From October 19 to 26, we toured parts of Nagasai and Kumamoto prefectures by bike. Sasebo-Shimabara-Amakusa-Aso-Shimabara-Sasebo, about 450km in total.
Day 1. We got to Sasebo by the afternoon ferry. After getting ourselves helmets and lights at Arcenciel, we stayed with friends Jill and Hisashi who run Happy Trails Coffee in the area. The next morning started with the first good coffee in two months (since Vienna where I was before coming back to Japan), which made me very happy. Jill sent us off with a piece of homemade chocolate beet cake that later saved my life.
We went over Mt. Yahata to avoid the busy traffic. It was steep and I was cursing while pedaling but the peaceful mikan (Japanese citrus) orchards on the mountain comforted me. By the time the view of Omura harbour appeared, I had forgotten the weight of the pedals. The day ended with another steep hill up to the Notake campsite, during which I had to walk my bike a lot.
The next day we biked through Omura, Isahaya, then onto Shimabara peninsula. The campsite at the southern tip of the peninsula was supposed to be closed but the town office said we could use it. Biking on the west coast of the peninsula in the sunset was nice, especially with our feet feeling the onsen steam coming out of the ground in the town of Obama. It was a tease to pass the onsen town, but we still went to one by the campsite (for 100 yen! it was during their customer appreciation week, lucky us).
Day 3. The initial plan was to cross to Kumamoto from Shimabara. But in the morning we found out about a ferry from Minami Shimabara, where we were, to Amakusa, an island connected to the mainland of Kumamoto by five bridges. The next thing we knew we were in Amakusa. We biked along the north coast of the island on “Tako Kaido”, the Octopus Road. We passed by numerous signs and monuments for the octopus, and tasted octopus-soy sauce ice cream, hmm. We stayed at a campsite on the little island of Nogama, between Amakusa and the mainland. Expensive, but an interesting site with a cluttered office/kiosk that reminded me of a beach house from the old days.
Day 4. The rain started at night and was still drizzling in the morning. Soon after we took off, we came across a wood-fired oven in operation.
The Kamiamakusa city staff was firing it for pizza making in their cooking class. It was the type with a fire box underneath the baking chamber, which looked a little strange to me for a pizza oven, but was a nice scene to bump into.
Then we headed towards the mountains of Kumamoto to visit a tea farm. I was scared of uphills but it was just the last 10-15 km that were all uphill, and they weren’t very steep. And the area was beautiful. I breathed in the air that became dense and yet clear as we went deep into the mountains. When there was no car driving by, I could hear the silence of the woods.
The Yamato region suffered from a lack of water until the Tsujun aqueduct was built in 1854. This largest stone aqueduct in Japan made the rice terraces that are now listed as an Important Cultural Landscape possible. The Shimodas run an organic rice and tea farm, along with dried persimmon production in the fall. Mrs. Shimoda is also the chief librarian of the town and Mr. Shimoda is the kind of person who designs and builds everything by himself. Their workload seemed to be insane at times, but their circular life and the beauty of the landscape grabbed my heart. It felt like everything I had associated with the word “satoyama” was there in front of my eyes.
The next morning we biked up to Takamori at the southeastern foot of outer Aso, then back down towards the city with the Aso peaks on our right. There were two tunnels with sidewalks so narrow that we had to walk our bikes. It’s no fun walking in the tunnels, especially since one was 2070m long, but we got through it and stayed at a campsite up on a hill (very steep, thought I’d fall back down with my bike). My left leg started hurting from being overused.
Day 6. We started making our way back to Sasebo. Having had no food for breakfast, we started and ended up riding all 35 km to Kumamoto port before breakfast. There is an expression in Japanese “asameshi-mae (before-breakfast work)”, which means easy-peasy, but this one was a bit more than that. We took the fast ferry to Shimabara and decided to bike to Isahaya city where we’d find a cheap hotel. Three hours later in Isahaya city, we were debating whether to camp somewhere in the park or go find a hotel. The idea of a cheap hotel was less exciting than illegal camping to me, but sleeping in a city park still didn’t seem appealing. So when Brett put out his “crazy idea” of continuing our way, it not only sounded far better than the other two options but genuinely exciting. Riding and walking all night, slowly, with lots of breaks and a good dinner somewhere along the way. No time constraints since we just had to make it to the 10:35 am ferry, which was 16 hours away. By this point my left knee and ankle hurt no mater what position I took, but it was okay. I felt light and free, happy to experience the night road that truck drivers and youth get to see. It was a lovely night, we rode and walked the 55km slowly in the moonlight. By the time we got into the city around 3 am I was having a sleep attack and the park bench felt like the best bed ever.
So that was my first long(ish) bike trip. I did occasionally hate the uphills, being cold, leg/butt pain and all, but not enough to give up what I saw and felt. Rural Japan is full of gorgeous and insightful places! (and vending machines…)