Shinto by the sea

After our first taste of urban life (Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto: more about this in a later blog) we venture back into the wild. Our original plan was to bus from Kyoto to Hokkaido, but we’re a bit daunted by the idea of two consecutive night bus trips and reports of wet snow in Hokkaido. Thus we decide to circle clockwise from Kyoto and head south again, visiting the lightly populated Kii peninsula. This area has a mountainous interior covered in forests, a gorgeous craggy coastline and it holds the beating hearts of Japans Shinto, Shugendo and Buddhist Shingon religions. We do plenty of climbing meters in our two weeks here, making this a great alternative to the Japanese alps. We considered going there but it is still snowy at altitude and some roads are closed for cycling. We are very happy with our route around the Kii peninsula.

Torii
Torii

Going feral

From Kyoto we follow a bicycle path along a river dyke towards Nara. The weather is just perfect and we start wild camping right away. We realize we have definitely become a bit wilder over the last year. We enjoyed the creature comforts of our Kyoto apartments, but we weren’t super happy sleeping inside, especially set off against the exorbitant costs. Why pay 50 euro for an apartment if you can camp for free almost everywhere? Staying indoors makes us restless and cranky, we miss the space and fresh air so much.

Bamboo forest camping
Bamboo forest camping

Our first night out camping after Kyoto is nothing special but the following nights we find the most stunning spots, one in a bamboo forest, one in a river bed, a few times by the sea, as per usual sometimes next to a shrine and a couple of nights we treat ourself to a camp fire. In Shirahama we stay in a gazebo overlooking the sea, next to a shrine, and we are caught by the neighbours who come around for an early evening stroll. They are curious and friendly and later on they come by again with ice cream and raisin buns for us.

Best camping spot ever
Best camping spot ever

One night we spend on a real camp site, a special experience.

Camp fire on the beach
Camp fire on the beach

In the morning of our last night of stealth camping we are surprised by a troupe of monkeys. We had set up camp on a little abandoned road next to a tunnel and we were obviously obstructing them on their way to breakfast. The monkeys moved around us one by one, clambering over the rock fence and swinging through the trees behind our tent ever so slowly and carefully and just as curious about us as we were about them.

River bed camping
River bed camping

Other nights we have heard wild boar foraging and we spotted some deer in the mountains. Near Koyasan we saw signs warning about black Asian bears but we never saw or heard them. We are amazed at how easy it is to go from urban Japan to pretty wild nature, sometimes it only takes 100m away from the highway to be in complete silence and surrounded by wild animals and early morning bird song.

First cultural highlight: Nara

For a short while Nara was the capital before Kyoto took over for the next 1000 years. The historical part of Nara is laid out in a delightful park filled with tame deer, little restaurants and the most amazing shrines. One of the largest wooden buildings in the world can be found here.

Toda-ji
Toda-ji

Todai-Ji is indeed vast, but it is a well proportioned building and rather than intimidate it invites the visitor to step inside under the beautifully crafted rafters. We are just in time before the busloads of tourists arrive so we enjoy the feel of the building in relative peace and quiet. It is not just the building that is awe-inspiring. Inside is a daibutsu, or giant seated bronze Buddha, again one of the largest in the world.

Despite being a place of superlatives Nara is inspiring without being overwhelming, a lovely morning of strolling around and sightseeing.

Shinto by the sea

After Nara we continue East towards Ise, the capital of Japans Shinto religion. Here we visit Ise Jingu, a complex consisting of Japans two most venerated shrines, Geku and Naiku. They are both set in beautiful forest parks with huge redwood trees.

The shrines are relatively simple structures, made of untreated cedar wood and thick thatched roofs crowned by a line of heavy wooden rollers and soaring crossed wooden beams, tipped with copper. The cross beams remind us of the samurai head gear, or crossed swords.

Vintage samurai
Vintage samurai

The design is based on old rice storage spaces and they are kept quite high of the ground by heavy wooden beams.

Ise grand shrine
Ise grand shrine

In line with Shinto tradition they are rebuilt every twenty years, in order to keep the place fresh and new. Next to the current shrine the place of the old shrine is marked by a floorplan laid out in white stones and a small wooden ghost house. The rebuilding of the shrine and the moving of the kami from the old shrine to the new one is a process of many rituals, only for the first time witnessed by a Westerner in the 1950’s.

Over the next few days we visit more shrines and we make a little prayer too: bow before the tori before entering, throw a coin into the collection box, pull at the heavy rope in front of the shrine entrance to ring the bell, bow two times, clap two times, bow one more time. At all of the shrines we visit there is constant coming and going of people of all ages and priests in fabulous classical Japanese robes continuously perform rituals. Shinto seems to be alive and kicking and very much a part of modern Japanese life.

Sunday ceremonial best
Sunday ceremonial best

Next to one of the Ise shrines is a small museum that explains a bit more about the traditions, the rituals and the handicrafts involved in the rebuilding of the Shinto shrines. There is a 100% scale model of the most sacred shrine, which is nice because the original one is hidden behind a wooden fence and can only be seen by the highest priest and the emperor. Seeing how the traditional handicrafts and woodwork have been kept alive for the last 1200 years by this recurring rebuilding is really beautiful. The shrines are built without a single nail: it is all meticulous craftsmanship, perfectly fitting wood connections, chiseled millimeter by millimeter and finally sanded to a velvet finish.

Ise shrine
Ise shrine

What is even more astonishing is that this deeply old fashioned way of living and working exists within one of the most technologically advanced societies of the world. This dichotomy is the most fascinating aspect of Japan. Throughout our trip around Japan we come across open wood workshops and the smell of freshly shaved cedar wood wafting by is a lovely ephemeral impression of Japan, expressing a love of tradition and natural materials.

Kumanokōdō: hot springs and cold baths

After Ise we cut a corner across the peninsula. The road is again beautiful, winding up and down through forested hills. We descend towards the pacific and follow the coast for a few days. Since we visited the Ise shrines and since we are spending so much time outside we feel we are getting closer to the mystical side of Japan. One morning I meet a man by the sea who teaches me how to whistle on a stone that has holes in it, made by a sea creature equipped with a mini-drill. He plays for me and explains he is calling the kami, or local spirits. He says the shrill sound of the whistling stone is the foundation for the music in kabuki theatre.

Before getting back on the bicycle we find some sea turtles swimming in a salt water pond nearby.

Sea turtle says ohayu gozaimasu
Sea turtle says ohayu gozaimasu

We are happily traveling in gorgeous weather and camping by the sea until we get to Kumano, one of the destinations of the Kumanokōdō pilgrimage route. The pilgrimage is an important ritual for followers of the Shugendō religion, a mixture between different esoteric strains of Buddhism and Shinto.

Kumano Hayatama Taishi
Kumano Hayatama Taishi

Shugendō literally means “the path of training and testing”, and the pilgrimage traditionally contained many rituals meant to bring spiritual enlightenment through discipline, for instance washing in ice cold water. We contend ourselves with climbing some mountains and enjoy some of the many hot springs that can also be found on the way.

The Kii peninsula has been a popular pilgrimage destination for the Kyoto noblemen and -women for centuries and there are many beautiful drawings and written reports of the pilgrimages throughout the centuries, on display in several exhibitions along the route. Today it is also popular, but we are mostly alone and only see crowds in the most important shrines.

Hiking part of the historical Kumanokōdō path
Hiking part of the historical Kumanokōdō path

There are three main shrines, hundreds of minor shrines and thousands of jizo or little roadside pilgrimage markers. These jizo are often adorned with a little red bib, an old ritual for the protection of children.

Jizo. Photo: http://bit.ly/1ouQtjw
Jizo. Photo: http://bit.ly/1ouQtjw

We continue along the coastline, rounding the southern cape of Honshu at Kushimoto and traveling up towards Shirahama. Here is our first and favourite onsen of the Kii peninsula: an outdoor rockpool right by the seaside. If you sit close enough to the sea you are warmed by the hot spring water while being sprayed by the cold salt water from the ocean. Pure heaven, and the people who run it are lovely. I am allowed in despite my tattoos and we enjoy a good long soak in the sun. This hot spring has been a favourite of noblemen since about 1000 years and is one of the oldest operating onsen of Japan.

Sakinoyu onsen in Shirahama
Sakinoyu onsen in Shirahama

After our hot bath at Shirahama we head inland again and gradually climb towards Hongu where the main Shugendō shrine is located. We are now entering Golden Week, one of the three short weeks a year when all of hardworking Japan is on a short holiday. The roads are busy and Hongu is full of Japanese holiday makers. Near Hongu is a small village with a cluster of onsen and a campsite, and for the first time since Serbia we put up our tent on a legit campspot, between families in huge tents who are barbecuing as if their life depends on it. Being on a camp site is quite weird after months of stealth camping. We do wonder why we forked out 1400 yen for the privilege of putting up our tent so close to so many other people and not even having a shower. Still,  observing our camping neighbours was good fun, it’s nice to watch the Japanese in relaxed holiday mode. They have brought whole outdoor kitchens along with them and kids and fathers enjoy playing in the river with super soakers and fish nets. Nearby are a couple of slightly upmarket hotels and we enjoy watching the hotel guests clacking around on their traditional wooden geta sandals and in their cotton yukata, back and forth between hotel, restaurant and hot spring. 

Classical Japanese hot spring fashion
Classical Japanese hot spring fashion

We spend an afternoon and a morning in yet another hot spring. Pure bliss, and we feel we are getting close to enlightenment. Who needs a cold shower when you can have a hot bath?

Kōya-san

Well rested and super clean we start our last big climb towards Kōya-san, another highly spiritual place. This high valley surrounded by eight mountain peaks houses a large number of shrines dedicated to Shingon.

Kōya-san temples in the mist
Kōya-san temples in the mist

Shingon is an esoteric Buddhist sect and one of the main arms of Buddhism in Japan. The founder is the monk Kōbō-daishi, and he is believed to be eternally meditating in the main hall, waiting for the end of time. He will come out again when the future buddha or maitreya will appear. Another important site here is a huge graveyard filled with monuments for the dead and surrounded by large redwood trees. When we visit it is quite misty and wet, which makes it even more mystical.

Okunoin graveyard
Okunoin graveyard

Kōya-san is again quite touristy and most people who visit stay in an expensive temple lodging. We make the stupid mistake of asking for permission to camp in the park, which of course can not be granted since the person who is ultimately responsible is not at work on a Sunday. Hm. In the end we sneak a few meters up the Kumanokōdō pilgrimage walking trail and find a flat spot where we are hidden under the cover of a thick mist and the falling darkness. In the morning we have another look at the temples before we head to our final destination of Wakayama.

Damon gate at Kōya-san
Daimon gate at Kōya-san

This time we see the temples in bright sunlight and without other tourists around because we are up and about long before everyone else is waking up. The only people around are monks. One is chanting by one of the temples, a nice low hum together with the whistling birds of the early morning.

The last day on the bike

From Kōya-san we fly down to Wakayama, a pleasant seaside town with nothing much to see or do. Our last day on the bicycle is sunny and easy and we don’t want it to stop. But here we are now, spending a few nights in a fancy hotel, a lovely present by Cyrils mates at racefietsblog. It hasn’t quite dawned on us yet that the fully loaded cycling is now over. We stopped the teller at 11.111 kilometers. We enjoy a couple of days of supreme laziness, sleeping in super comfortable beds and eating our way around town. It will probably take a while before we fully realise what we have accomplished together. But first, Tokyo awaits, our official finish line. Bright lights, big city: party time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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”