The huge gangplank crashed down, and as the light entered the hold we rolled off, a new land to explore. Cycling along the coast we traversed the city of Oita where we got some supplies and bike repair advice (see here ). Continuing on as darkness fell we reached the town of Beppu, lit up by neon signs, smoking vapour emanating from the hills behind.
Beppu is a place to rest, relax and repair. This is what we did, getting ourselves and the bikes back into shape as we sat on a large amount of volcanic activity, where steam literally rises from the ground. Like elsewhere in Japan this natural energy has been put to good use and harnessed for the pleasure of the people. Hundreds of onsen or hot baths pepper the town. As we sat soaking in the warmth next to the beach in an open air pool we started to plan the next and last stage of our Japanese journey. Thankfully we had a good base camp too, in the welcoming homes of our hosts Tanaka and Akira-san. Screws were tightened, spokes changed and chains greased. We dried out our gear and finally acquired a new tent to substitute our broken one.
After this brief interlude we left the comforts behind and set forth to traverse Kyushu from east to west before riding north into the Amakusa islands. Gaining height above the coast we were soon as wet as if we were back in the onsen, sliding progressively into the clouds. Stunning roads twisted and turned through a green land, full of villages, temples and shrines.
Reaching the lip of the Aso volcano, one of the world’s largest caldera’s we looked down on rice paddies and small towns. In the middle, the central peaks were wreathed in mist. It had become quite cold and we were soaked to the bone, so we stopped for some coffee and cakes to take in the view. The sweet bean paste that filled the crispy pastry was just what we needed to get us smiling again and keep us going for an afternoon of mossy, green, wet mountains.
That night we camped on the outskirts of Kumamoto. Mosquitoes buzzed in the warm air, hiding beneath the trees. The rain continued unabated and intensified in the morning. We were later to learn that there had been severe flooding a hundred kilometres further north, with several people dead or missing. Thankfully we were spared the worst and made it to downtown, to visit the castle. Here again, nature had taken its toll. Another of Japan’s dangers, an earthquake, had laid it low in 2016, leaving piles of rubble and towers perched precariously on unstable stones.
Back in the saddle after the quick visit we set our sights on the islands further south and the countryside. This coast is more protected and is home to sandy beaches and calm bays, a perfect place to camp. Going outside during the night small shapes slithered and jumped away from the light. A distracted frog bumped into a cantankerous old crab, who surprised by her impudent neighbour, ran sideways into her friends. Water dripped and drained its way into the sea, inviting everyone out to play. Jumping and crawling they all moved under the beam of our headlamps. Salt and fresh water creatures, meeting where the rains entered the ocean. These were our roadside companions, a constant presence during our coastal campsites.
After all the night fun, we awoke to a golden glow, the grass now empty and the palm trees giving the scene a tropical aura. But it was the calm before the storm and as we packed our gear up the rain returned. This time it was an epic deluge, continuing as we rode out. It was so intense the road soon became flooded and made us laugh and shout beneath the seemingly impossible amount of water that came down. I jumped in the streams running past, splashing my feet like a kid. Short pauses would open up the clouds, giving us a tantalizing view of our surroundings. But like a cruel magician it was but a game, a trap to fall into, for the next wave was so intense we could hardly keep going, being pushed back by pelting rain and wind. Some sections we truly flooded and going through an underpass we pushed our bikes through the water, hoping it would not get into our panniers. We kept going, and after a coffee and some more showers reached the end of the island. The changing rooms for a small beach turned out to be the perfect place to hide, and at least we could dry out a bit. We unrolled our mats onto the concrete and a sip of Japanes whisky warmed us (me) up.
An island, accessible only at low tide is a child’s dream. The small hut, ready to welcome those that dare come across a vision come true. So when the causeway of sand and stone started to appear linking our small beach to the island beyond we could not let the chance go by. As the waves dropped further we rolled our bikes across the wet surface and reached the other side. The island was overgrown and we had to cut our way through some high grass to reach the hut, which was in perfect condition. We relaxed on the porch as slowly the tide turned. We enjoyed the calm surroundings and s the sea rose it cut us off from the outside world, marooning us in our new home. It was magical!
The price to pay for our moment of tranquillity was a very early start. Not wanting to be stuck for another day we crossed back in the middle of the night. With our headlamps cutting through the dark we made our way across the little peninsula, leaving our sancturary behind. We had many miles to ride and time was starting to run out!
A ferry and some brisk riding brought us to Shimabara, where we spent a few hourse soaking up the sights which include a castle, and the traditional samurai houses. Made from wood and paper, the walls can deftly be moved to create the perfect space, in harmony with the green surroundings. This was also the excuse to get out of the rain for some time, which beat down on the pools full of huge, multi-coloured coy carp, unperturbed by the drops above. All was calm beneath the surface.
For us it was anything but, and the combination of long distances, some mechanical problems and more storms meant that the next few days passed in a flash from the saddle, with views of seaside villages and ever green landscapes. Luckily there were kind people and bowls of champon to warm us up! Finally reaching Fukuoka we prepared ourselves to say goodbye to a land we have learned to love. As small traditional gyoza restaurant, seating no more than ten, was the perfect way to remember Japanese cuisine, and we will keep the landscapes, culture and people etched into our memory for a long time. Sad to leave but excited about the next chapter we boarded our ship. Sayōnara Nihon, annyeonghaseyo hangug!
For previous Japan travels you can check out our thoughs on the North or our passage through the Centre including Osaka and the Awa Odori festival. Shikoku adventures can be found here. For some thoughts on Japanese idosyncrasies you can check out our top ten. And finally if you are looking for inspiration and practical tips you can take a peek at some Nihon pedal routes. Please suscribe and share if you find this interesting!