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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Osaka to Onomichi

When some of the 130 women staying in the basement capsule hotel woke me, I vowed never to stay in a capsule hotel again. I met my father in the smoky breakfast room and he described his experience, of his first public bath and wearing the given beige night-clothes, as ‘being stripped of all his identity’. On that note, we escaped the prison-like hotel and stepped into the bright sunlight of a usual  morning in Osaka.

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At Shin-Osaka Station, we found that we’d have to wait a couple of hours because we hadn’t booked our Shinkansen seats. We decided to enjoy the sun and walked to the river bank to watch some baseball, a sport that seems more popular in Japan than America.

Back at the station we left plenty of time to scout out the easiest way to the platform and then carry our heavy bikes to the platform. This is a slow operation and one that takes great team. I’d find the route, with elevators, not stairs or escalators, then one of us would go through the ticket gate, and the other would pass the bikes and the panniers through afterwards. At some points we’d have to leave the luggage unattended. Thankfully in Japan, you don’t need to worry about anyone stealing your stuff, and I doubt any thief in the world would try to steal a dismantled bike in a bag, not when they weigh as much as ours did!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was our first time putting our bikes on a bullet train and we were a little nervous. Yet it turned out it was no problem. The doors of the train open about three minutes before it ‘takes off’ and we were able to wedge the bikes behind the last seats in the carriage. After that, we took our seats and relaxed at 247km/h the Shinkansen whisked us through Kansai to Hiroshima Prefecture.

In less than two hours we were at our destination, Onomichi. A small fishing town that is the start of the Shimanami Kaido, a cycling route that crosses bridges and islands on the Inland Sea all the way to Shikoku.

IMG_2547Once off the train, we didn’t know where we could put together our bikes, so we choose the quiet station platform to assemble them. This took longer than usual, as the derailleur hanger had bent on my bike and Dad’s bike had a twisted chain. After forty minutes, a station guard came over to us and in true Japanese style, he apologised that we shouldn’t be setting up there. Then we apologised, then he apologised again and he walked away content; mission accomplished and no loss of face breached in the process. When we did exit the station we found a ‘Bike Set-Up Area’ just outside where many other cyclists were disassembling their bikes. Well, the station guard could’ve just told us that! 

That afternoon we got our bearings by cycling round the quaint town that feels like you’re in a set for a 1960’s soap opera. The covered walkway looks like it hasn’t changed for decades, and like a story book fishing town, there are cats everywhere! And there is a house that is covered in brightly coloured toys. Eccentric Japan.


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We warmed up our muscles by cycling to the viewpoint of Senkoji Park and watched the sunset over the Setouchi (Seto Inland Sea). The islands we’d be crossing the next day melted into the horizon and we hoped there wouldn’t be any hills like the one we’d just walked up slowly cycled up the whole way.
IMG_2573That night we stayed in Anago no Nedoko (eel’s bed) because the building shares the same long and narrow shape as the bed of an eel. The corridors are only half a meter wide! This unique guest house is a restored townhouse that is decorated in a rustic-retro style down to the door knobs and the cutlery. It also has a cosy common area.

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Adjoined to the front of the guest house is the Akubi Café, renovated as an old elementary school classroom. It has used lockers with the names of students still showing, black boards with the day’s menu on it and traditional Japanese school games to play. One grey-haired woman was obviously enjoying the nostalgic as she sat in a velvet-covered chair with her eyes closed and listened to the scratchy jazz playing. Best of all, the food was delicious; classic curry and rice, washed down with a classic Kirin beer and finished off with a blueberry crumble dessert.

Thankfully the beds of the eel’s house were wider than the corridors, and we both got a good night’s sleep before the cycle ride that awaited us the next day!