with cutesy umbrellas and suitcases. Kawaiii!
We head straight for the harbor to sample our first plate of rice and sashimi for breakfast. We have landed in Japan! We will repeat this to each other over the next few days. Japan! We have traveled for eleven months and now we are here, our last destination. It is hard to believe we have finally made it. JAPAN!
We spend a couple of days in Fukuoka to find our feet. Our first Japanese city is really nice, almost too nice. Where is the colourful market, where are the waving and shouting kids, where is the wild side? Everything and everybody is contained and courteous and no one (openly) pays attention to us. Our apartment is small and has plenty of rules. The overall effect is a little bit claustrophobic after free and easy South East Asia. Are we doing everything right? Are we not offending anyone? We stop at every single traffic light even if we could easily have crossed. The upside of this strict adherence to the rules is that we can relax in the traffic, as there are no overtaking cars, no swerving and certainly no honking. Everything is clean and the food is delicious, even the cheapest take-away from the convenience stores is healthy and tasty.
Fukuoka is quite large, even if it doesn’t feel that way, and one the many harbor cities of Japan. It is on Kyushu, a Southern island blessed with an early spring. It’s a beautiful sunny day when we arrive and we have hours to kill before we can check into our room.
We visit the parks where people are enjoying the sakura blossoms. Newly married couples in traditional kimono and geta take their wedding pictures under the cherry blossom trees and in the nearby Zen garden.
Fukuoka boasts a very good museum that focuses on modern Asian art. It is great to see contemporary art by emerging artists from Mongolia, Bangladesh and other developing countries. The below work is by Kim Tschang-yeul from Korea.
We also visit our first Shinto shrine, with a huge tori gate made out of massive tree trunks. Our stay coincides with the arrival of two cycling friends from Tajikistan, and together with Kathi and Flo we enjoy a meal and a couple of beers out in a typical hole-in-the-wall eatery.
You enter these places through a curtain that shields the inside from outside looks, so it’s always a surprise what you find. Inside is usually very small, with only enough space for the kitchen area and a row of stools facing the kitchen. The chefs shout greetings in unison when someone enters or leaves. Plates are served, beer is drunk and curious patrons talk to us. It’s a great night out.
From Fukuoka we head South, towards Nagasaki. We take three days of cycling and one ferry, mostly hugging the spectacular coast line.
The weather stays mostly fine and we find some great wild camping spots. The first one is at an old mossy Shinto shrine in a small copse, where we are discovered by elderly village people who gather in the morning for a day of work around the shrine. They are super sweet, and one lady even indicates that she would have hosted us if she had known that we were there. We give them a deep bow when we leave and they give us a round of applause when we get on the bicycles.
Shrines are good places to camp since they usually have running water and a toilet. We treat them with respect, not staying near the actual sanctuary and as always taking our rubbish with us when we leave. Since Shinto worships the kami or spirits of places that are of particular natural beauty they are usually beautiful spots. The tori gates indicate where you enter the holy area of the shrine, away from the ordinary world.
Our next camping spot is on a small island where we get to by taking a ferry, thus avoiding the bottleneck of a busy highway. We jump from one island to the next by a series of bridges and end up on the Westernmost tip, looking at a last uninhabited island that is only sometimes connected by a land bridge at low tide. We clamber over the rocks to the sea. The water is so crystal clear here, and we see anemones in the rock pools. The sun sinks behind the islet, and after a last sip of sake we are in bed by 7pm.
The coastal road to Nagasaki is spectacularly beautiful and with little traffic. The only nuisance is the big fish eagles. They circle closely overhead when we are having lunch outside and we can only scare them away by jumping up and down and waving our arms. Later on we hear that they do attack people, and that we should never turn our back to an eagle. Scary!
Near Nagasaki we stay two nights with Yukiko and Soichio, our first Japanese warmshowers hosts. They live in a beautiful cedar wood house, with the lovely perfume of untreated cedar wood permeating the atmosphere. We sleep in the attic room where a big window overlooks the harbor. Soichio works as a ship building engineer, Yukiko used to be a bike mechanic. They give us some insights into Japanese culture and we spend a day sightseeing in Nagasaki.
The first thing that everybody associates with Nagasaki is of course the nuclear war crime that destroyed the city on August 1945, when the USA dropped the nuclear bomb Fat Man on a residential neighbourhood, 3 days after wiping out Hiroshima with Little Boy. When I was little I walked in anti-nuclear protest marches with my parents so I knew about these cities from a young age. The fear of nuclear war was very real and ever present, before the fall of The Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1991. We spend the afternoon visiting the memorials and marveling at how this city has bounced back from the worst imaginable disaster. Today it is a lively and friendly place. The most poignant reminders are not the grand monuments but the garlands of paper origami cranes in all colours of the rainbow, imploring all the people of the world and its leaders to practice peace.
Nagasaki has a lot more to see than the memorials however. We visit Dejima, an artificial fan-shaped island in the harbour. It is now completely enclosed by the city but when it was still an actual island it was the only place where foreigners were allowed to live and trade with Japan between 1641 and 1853 . During this period of extreme isolationism only the Dutch were allowed to live here. David Mitchell has written a great book about it, the thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
We wander around and because of the book, the restoration work and clear explanations it’s easy to conjure up the kind of lives the people must have led on this tiny parcel of land in a culture that was so alien to theirs. One historical figure in particular stands out. Doctor Von Siebold can be credited with bringing Western medicine to Japan, healing many people and teaching many Japanese students. Overall the exchange has benefited the Japanese as the exchange was conducted strictly on their terms of agreement and they were keen to learn the new technologies that came with the trading ships.
After enjoying the friendly face of sunny Japan for a few days we encounter a cloudier side of this island nation. Because Japan is a highly geologically active series of islands earthquakes, volcano eruptions, typhoons and tsunamis are fairly common. On top of this the weather is volatile as well, with extremes in climate from South to North and sudden changes in the weather because of the influence of the sea and mountains. Our sunny days are over, and from now it is mostly rain. After Nagasaki we head inland towards the Unzen and Aso volcanoes, stopping over at the Shimabara castle and historical samurai neighbourhood before we take a ferry across to Kumamoto.
Aso San is with 1592m altitude Japans largest active volcano and of the largest in the world. It has a caldera that is large enough to accommodate a couple of towns and lots of farmland.
We approach the volcano from the West side, hoping to enter through the large gash in the outer crater wall and circle North around the central cone, exiting on the Northeastern side. The weather is shit but at least there is no traffic on the highway that leads into the crater. This should have given us an inclination of what was coming.. After climbing 300m in a steady cold drizzle we get to some road workers who tell us that the road ahead is damaged by an earthquake. There is no way around it, we have to turn, cycle 15km back and approach the crater via another road. This much smaller road is of course chockfull of traffic, and next to a crawling traffic jam we climb to the rim of the crater. It is still raining, and the visibility is down to about 10 meters. We descend into the flatlands surrounding the central cone of the volcano. Because of the thick mist we see nothing of the central cone, but google says that on a good day it looks like this:
Our view is more like this:
The road through the caldera is a straight flat ribbon of tarmac through almost Dutch-looking flat farmland. We see signs of the earthquake in metal grilles and concrete drain covers that have been flipped up and tossed aside like playing cards. The tarmac is mostly intact since it’s quite elastic and very flat, it looks like it just lifted of the ground and landed again. Occasionally the painted lines on the tarmac are interrupted or there is a drop of a few centimeters so we roll over with a sudden bump. The quake happened in late 2016 and many people are working at repairing the damage. The epicentre was right here but there was considerable damage in the nearby city of Kumamoto as well, destroying parts of the beautiful historical castle. The volcano is active and closely monitored which is an awe inspiring fact of nature but a dangerous reality for the many communities who live in the caldera and around the volcano.
Our first onsen
After this long day of struggling in the rain we are soaked through and through, and chilled to the bone. There are many onsen or natural hot springs on Kyushu, and we follow on of the signs pointing us towards an onsen near Ubuyama village. I have an image in my head of a traditional wooden Japanese house with sliding paper doors and a tranquil zen garden and I can’t wait to slide into a hot pool, afterwards retiring to a room dressed in a beautiful cotton yukata. This place however is more like an old people’s home, full of ancient ladies who’s backs are bent in all kinds of shapes like the gnarly trees along the coast line. If they are surprised at the appearance of two bedraggled gaijin on jitensha they never let it on, and we are welcomed to a tatami room with electrical blanket and the use of a private onsen room with 42 degree water. Luckily the bath is private, since tattoos are a big no-no in Japanese bath houses because of their link to Yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Our host in Nagasaki wrote a Japanese note for me in case we try to enter a public bath house: “I have tattoos, but I am a good person, I won’t do Bad Things”. Here it is no issue, and we quickly get warm and comfortable. I cook in the communal kitchen with the old ladies who are very sweet. This is our first traditional room: a simple space, the floor covered with tatami mats and wall-cupboards with sliding doors where the futons are kept during the day. We make our own futon beds on the floor and sleep a deep long sleep.
The day after we continue to our next ferry port from where we will leave Kyushu for the island of Shikoku, the town of Beppu. Beppu is famous for having the highest density of hot springs in the world, 2849 in total. Here we find a backpackers place to stay with it’s own onsen in the basement, this time with tattoos allowed.
To paraphrase Billy Holiday:
“The snow is snowing and the wind it is blowing
But I can weather the storm
What do I care how much it may storm
I’ve got my onsen to keep me warm”