Art and island life

Cycling Shikoku’s coast

Shikoku is the smallest of Japans four main islands, and mostly known for its 88 temple pilgrimage route. After taking a morning ferry from Beppu we arrive in Yawatahama on Shikoku in the afternoon and start cycling North. We follow a blue line on the tarmac that leads us to the famous Shimanamikaido. This is a bike route that hops with some long suspension bridges across several islands, from Shikoku to the main island Honshu.

Shikoku coastal cruising
Shikoku coastal cruising

The weather for the next fews days is quite bad, but on our first night it is still dry. After a glorious day along a beautiful sunny coastal road we set up camp at yet another peaceful shinto shrine, in the densely populated area of Matsuyama. Where we are it is quiet, and we are surrounded by orange groves. In the evening a sudden storm shakes our tent. After putting in all the pegs we feel safe and secure and sleep right through the rest of the storm.

Another day of cycling along a busy road in quite heavy rain brings us to Imabari. This a small harbour town and the start of the Shimanamikaido. After missing out on seeing the Aso volcano because of rain and mist we decide to wait out the bad weather in lovely bicycle traveler hostel in Imabari, so we can enjoy the islands in better weather. Cyclo No Ie has typical Japanese capsule rooms that feel more like a kids favourite hiding space than an actual room. It is a very cozy and warm place and we love the bicycle vibe throughout. This is also our first actual rest day since we landed so there is no shame in being lazy while it pours outside. We enjoy an evening of conversation with some really nice fellow travellers. We even celebrate Pesach together, drinking wine with an Israeli couple. Lechaim!

Island hopping along the Shimanamikaido

We are glad we waited for the rain to pass, as the day after is gloriously sunny and we set off in an excellent mood. The Shimanamikaido route from Imabari on Shikoku to Onomichi on Honshu is only about 75km, so we decide to take some detours and savour the islands for a day or two. After this we will get to more densely populated urban areas so we want to enjoy the peace and quiet as long as possible. The suspension bridges are spectacular, offering stunning views on the sea and the islands below. On Oshima island we follow the Northern “island explorer” loop and find some sleepy little fisherman villages along a road with almost zero traffic. Bliss! It is nice to see many other cyclists out and about. We see young people racing, old people doing a gentle exercise round, lots of Japanese tourists and families with kids. No other bike tourers unfortunately but still, we love seeing this amazing bicycle infrastructure being used so enthusiastically.

 

Skipping across to Hakatajima and another bridge takes us to Onoshima. Here we visit a small museum designed by Toyo Ito, with a great exhibition about his involvement in regenerating the island. As is the case in most of rural Japan the islands population was shrinking. Most young people head to the cities and only elderly residents and fishermen stay behind. On Onoshima however efforts are made to turn the tide. Architects and islanders are starting projects that will attract more visitors while respecting and preserving the traditional ways of life on the island. We read stories from the original islanders about life in the last century, telling tales of swimming in the strong currents between the islands and underwater fighting with an octopus. When we have a chat with a man who offers us a drink from one of the many roadside vending machines we get the impression that people are happy and proud to be from this beautiful and special corner of Japan. When the sun starts to set we find another serene hilltop shrine to camp for the night.

On our second shimanamikaido day we cross to Ikuchijima island and visit the Ikuo Hirayama museum. Hirayama was a Hiroshima nuclear bomb survivor and a master of the traditional Japanese Nihonga school of drawing and painting. He expresses himself in clear pen strokes and water colours. His work focuses on promoting peace and tracing the origins of Buddhism, and to that end he traveled along the silk road. We are happy to discover paintings of places that we have also visited in Iran, China and Thailand. One of the great joys of this trip has been about how cultures, ideas and people freely cross borders and exchange inspiration, often resulting in beautiful artefacts. These sublime drawings are just one example.

Two more islands and we are on mainland Honshu. We don’t stop in Onomichi which is a shame because it seems a really lovely little town, with lots of little cafe’s, galleries and restaurants. Instead we barrel along a busy highway, trying to make as many kilometres as possible. It is still sunny and we have the wind in our back and music in our ears, so we do more than 100km before we set up camp next to a small graveyard in a hilltop village, just off the highway but a world away from the chain restaurants, gas stations and endless stream of cars.

We loved every kilometre of the Shimanamikaido. The whole route we had separate bike lines, bike minded people and places, beautiful scenery and interesting places to visit. We can’t recommend it highly enough for every cyclist who plans to visit Japan.

Naoshima: art and island life

Since we covered so much distance we only have to cycle 40km more the day after. From the port of Uno we hop across to Naoshima, an island famous for its many modern art installations and museums. On the ferry we are all of a sudden surrounded by pasty white artsy hipsters, and we feel once again like scruffy outsiders, even though this was my peer group back home in Amsterdam. Naoshima is a small island, only about 2km by 4km, and half of it is designated to the art and museums. There are some guest houses and a couple of restaurants but the two small villages on the island are still very much like traditional fishing villages, which makes for a nice vibe.

Since we arrive quite early we have a good half day of exploring the land art and installations. We visit six renovated traditional village houses with art installations and a museum dedicated to the work of Lee Ufan. All the museums on the island are designed by Tadao Ando, meaning the buildings (often half underground) subtly blend with the landscape and provide a tailored setting for the exhibited art works. There is a small Tadao Ando museum as well, with a gorgeous concrete model of his famous Osaka church. The unofficial symbol of the island is one of Yayoi Kusama‘s dotted pumpkins, placed on a small jetty. The Benesse corporation is the initiator of the art boom on Naoshima, by opening a hotel/gallery in the late eighties. Over the years other museums and art sites opened and Naoshima became some sort of pilgrimage site for modern art lovers.

As we spend the afternoon cycling around the art works we have a hard time deciding on where to camp, as there are so many beautiful beaches. We even consider another one of Kusama’s pumpkins as a possible sleeping place, until we decide on the site of the former Naoshima castle. On the top of a hill overlooking the sea we set up our tent under billowing and gently snowing clouds of sakura. 

We cycle around one more day and wind down in the afternoon. There is a bath house that has been designed by an artist and I soak in the extravagantly and erotically tiled hot tub, being supervised by an elephant and dreaming away with Brian Eno soundscapes. We have dinner in a sweet little restaurant with a Dutch couple who travel around Japan in the tiniest camper we have ever seen. When the restaurant owners hear about our year long cycling adventure they give us two beautiful handmade coasters. They are decorated with their signature dish: a strange little sea creature that looks and tastes like a cross between a turtle’s paw and a sea anemone.

Today we cross the Seto inland sea with two ferry rides, from Naoshima via Takamatsu at Shikoku back to mainland Honshu. As we get closer to Tokyo we will enter our first big Japanese cities: Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. Right now we are still relaxed and dreamy, having spent a couple of lovely days on a very special art island.

 

Cherry blossoms and earthquakes

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!

Sweet lolita ladies
Sweet lolita ladies

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!

Fukuoka Zen garden
Fukuoka Zen garden

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.

There is no charming way to slurp that Ramen
There is no charming way to slurp that Ramen

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.

Stop and smell the cherry blossom
Stop and smell the cherry blossom

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.

Love under the sakura
Love under the sakura

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.

Work by Korean artist Kim Tschang-yeul
Work by Korean artist Kim Tschang-yeul

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.

#cycledrinking
#cycledrinking

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.

Kyushu’s coastline

From Fukuoka we head South, towards Nagasaki. We take three days of cycling and one ferry, mostly hugging the spectacular coast line.

Kyushu coast
Kyushu coast

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.

Camping at a Shinto shrine
Camping at a Shinto shrine

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.

Lonely tori
Lonely tori

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.

Staring at the sea
Staring at the sea

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!

Nagasaki

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.

With our host Yukiko
With our host Yukiko

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.

Origami garlands for peace
Origami garlands for 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.

Dejima
Dejima

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.

Natural disasters

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.

Shimabara castle
Shimabara castle

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.

Image by Batholith (Wikimedia Commons)- NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22579331
Image of Aso San by Batholith (Wikimedia Commons)- NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22579331

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:

Aso San on a good day
Aso San on a good day

Our view is more like this:

Mist and rain
Mist and rain

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.

Ferry nice
Ferry nice

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”

37 degrees and rising

We are currently in a quiet and cool guesthouse next to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport, getting some extra sleep and preparing for our midnight flight to Fukuoka, Japan.

It is surreal to be here, ready to jump to our last destination, and to think that we came this far by bicycle. This realisation will take some time to sink in. It is one thing to say ‘We are going to cycle to Tokyo!’ and another thing to actually be so close to the goal we set out for almost a year ago. The other day we were looking through our photos from the trip and it is hard to comprehend just how much we have seen and done. This past year has not been one huge trip, but many trips-of-a-lifetime in succession. Europe was one journey, as was Georgia and Armenia. Iran was it’s own story, followed by Central Asia. You could travel forever in China and discover more and more, it’s a world on its own. Then Southeast Asia. Our next trip starts soon, as we suspect that Japan will be a whole new bicycle adventure.

We are going to try a new packing trick for the bicycles: wrapping them in 6om of cling film. Fingers crossed Thai Airways will accept this and our steel babies will come out ok on the other end.

37 degrees and rising

During our week in Chiang Mai we realise our mistake in assuming that Myanmar has a different climate from Thailand. Our border crossing simply coincided with the start of a new and bloody hot season. The heat we experienced in Myanmar has also arrived in Thailand. After picking up the Chinese visum we hop on a bus to Phitsanulok and we start cycling South towards Bangkok. The roads are excellent and flat as a pancake so we average 90km per day. The heat however is huge challenge, and we feel that as soon as the temperature hits 37 degrees it starts to feel unhealthy and we head for the shade to sleep until it cools down to manageable levels. At night it is still more than 25 degrees. I am also plagued by yet another stomach bug which doesn’t help. Luckily Thailand is an extremely easy country to travel in so every night we treat ourselves to a cheap room in a motel-like resort with airco and a shower. With soaring temperatures and a feisty belly this is no excessive luxury. We were really looking forward to camp but the tent will have to wait until we are in Japan where it will be a lot cooler and a lot more expensive.

Still, as always we love being back on the bicycle again after a period of enforced laziness. Our week in Chiang Mai was spent in limbo, waiting for my Chinese visum to come through. Being on the move again feels good and we enjoy the long days on the road. Once again we are completely in the moment, sweating out the kilometers as we are pedalling South.

Chinese red tape: the colour of good luck

I was scared my Chinese visum application might be rejected because of all the muslim country stamps in my passport. Especially authority-endearing: my rather grim t3rr0r1st-like Iranian visum photo. Unsmiling face, tightly wrapped hijab, staring eyes. The Chinese are touchy about muslim visitors because of the Uighur tensions in Xinjiang and people have had their visum applications rejected before because of previous visits to Turkey. No problem this time however. I did get interrogated by a very nice lady who wanted to know why I was going back for another three months. By bicycle? Alone? How very brave. I give you three months. So, my plan to move to Kunming is becoming a reality. I contacted my friends over there and booked a ticket from Tokyo to Chengdu. I’m preparing by doing a TEFL course and talking to other foreign English teachers about their experiences. I expect to hit the ground running.

Ayutthaya

Our last two stops before we ride into Bangkok give us a couple of beautiful insights about Thailand. We arrive in Ayutthaya, together with Sukhothai one of the grand historical Thai capitals, we adore the elephants at the royal kraal and spend one morning exploring the temple ruins.

We then meet up with Jo, our warmshowers host for one night. He and his wife Mhoo are avid cyclists. They both work as engineers for Philips, a Dutch company, so he is excited to host us. We are his first Dutch guests.

Dutch and Japanese traces in Thailand

Together we cycle off the island that is ancient Ayutthaya, and just South of the old town we come by two former foreign trading posts. Around 1600 the Dutch and the Japanese settled here in two villages of which traces remain. Both settlements now have a museum. It is quite special to visit a bit of The Netherlands and a bit of Japan in Thailand, the countries of departure and destination of this trip. Baan Hollanda has a beautiful exhibition detailing the life in the settlement and we enjoy a chat with a Thai lady who speaks really good Dutch. They even have frikandellen on the menu.

The Japanese village also has an interesting display about the multicultural society of Ayutthaya. Just like Amsterdam Ayutthaya welcomed foreigners who were prosecuted for their beliefs in their own country. Thus the settlement was populated by Japanese Christians, who arrived after Japan prohibited the religion.

The reasons for this multiculturalism were of course hardly ideological but rather pragmatic: Ayutthaya greatly benefited from its position as an international centre of trade. The city thrived until it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767. There are still about 60.000 people living here today (down from 1 million in its heyday) and the population is still very diverse. There is large muslim population and we see signs of Chinese culture as well.

We stay one night with Jo and Mhoo, enjoying dinner together. As always it is great to meet fellow cycling community member through the warmshowers network, and we feel we have made another friend, even if we only spend one afternoon sightseeing and share a home cooked dinner together.

Bangkok

We had planned to ride to the Northernmost ferry stop on the river Chao Phraya, take a boat into central Bangkok from there and skip 25km of congested and polluted city riding. No such luck: at the ferry stop of Pak Kret we find out the ferry only goes on weekdays. There is a weekend ferry stop 10km further South, but when we get there we discover they won’t take bicycles on board. Luckily the Sunday traffic in Bangkok is a few degrees less than horrendous so we make it to our hostel in one piece and without too much swearing.

And here we are, in Bangkok. We came here by bicycle. And shortly we fly to Japan. Bye bye Thailand, we love you longtime!