We cycled through the dark streets of Okinawa and felt the last early mornings warmth as we approached the ferry terminal. The ferry crew took our bikes and a young women showed us to our appointed space on the ship. She opened the door to room A, a female dorm. Well, not a conventional bunk bed room but a Japanese style room with approximately 25 mats, blankets and box pillows laid out on the floor. We spent lots of time watching the winter Olympics on a large screen with several other passengers in the open space, with obviously Japanese sports focus. We ate a good canteen meal and settled down in our room, which really helped with the boats rocking. As I drifted off I couldn’t image this tranquility or concept on a ferry in Europe. There was even an onsen (communal bath/shower room) on board. The only downside to Japanese ferries are bikes have to be paid for, where at home they normally go free. ( Fare: £115 per person including bikes. Distance approx 650km).
The faint but striking image of Sakurajima volcano came into sight as we cruised into the harbour of Kagoshima. Smoke rose from the mouth of the active volcano another reminder of the volatile landscape we were in. We headed straight out as we had our first Japanese warm showers meeting in the countryside of the Kagoshima prefecture.
We arrived about 30km north west of the city and found ourselves in beautiful wooded hills, passing Japans largest tree and numerous hot spring signs. Our warm showers host Sayaka Fujiura ran an alternative school and this was our home for the night. She offered us the schools Mongolian yurt to stay in. The school was situated in the woods and comprised quirky wooden buildings, ample play space and the immediate connectivity with the outdoors was unique. Our host had cycled the length of Japan and had cycled in Europe before setting up the school. Knowing about our project she suggested she drove us to her friends place. With no hesitation we were in her car and been driven 10 minutes away to the Washi Studio. Green tea was presented to us and we sat around the studio table and discussed the artists papermaking. He brought down several great books and paper examples and he explained his approach as a contemporary artist. We will expand on this in our next paper making visit post (coming soon).
Sayaka dropped us back at the school and we went about cooking and sleeping even though a yurt is so much colder than the tent. In the morning the sound of car doors opening and closing and the chuckles of children filled the grounds. Sayaka asked us if we’d join the group in the morning meeting and present our trip to the kids. All before coffee! 12 children from 4-15 years sat around the large table and greeted us. They passed the globe around the room as kids found out where we both came from and retraced our cycle route. There was something so satisfying to seeing the kids using the globe, no interactive white boards or digital presentations insight. After our brief outline each child told us their names and we finally left them to continue. The school was refreshing, it placed learning on the kids. When I asked Sayaka what she taught she replied “I don’t teach the kids subjects, I mentor and guide them. Children select what they want to learn and we facilitate this”. We meet a couple of parents who stayed around a while and they said there were very few schools in Japan like this. They said their child feels freedom. On a break I played football kick around with a couple of kids and Barbara talked manga, comics with a very entertaining boy called Ricky. I found myself surprised at the freedom the kids had, some played on the roof of the building, other younger girls were using a Japanese saw and hammer to construct a wooden piece, while others ran around and played tag. I wished I had this school experience, as the traditional methods of testing examines was not for me. Sayaka has created a educational haven here and had been a great host.
We distributed a large bag of sweets to the kids and the group waved us off as we peddled up hill slowly. This really was a unique and rewarding stop on the warm showers community.
The next few days of cycling took us through the hills and along the coast roads. We camped along the way and enjoyed both wild spots and official paid sites. A few sites were located next to onsens (under £2) and this combination of camping and a hot soak after a day of cycling is heaven. We got quite addicted to them and by afternoon of another days cycling we’d map out our destination based on a hot spring and possible camping spot. We’d either look for a park, green space or shelter marked on the map. We had a couple of very wet cycling days and this drove us to take advantage of a budget hotel chain so we could dry out and enjoy the luxuries of a room and a buffet breakfast. The Japanese have a saying for March weather “sankan-shion – three days cold, four days warm”, which we can certainly testify to.
We visited Yame city as we have found a papermaker situated there. Again, we will go into more detail in our future paper post. But this visit proved to hold much more than what we had discovered online.
After one very rainy day B had what seemed some major bike issues. We stopped several times trying different things to check until we stopped by a convenience store for free wifi to check forums on the noise. Bearing, cracked frame, spokes, hub issues all came up. Lub nipples and joints came as a suggestion! Which considering the rain we had encountered and the amount of grit and dirt splashed at us this made sense. After a while and after greasing joints the noise eased. We’d lost a few hours and then late afternoon I got a puncture from a large metal spike. At this point we met our first European cyclist Arne, from Germany. We chatted a while as we was heading south and us north and told him our next stop after Japan. He was tempted too so we exchange emails. Puncture fixed we altered our destination and found a new park and yes a hot spring close by. The next day we got an email from Arne saying how good it was to meet and that his evening was a disaster. He had fallen down a water channel and broken a bone in his shoulder. He was most probably having to fly back home for surgery. We offered any help we could give him and were reminded that things can and do change in an instant.
Our onsen was a small local one but with very friendly women. We chatted with a Japanese woman in the bath who spoke great English. In fact as we were dressing the woman began dressing very quickly and left half naked, as an older woman frowned on her behaviour leaving the spa half naked. She returned quickly with 2 drinks of Sobacha (cold noodle drink) and said “a healthy gift to keep you strong for your journey”. She undressed again and returned to her bathing.
Yet again the people we met have been friendly and generous. Complete strangers stop to chat to us and many return with drinks. One man and his daughter tried to chat as we were eating outside a store and he kept saying “safety”. He returned with energy drinks and a bag of sweets (which we are still enjoying). He later passed us in their car and his head poked out of the window and he shouted “safety”. For all those kind people thank you for taking time to chat and provide us with a boost.
Our departure from Kyushu island on route 2 took us under the strait via a passenger tunnel and we popped up on sunny Honshū. The views of the islands were beautiful as cargo ships passed under the bridge. Our next few days continued on some busy roads but again we managed to find good free camping spots. Our last night before Hiroshima found us stumble on an amazing place of Iwakuni. An impressive 5 arched wooden bridge lead to the former old samurai quarter (Kikkō-kōen) was our intended stay. But on a flat map it looks like a park. We couldn’t camp here as it was a well groomed attraction park! We ventured a little further up the town and found a more out of the public eye spot. However, what seems hidden wasn’t. A young man on a scooter came into the clearing, not once but returned another 3 times. Was he stacking us out, was my first thought. Then another man came walking by head down on his phone, several cars drove by, reversed and some returned a few times. Is everyone stacking us out, again I thought. “They are playing Pokemon” Barbara exclaimed! “This must be a Pokemon spot”. Great, the secluded camp spot which we thought was out of the way turned to be a hot bed for gamers! Sleep was very disturbed that night, not from Pokemon fans but the storms that came. Thunder and lightening were our loud companions throughout the night and heavy torrential rain tested the tent.
Taking a soaking tent and camping accessories down in the rain is not fun but once cycling things are fine again even if the rain continued. Knowing we had a few nights In a hotel in Hiroshima kept us motivated. As we cycled towards the outskirts of the city I kept thinking of how far the atomic bomb had affected the land. It was a strange feeling to becoming here. To be in a place that had suffered an horrific action, that changed our world.
We spent 3 rest days here, (1 extra due to B under the weather and the prediction of 100% of rain all day). We hadn’t had 3 rest days in concession in ages, so our bodies are most probably thankful. Hiroshima has been a calm and restful city. We visited the sobering Peace memorial park with its many memorial statues and educational and the moving museum. Without this tasteful and respectful recordings we could pass through a city and forget what had happened here.
We cycled a little around the city on one day to explore the surrounds and headed to the guidebook suggested visit to the incinerator plant. This was no ordinary smelly plant it was an eye catcher. A stunning piece of architecture designed by Taniguchi Yoshio. This was open and free to the public to view a section of the inner workings. The “ecorium” was a long walkway leading to different viewing areas with models and interactive screens to explain the process plant. This is how utilities should be designed, inviting, open and explanatory.
As we leave the city behind our next leg will take us towards the inner Seto Islands and Shikoku.
Cycled: Kagoshima-Hiroshima approx 675km / 1 puncture (J)
All photography by Jack Blake & Barbara Salvadori 2018©