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. 


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.



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!)


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.


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.



The pleasures and perils of travelling solo

When you’re travelling alone and something like this happens, it’s nobody’s fault but your own. Well, maybe the guide book could’ve mentioned that one of the most popular tourist sights in Japan is actually covered in scaffolding for five years! Ah, it did. I see it now, that hidden paragraph tagged on at the end that nobody reads. Surely this vital piece of information for the traveller justifies a text box?!


Himeji castle is one of the ”twelve surviving feudal-era fortresses” says the Rough Guide to Japan (2011 edition) and it goes on to give the history of the fantastic castle. I myself are more of an ‘atmospheric traveller’, I go to soak up the feel of the place, to watch the other tourists and to take photographs. The history sections of a guidebook seems to bypass my memory and leaves me with no idea what era something was built or who built it. That’s when I normally rely on a fellow traveller to fill me in, to be my guide for the day. I’ve had the pleasure of travelling with two history students, one of which loved castles and no doubt would’ve filled me in on all the details before we’d even got there. Yet here I was travelling alone and I still had no clue when this castle was built. (For your information, the guidebook reads ‘The present complex of moats, thick defensive walls, keeps and connecting corridors dates from around the early seventeenth century’.)

This day I made two large oversights; firstly, that the castle was not under renovation, secondly, that it would be open to enter. Seeming as it was the 29th December and the start of the New Year holiday, everything was closed. Even the souvenir shops. Yet the picture of me smiling in front of the castle sums up my reaction, I didn’t really care! It was a sunny day, I was neither too hot nor too cold and I had my camera.

As I walked around the perimeter of the castle I came across something that was interesting to me. A very serious game of croquet being played by retirees. Now I thought this was a game just played at tea parties in England, but it seems that the Japanese have taken this game to new levels. It is called geeto booru (gateball) and is a ‘fast-paced, non-contact, highly-strategic team game’ (Wikipedia). There is even a World Gateball Championship! I would have never have found this out if the castle was open.

I also met a very nice man who showed me where the famous Himeji-jo Koko-en gardens were which I was grateful for, except they were closed too. ”Ahh”, I sighed, back to the train station it is.

Yet this experience was softened by the fact I had saved money on not buying anything, so could justify taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to my next stop. For the equivalent of £50 I zoomed across 250km of mountainous land to arrive in Hiroshima exactly 57 minutes later. This was the best decision I’d made yet. The journey was five times quicker than taking the local trains and I got to experience the coolest form of transport in Japan, or even the world.

Before I stepped aboard the shinkansen I made sure it was heading to Hiroshima, as I didn’t want any more surprises that day. Once reassured by another passenger that the train was heading in the right direction, I found a seat by the window and sat next to two half-asleep Japanese women. This is normal on a Japanese train, but I thought I’d stay awake to watch the countryside go whizzing by. The blur of mountains, trees and towns became monotonous after a while and I became sleepy. The motion of the high-speed train is such that it’s very difficult to stay awake! Thankfully I woke up to the gently chimes of the overhead speaker and a woman’s voice in perfect English saying ”We have landed in Hiroshima”. Landed? Am I on a plane, a space craft or a train? I like the touch of showbiz about the shinkansen and got my bag to exit the aircraft, train.

Mobile Japan