When you look at a map of the whole country, you can see that four large islands, plus Okinawa way to the south, comprise the bulk of Japan. At the far north, is Hokkaido. Next comes Honshu (or main island) shaped a little like a boomerang - with a knob on its elbow. Under the horizontal arm of the boomerang is Shikoku, and to the west of that is Kyushu. The city of Osaka is about at the elbow of the boomerang. Twenty kilometers to the northeast of Osaka, half way to Kyoto, is the Osaka suburb of Hirakata. That is where I started this bicycle journey on March 1, 1994.
I thought there should be some kind of catchy name for such a long journey, so I said I was going to ride "East To Kyushu," meaning I was going there the long way around. Implying, of course, that once I got that far, I would continue on to Osaka (and Hirakata) once I was in Japan.
If you take a closer look at the map, you will see that the city of Shimonoseki is at the far western end of Honshu. That is where the ferry from Korea docks. From there you can see Kyushu across the strait that separates it from Honshu.
So there I was within sight of my goal, wondering how I was going to get across that narrow strip of water. From where I was I could see an expressway bridge at least two-hundred feet (maybe three or four hundred even) above the water, and wondered if that was the way to go, and if so how I was going to get up there. Heading toward that bridge took me from the port into the city proper, and along the way there was a sign saying, "City Hall to the left 0.5km". Again, I got what I needed.
Just inside the City Hall entrance were two very polite and helpful (all Japanese are polite and most are helpful as well) young women at an information desk. With a bit of limited Japanese on my part, and limited English on their part, I learned that there was a pedestrian tunnel under the strait, with an entrance just past the high bridge.
Sure enough, there set back a little from the road is a small building with an office and two elevators; and a sign saying that this is the way to Kitakyushu (the name of the town at the far north end of Kyushu). The elevators are big enough for a bicycle - or several even, and take you down to the level of the bed of the strait, where the tunnel starts. It is about as wide as a typical bike path in a park. It goes downhill til it gets about halfway across, then goes uphill to where the elevators are on the other side. While I was down there, two other bicycles came through, and one lady was doing laps - kind of like mall walking in the U.S.
At the halfway point there is a line across the path marking the border between Yamaguchi Prefecture (Honshu) and Fukuoka Prefecture (Kyushu). There was a family of walkers taking each others pictures there, so I stopped and they took mine to mark the attainment of that goal.
I am not sure there is much more to tell about Japan. In two days I cycled to Beppu on the east coast of Kyushu. From there there are several ferrys to various other cities all over Japan. My goal was Shikoku.
I guess there is another small story about getting what you need. When I reached Beppu, it was already late afternoon, but rather than wait until morning I got on the next ferry, which left about 20 minutes after I got there, arriving at Yawatahama in western Shikoku about two and a half hours later, in the early evening, just after dark.
For second class passengers (us cheapskates) there are three large rooms, one on the main passenger deck, and two on the deck above. Each room could probably hold a couple hundred people if they used all the available space. Except for no seats, the layout is like a jumbo jet; two aisles with raised platforms about 15 feet square between and to the outside of the aisles. The bicycle goes on the cargo deck with the cars and trucks.
At first I started on the main deck (less motion from waves), but it was full of kids running around and yelling at the top of their lungs so I moved to the second deck. There I could nap on the floor using as a pillow, one of the imitation leather-covered Styrofoam blocks provided for that purpose.
As I was putting my shoes on to disembark, a young Japanese man on the platform across the aisle asked me (in Japanese) where I was going and
I told him Osaka. Then he wanted to know more but my Japanese was not
up to the task. Turns out that he is a bit of an entrepreneur and owns a small shop in Yawatahama that caters to the local Philippino population so he is studying English and welcomed the chance to practice some. Many Philippinos speak English, so he had a practical reason for wanting to get better at it.
He told me his name (nickname) was Gong, and asked me where I was going
to spend the night. I said I didn't know, but there would probably be a park someplace, whereupon he invited me to his shop and I accepted. From the boat we walked about half a mile to a shopping arcade. At the shop were several Phillipinos and a couple Japanese who were interested in my story. There was also a young Israeli who was setting up a stand where he sold jewelry through the night in front of the now closed shops across the street from Gong's shop. We talked some, Gong fed me some fried rice to supplement the instant noodles that I had had on the boat and then he lead me on his bicycle to a park on the edge of town where I could camp for the night.
I was glad to be back in Japan where you can camp in public parks and nobody thinks you are going to create a disturbance, and where the public restrooms are not locked for the night to keep out vandals. In fact the restrooms don't even have doors to lock.
That night and the previous night (before I arrived at Beppu) were quite pleasant, and the weather during the day was good for cycling. But the next day, as I headed for Uwajima, the next large town on my map, we began to experience the effects of the hurricane (typhoon) that later did so much damage in Korea. It was passing to the south of Japan and dumping huge amounts of rain all over Shikoku and Kyushu. It rained almost all day, and to top it off, my Gore Tex jacket stopped being waterproof about then. When I got to Uwajima, I found shelter in a gazebo in a local park - along with another bicycle traveler and a couple of hikers. There were places in the park that were not flooded and would be suitable for tent camping but I did not relish
an all night rain - plus the potential for rain all the next day so I finally broke down and went across the street to a hotel whose sign I could see from the park. Good decision. I was due for a treat and for "only" $50, I got a room plus buffet breakfast in the morning. The room was not large, but large enough and clean and comfortable. This was a good price for a hotel in Japan. In the morning it was still raining and continued for the rest of the day, so I ponied up another $50 and stayed a second night.
Even the next day was a little rainy, and I spend half an hour a couple of times in the morning waiting out showers at the mouth of a tunnel and under the awning of a store in a village along the way. After lunch though everything cleared up and I had a very pleasant ride, with almost no traffic, along the Shimanto River all the way to Nakamura, at the southwestern tip of Kochi Prefecture. First thing in the morning there was a serious climb, and now I was reaping the benefits in a nice steady downhill run to the ocean. I arrived in Nakamura mid afternoon, and from there I had a tailwind and only a couple of small hills north along the ocean to the village of Iyoki in Saga-cho, my goal for the day. This was Sunday.
In Iyoki, I crashed for the next four days with Japanese friends I met while living here in the early 90s. Even though I had taken days off in a couple of places along the way I was still pretty well spent and welcomed this time for additional recuperation. I still wanted to reach Osaka before the next weekend was over, so on Friday I left to ride the 85km to Kochi City to catch the overnight ferry to Osaka, arriving on Saturday morning. Not. When I got to the ferry dock late that afternoon they told me the ferry was cancelled. I learned later that they take the ferry out of service one day a year for maintenance. That was the day.
I considered other alternatives - mainly overnight bus to Osaka, but finally decided I had had enough of buses and it was either ride on land or take boats on water. I found a park not far from the train station and the next day found the prefecture library where they had a selection of books in English, as well as current editions of Time and Newsweek English. That plus a trip to the ferry office to buy a ticket for that evening and a visit to Kochi Castle - next to the
library - and it was soon time to leave. Turns out that I got a little
special treatment when I bought my ticket. My last full day in Iyoki, the local
beat reporter covering the Nakamura area for the Kochi Shinbun (newspaper) came up to Iyoki to interview me for a story on my cycling adventure. It appeared in the paper the day I left. The guy who sold me the ferry ticket had a copy and showed it to me with the part about my plans to take the ferry to Osaka circled.
I told him I wanted the cheap second class ticket (about $40), where everybody sleeps on the floor in the kind of large room already described. This is where my Thermarest mattress is really nice to have. But when I got on the boat and looked more closely at my ticket, there was a room and bunk number. Turns out the ticket agent had given me a free upgrade to the better version of second class where you have a bed to sleep in in an eight-person room. I guess because of the newspaperarticle. Such a deal.
From the ferry dock, it was a 20km ride north through the city to the home of more Japanese friends who are not using that home for the time being. They offered this to Ruth and me to use during our stay in Japan, thus making it possible to see and experience lots of different things without feeling rushed, and with time to rest between adventures.
Ruth arrived on the Thursday after I arrived on Sunday, and since then we have explored various parts of Osaka, with more still on the list. The following Monday I rode the final 20km to Hirakata and back, to officially finish the bike trip. Two days later we took a bus trip to see Mt. Fuji, and caught him on a rare clear day, and could see him from top to bottom until we left in the afternoon to return to Osaka. A couple days after that we visited temples and shrines in Kyoto, plus the Handicraft Center to buy gifts and souvenirs Upcoming is a week-long trip to the south and west, plus several more local side trips. All in all it has been a good experience for both of us.
On October 10, we depart for the U.S. where we will reconnect with what we hope will be a more normal life in our own country.