Yakushima

Yakushima is a magical place, steeped in legends old and new. It’s an island where nature rules; the forest is dense and barely touched by humans, deer and monkeys roam freely and the heavy rainfall and subtropical temperatures keep the steep mountainsides looking lush and green all year round.

With only 13,000 people living on the 500km² island, it is one of the most sparsely populated places in Japan. Most people live in the small towns of Miyanoura and Anbo, and the other small villages are scattered around the coastal road of Route 77/78. No one lives in the forested interior. The lack of supermarkets, convenience stores and pachinko parlours means you can easily forget you are in Japan. When cycling past pink azaleas, tea plantations and banana trees, I could have mistaken my location for somewhere in South-east Asia. It was the antithesis of the fluorescent lights and noisy shopping alleyways of Osaka.

In three days, with one day trekking in the forest, my father and I circumnavigated the island by bike; a ride we’ll never forget.

We’d already been on the road for a week, crossing the bridges of the Shimanami Kaido, checking out the boiling hells of Beppu and conquering the smouldering volcano of Mt. Aso. Needless to stay, we were in need of a rest day, but our tight schedule had not included one. Instead, we enjoyed a leisurely four hours rest on the slow ferry from Kagoshima to Yakushima.

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On the ferry with Sakura-jima, another active volcano, silhouetted in the distance.

When the island came into view, mist hung in between the mountain peaks and made it look even more wild than we’d imagined. The closer we got, the more we could appreciate the beauty of the green mountains and rocky shores, as well as appreciating its larger-than-accepted size. If we wanted to cycle around the island, there would be no rest day for us.

We cycled off the ferry, booked our tickets on the hydrofoil for the return trip and found an ATM to get enough cash out to last us the three days. The port of Miyanoura seemed deserted and a ramen restaurant was our only choice for lunch. The friendly owner served us the black pork ramen, with black noodles and slices of pork that resembled the famous cedar trees on the island. It was delicious, and just what we needed before our 30km ride to our guest house in the south-east side of the island.

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Just as we were leaving Miyanoura, it started to rain. Big heavy droplets of warm but never ending rain. Soon, the novelty of cycling in the subtropical weather wore off, and we battled against it for over two hours as we made our way to our guest house. At one point I sheltered by some vending machines, hugging a can of warm coffee and contemplated going into a laundrette to get dry!

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When we finally arrived at Yakushima Guesthouse, we were exhausted and soaked to the skin. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu, welcomed us into their brand-new guest house and showed us everything we needed; a bathroom, a washing and dryer machine and the kitchen with free tea and coffee. I’d never been so happy!

That evening we sat chatting with Mr. Shimizu in the kitchen, while Mrs. Shimizu cut up sweet Yakushima oranges and giggled at her husband’s jokes. They reminded me of my grandparents. He told us that they used to live in Tokyo but after he retired at 63 he became very sick and decided that not-working was bad for his health. So he bought some land on Yakushima and moved there to start growing organic fruit and vegetables. At first his wife was apprehensive about living on an island so remote and far-removed from mainland-Japan life, but after three years she too moved to the island. In February 2014 they opened the guest house in the hope to keep busy and to meet travellers who passed through.

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Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu outside the guest house.

Retirement in Japan

Mr. Shimizu’s story made me curious about retirement in Japan. Retirement certainly doesn’t mean being inactive for Japanese people, and it is common to have a first, second or third retirement, moving to less demanding positions each time. Even though retirement age is 60, it will increase to 65 by 2025, 5.7 million Japanese people continue working past 65 years old. This is why you will see many older men doing jobs such as guarding train station bikes or directing pedestrians at a festival. Often these men may have worked their way up in a company, but at 60 they had to retire, but they are still physically fit and able to work, so they get another job.

This second or third retirement culture keeps men active and busy, and prevents wives from suffering from ‘retired husband syndrome’ (Shujin Zaitaku Sutoresu Shoukougun), a medically defined stress related illness that occurs in 60% of Japan’s female older population. Typically, husbands of the baby boomer generation are the breadwinners of the family, and taking care  f the home is the female domain. But when the husband retires and spends more time at home this can causes stress for his wife. The fact that there is a defined syndrome for this says a lot about the importance of work and the effects this has on husband-wife relationships in Japan. It may also be because it’s unusual to get divorced in Japan, as an ex-wife has no rights on her husband’s pension, so she is financially dependent on her husband, even if they have a strained relationship.

Yet Mr and Mrs Shimizu seemed very happy together and are one of the sweetest couples I’ve met! They weren’t the only retirees we met who had moved to Yakushima in search of a paradise to enjoy their latter years of their life. The following day we went in search of Hirauchi Onsen, a hot spring coming out of rock pools by the sea. Mr Shimizu had told us that it was a mixed onsen, but women usually wear towels when they go in. He warned us not to try it at 11.30am when the tour bus came round! But we were only wanted to dip our feet in the hot water.

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At the rock pools we met a man wearing a straw hat and looking very relaxed as he painted new signs on the rocks. To our surprise, he spoke fluent English! It turned out that Mr. Machida was another retiree from Tokyo. After he had retired from teaching, he travelled the world for four years looking for the best place to live. Out of all the countries he visited it was Yakushima that he fell in love with, and for the last thirteen years has spent his days gardening and his evenings onsening under the stars. It was refreshing to meet people who had chosen the life they wanted to lead and were enjoying it.

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The magic of the forest

When we were leaving the Shimizu’s they pointed out Mt. Mochomu, a large rock face that faced the sea. It looked stunning. They said that every village around the island have their own ‘rock’ that the people living nearby it pray to everyday. This connection with nature is something that visitors can feel during even a short stay on the island. Most tourists come to walk in the famous cedar forests, the most daring of those staying overnight in lodges. We took a day to go to Yakusugi Land, a collection of trail routes in the forest. These routes give you the feel of the forest, the trees that have been there for thousands of years, the moss that carpets the undergrowth and the animal sounds that make you feel like you’re in a Miyazaki animation.

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The forest was beautiful, but we took a detour to get off the trail routes. The detour was much longer than we expected it to be and after an hour’s climb we were near the top of Mt. Tachudake, a mountain that is famous for its outcrop of boulders at the summit. We didn’t have enough time to take in the views from the top, but on the bus journey down from Yakisugi Land we saw breathtaking views of the valleys with white sakura trees breaking up the green blanket of forest. We also saw our first monkeys and deer there.

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Circling the island

On our third day, we headed west to continue cycling around the island. This ride included the Seibu Rindoh Forest Path, a World Heritage Cycling course that goes through the Kirishima-Yaku National Park. This was the most exhilarating and exhausting ride I’ve ever done. Exhilarating because we had to pass troops of monkeys by the side of the one-lane road, and exhausting because it was so hilly. It was after some monkeys became aggressive and chased that we had that extra adrenalin to get us through the forest and out to civilisation again!

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Once recovered and refuelled from the torturous journey through the forest, we cycled on to the most beautiful beach on the island at Nagata Inakahama. Turtles have laid their eggs here for centuries and now there is an NGO to protect them. We took a look around the small information centre and bought some souvenirs before getting on our bikes again for the last 25km.

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The road went on and on, but compared to the Forest Path, the terrain was easy and the end was in sight. When we finally made it to Miyanoura, it was dusk and we were so happy and relieved to have made it. We celebrated with some sashimi, some fried flying fish, washed down with a beer and some Yakushima mitake shochu.

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The next day we took the super-cool hydrofoil that took us back to Kagoshima in under two hours. We then took a Shinkansen from Kagoshima to Shin-Osaka, before changing to the Thunderbird train to go all the way to my home in Fukui, a 12 hour and 1200km journey.

Yakushima was the last destination on our 12-day cycling trip and one of our favourite places. You know when you have loved a place or the memories made there, when you feel a sense of sadness as you leave. Yakushima will always be a special place because of its natural beauty, but it was the people we met who made our trip so special. We were welcomed into Yakushima Guesthouse by the Shimizus’ like we were family, and were inspired by the people we met along the way, like Mr. Machida who live simple but fulfilling lives embracing and enjoying the natural wonders of the island. This slow pace of life is so refreshing and inspiring to see anywhere in the world, but especially in Japan, where work always comes first and people don’t seem to have much time to enjoy life. Yet, the people we met on Yakushima seemed to have it sorted.

 

 

 

Aso to Kagoshima

Due to the fact that I didn’t have a rack on my bike, and my dad already had a front and rear rack fitted, he offered to carry all the luggage, and I, unsurprisingly, accepted. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. My dad may have cycled the length of Britain in 9 days, but he is not superman, and the 20 kilograms plus of essential bike equipment and not so essential clothes, weighed him down on the inclines. And of course, I had to deal with the burden of guilt when people we met along the way pointed out the grave equality of luggage distribution! This was no better put than a guest house owner who exclaimed “The Queen and the Slave”. Mmh. Because of that, I tried to cycle Dad’s loaded bike and got 100m before needing a rest. I decided to buy Dad a box of chocolates for his kindness, or some might say stupidity, in carrying all the luggage. But he shared the chocolates with me, too. Maybe it comes down to a father-daughter thing.

The extra weight was because we both had over packed. When we left Fukui it was snowing, so we took thermal leggings, waterproof trousers and puffer jackets. Yet in Kyushu we didn’t need much more than a T-shirt and shorts. To ease the weight of the panniers we decided to send some unnecessary belongings back to my apartment. How, you ask? By Yamato Transport. It’s a nation-wide company that has outlets everywhere, you’ll see the sign of the cat in people’s houses, and you can send anything you want and it’ll arrive safety at the time and destination of your choice. We sent about 2 kilo grams of stuff, to arrive at my apartment when we returned, and sure enough on the hour a delivery man arrived with our boxed luggage in his hand! This unbelievably convenient service cost about 1500 yen, not much at all considering the distance it had to travel!

Dad happy to have lost a couple of kilos of luggage!

Feeling a little lighter, well I assume Dad did, we cycled down from Aso’s caldera to Kumamoto; the city historically famous for its castle and nowadays famous for the prefecture’s character, Kumamon. The first twenty kilometres cycling were downhill all the way and the road wasn’t too busy. Yet after a couple of hours we were soon caught up in traffic and I nearly got knocked off my bike.

They say in accidents that everything happens in slow motion, but this really did happen in slow motion! I was crossing a side road and I had right of way, yet the driver on the main road didn’t see me and turned towards me. I could see this happening, but my legs didn’t peddle any faster, perhaps I was already anticipating the impact. Yet it never came. The car missed my rear tyre by an inch. Phew. Once across the road, I breathed a sigh of relief, tightened up my helmet and decided to be more wary of dreamy drivers.

When we arrived at Kumamoto we were ready for lunch and a rest, but first we had to fight our way through the traffic and climb the ramparts into the castle grounds. We had hit Kumamoto at lunch hour, on a prime hanami-party day and the streets were filled with salary men and women enjoying the sakura (cherry blossom). We filled our panniers with the best combini picnic food we could find, and headed to the castle park where hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties were in full flow. Groups of friends, colleagues and families sat in circles on blue tarpaulins sharing platters of food and drinking beer and oolong tea. Children chased pigeons, students played frisbee and old men photographed the sakura, like they have done for decades. 

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Sharing the coming of spring through hanami parties is special to Japanese people. Japanese culture is so tied into the seasons that they have festivals to celebrate the changing of each season. The whitish-pink sakura is a beautiful blessing that marks the end of winter and the harbinger of spring. And it sure felt like spring.

After our picnic of edamame beans, sushi rolls and onigiri, we took a look at Kumamoto Castle from the outside. We met some retired men who were professionals at spinning tops, and it looked so much fun we had a go. We also saw many couples posing for wedding photos, they didn’t look like they were having much fun.

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Just as were leaving I noticed I had a flat tyre. Well, there’s no prettier place to change a tyre. (And really, I did help before and after I took this picture!)

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After we’d changed my inner tube, we headed to the station to catch a bullet train that would take us to Kagoshima. Yet taking a train meant dismantling the bikes, something I was coming to loathe because we usually had to carry the bikes in the bags which were heavy and cumbersome. Yet trying to avoid this trouble, and the leg bruises I was getting from it, I asked to wheel the bikes through the ticket gate and we were allowed to dismantle them on the platform. Win!

But, there was another problem, Dad couldn’t find his rail pass! We emptied all four panniers worth of belongings on the pavement, something a Japanese person would never do, and after a lot of huffing and puffing, we found the card that Dad paid £350 for. Another sigh of relief.

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Once on the Shinkansen, we relaxed, enjoying the feeling of not doing anything. Ahh. That was a nice feeling. Yet it was only an hour’s journey until we reached Kagoshima, the most southern city in Kyushu, and it was time to move again. Heave ho…

After putting our bikes together, and finding our not-so-pleasant ‘Little Asian’ hostel, we went out in search of food. We were recommended the yataimura, a collection of tiny restaurants that seat only a handful of people. In the yatai stall we choose, we ate shabu shabu (thin slices of meat which you cook in a boiling pan of water) and grilled kurobuda (black pork) (that is actually from Berkshire black pigs). We sat around the grill with four other guests and two yatai staff. My Japanese conversational skills were put to the test as they asked us many questions about our journey, but I seemed to pass ok. We kanpai-ed together and enjoyed an extra beer and a dessert after our exciting, but exhausting day.

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Cycling Mt. Aso

Over an early breakfast, we watched as the clouds lifted to reveal the hills leading up to caldera of five volcanoes, collectively known as Mt. Aso. Into the blue sky we could see the steaming crater of Mt. Naka, the largest active volcano in Japan, and among the largest in the world. And it was a perfect day to see it.

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Leaving from Aso Base Backpackers we started pedalling up through a dense forest. The morning sunshine filtered through the trees, but not enough to warm our bodies. Once above the tree line, the full beauty of Aso crater became apparent and in the sunshine we soon warmed up. Although the grass was still a dreary brown colour, the views were breathtaking.

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Our friends from the hostel waved at us from the bus and we kept on pedalling. In beautiful countryside, I believe cycling is a perfect speed to travel at, fast enough to cover a fair distance but slow enough to enjoy the scenery as you pass by it.

About two hours later, we arrived at Kusasenri-ga-hama, a grassy area with a large pond, where you can ride horses on one side of the road, and try a horse steak kebab on the other! I wondered what the connection was between the riding horses and the horse kebabs, but didn’t really want to know.

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We cycled as far as we could to the crater, but the road and cable car was closed, so we took some photos and had lunch.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs this photo shows, I was tired and ready to head back down the mountain. Yet from our advantage point, we saw that the road up to the crater had been opened and buses, cars and pedestrians were making their way to the top.

Dad and I looked at each other. “We’re going to have to cycle up there, aren’t we?”, I said. Of course he replied, “Well it’s not every day you get to see into a crater of a volcano.” I sighed, my tired legs sighed, my whole body sighed. But I agreed, we’d have to do it. 

The cycle to the crater of Mt. Naka was steep, but we were cheered on by groups of Singaporean tourists heading down, so we kept pedalling inching closer to the top. Nearing the crater, I found myself in flumes of rotten-eggs smelling steam. I also noticed lots of buses descending with their passengers wearing masks and holding scarves over their faces. I wished I had a mask to wear!

We pulled up about 50 meters away from the crater and were engulfed in clouds of the white gas. It wasn’t pleasant, but I was keen to look into the crater from the other side, after the huge effort we’d made to reach the top. Yet, a man wearing a protective suit and full on gas mask, pointing that we had to go down the mountain. Then, they turned the announcement from Japanese to English.

ATTENTION PLEASE. THE SULPHUROUS GAS LEVELS HAS SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASED TO THE EFFECT IT IS HARMFUL FOR THE HUMAN BODY. PLEASE EVACUATE.

We couldn’t believe it! We’d just reached the crater and we were being evacuated off the volcano! But I was happy to get out of the eggy-smelling sulphur, especially as I’d heard that three people had died from poisonous gases on Mt. Aso in the 90s. Since then gas measurements are constantly taken and tourists are only allowed to the top when the sulphur dioxide level are very low. So, it was just bad luck that the caldera area had been opened for a period of about 30 minutes, just enough time for us to reach the top and take this photo, before it got to dangerous, and we had to go down.

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So in true Walter Mitty style we raced down from the smouldering volcano. We didn’t stop until we were far enough away not to smell the fumes, and spent the next hour winding our way down the volcano back to Base. That was a pretty exhilarating day!