The girl working at at the visitors centre wore an off-green uniform and handed me the cone of off-green olive oil flavour ice cream. Not far away was Olive Dori Avenue, on which you can hail a bus that looped around the island from anywhere you see a little cute olive sign. Last night I arrived on the Mediterranean-esque island of Shodoshima, thanks to the Olive Line ferry company, and by now I think you can probably guess what this piece bit of land is famous for. After rolling off the ferry I camped on a sandy bay and the next day I woke to an amazing, calm sunrise over the Seto Inland Sea and it’s many islands. The beautiful, traffic-free roads on the along the coast were such a welcome break to the (sub)urban sprawl of the area that surrounds Osaka and Kobe that I passed on the way form my temple binge in Kyoto that I decided to skip the mountain and stick to the coastal road. This led me to the olive oil ice cream stop and several hours reading on a beach, which were certainly preferable to sweating up some big hill. That, as it happened, would come later.
Later I took another ferry to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and rolled off the ramp right into the middle of Takamatsu. This was the setting for much of the Haruki Maraui book I was reading of at the time and, even though it was fiction, it still feels nice to have what you are reading match where you are; even though no leeches fell from the sky, it helped put this place in some sort of context. It was getting late by this point, so it was time to find somewhere to sleep.
After three months of easy sleeping, thanks to the plethora of cheap hostels and guesthouses in South East Asia, I was back in the mindset that paying to sleep when you’re carrying several kilograms of camping gear is a big no-no. The routines of camping had returned to life on the road, but not the wild camping that I’d enjoyed in the wilds of Central Asia or the Tibetan Plateau (turn of the road wherever you are and put up your tent). So-called stealth camping was apparently the name of the game in urban japan and parks were the first place to look for a suitable spot. On my map there was a huge park not far from me, just where that monolithic hill that dominated the city skyline stood. You can’t escape hills, see. Following the principle that people tend to look down rather than up, I continued to pedal up and up the steep road that led through yards of Japanese tombstones, past some posh houses, along a footpath, and one last push up a grassy hill to the very top. Just as the last few people were leaving and returning to their homes, I had arrived at mine for the night: a spot near a viewing platform that overlooked what now looked like the Sim City recreation of Takamatsu in font of a backdrop of the Inland Sea, that’s water shone like cobalt in the dusk sunlight. The only visible disturbance in the otherwise perfectly calm ocean surface came from wake from last few ferryboats returning day trippers from the many small islands, the number of which I could see really help explain how the total number of islands in the whole Japanese archipelago totals a whopping 6,800.
The downside of camping int he middle of a city, and slightly above that city, is that you hear every noise it makes at night. Without the buildings to block the sound of a siren after an ambulance disappears a corner, you hear it for its entire journey (that seems to take an age when you’re trying to ignore it). After a relatively sleepless night, I was packed and rolling back down the hill just as the soundtrack of the morning rush hour started.
I left Takamatsu, passed over the hills to the south and was engulfed by the valleys of central Shikoku. For the next week I was always in these steep and disorientating valleys that’s huge valley walls stand hundreds of meters on inside. There’s no option but to continue along the river or hope that the 4km long tunnels that sometimes circumvent a steep climb have some sort of bike lane.
Soon I was in the Iya Valley, which is one of Japan’s most ‘remote’ places, according to the guidebook. I was skeptical, given just how densely populated this country is, but after spending three days there, after being trapped by heavy rain, it really does make you feel like you’re half a days ride beyond the middle of nowhere. I’d managed to find a deserted campsite thats communal kitchen area offered shelter from the storm. During those three days the only other person I saw was the caretaker, who came about mid afternoon on the second day in the deserted campsite.
“This is a paid campsite” he told me, through the medium of Google Translate.
Fine, I thought. I’d happily pay for shelter from the rain, if necessary. But then he must have looked at me, the sodden clothes and the pitiful amount of food I had (I only thought I’d be in the valley for a day during my previous supermarket visit) and he added, “If you leave early tomorrow, you can stay for free.” So for the rest of that day I had the comfort of a roof and the legitimacy to be there. It was the silver lining to having just peanut butter eaten with a spoon for lunch. I was truly alone in this valley that truly felt another world to the skyscrapers and sleep-depriving noise of Takamatsu. Yet, when I looked at my phone’s GPS, that city was less than 50km as the crow flies from where I found myself camping with only the sound of running water of the turquoise river below. In Shikoku, isolation is just a short ride away.
Fortunately,bBlue skies and stunning steep sided valleys took me to Matsuyama, where an early arrival allowed me to enjoy Dogo Onsen, before the crowds of the just-commenced Golden Week arrived. Japan seems to have a disproportionate share of tectonic fault lines but the upside to the occasional tremor are the ubiquitous natural hot springs (onsen) or general public baths (sento), the latter of which are no less appealing tot he grubby bike tourist.
After a week of some pretty tough cycling, in which the best thing I got to a shower was a flannel soaked with river water, Dogo onset was an absolute treat. Once you overcome your British prudishness when it comes to public nudity, of course. After stripping to your birthday suit you enter the bath room and head over to the cluster of waist-high shower heads. You perch your bare backside on a mini stool and then make yourself squeaky clean – taking extra note to remove that greasy tattoo of your front chanting that is etched onto your inner leg after every day. Once you have repeated this a few times you then have a selection of baths so hot they could also cook your lunchtime ramen to soak in for as long as you can manage. Some offer a huge variety of baths but Dogo Onsen just offered the one that’s main virtue was that it was old. At others, like the one I found in a motorway service station, there can be bubbly jacuzzi baths, bright green water that looks like Mountain Dew (apparently herbal) and, one that is somewhat hard to get used to, an electric bath. The very bold, brightly coloured warning signs above this last one can give even the most inept Kanji reader an idea that this one is just for those who have always had an appetite for toast while in the tub.
When you carry your home on the back of your bike, the main reason to check into a hostel is because your levels of hygiene are verging on unacceptable, and wifi. Japanese convenience stores provide the latter and the former is pre-empted by these bathhouses that makes this country a dream for completely self-supported cycle touring on a budget and it flies in the face of the perception of Japan as an expensive place to visit. With Sentos and Onsens dotted all over the country, wild camping – or camping in plain sight in the middle of a park – can go on indefinitely.
After Matsuyama it was back to Honshu, the largest island of the Japanese Archipelago, but this time I wouldn’t go by boat. This was one of the big rides, one of the unmissable points on my rather fickle route that winds all over my mental map of Japan. It was time for the Shimanami Kaido: an almost entirely traffic free bike route that spans 6 huge bridges, island hopping between Shikoku and Honshu. Not wanting to rush a good thing, I stretched it out to make it last two enjoyable days but anyone with a reasonable pair of legs could make it a fun day out. I think pictures say more than words here, particularly as the only words I can think of are bridges, bike lanes, and boats.
My plans for Japan have changed somewhat, and I need to be in Hokkaido by the beginning of June. As such, the next few days involved high numbers on my bike computer as I set up camp on some quiet beach each evening. I had visited Hiroshima during the middle of Golden Week, so Peace Parka and the A-bomb Dome, the epicentre of humanity’s first foray at mass annihilation with a single weapon, were not entirely the sombre atmosphere I anticipated. Nor was the floating shrine at Miyajima (unless you camp on the island and get to enjoy it to yourself after the last ferry leaves).
Just before taking a pedestrian tunnel under the Kanmon Strait and into Kyushu, the southernmost main island, I bumped into an American and Ozzie duo, who are cycling the length of Japan. These guys’ panniers were loaded with drones, tripods, various cameras, and Eric posts a new video of his travels every day. Once I’ve done the basic chores of the day, I couldn’t even dream of creating a video and this overdue blog has taken more than enough of my time, but these guys have committed do a video every day and actually do them well. It just goes to show what adverse bunch bike tourers are. I’ve met people who carry paragliding equipment with them and I’ve met ultralight tourers who’s days involve three figure distances and who’s whole wardrobe can be counted on three fingers. The machine may be the same but the way people choose to travel with it varies tremendously.
Sadly Kitakyushu was all I saw of Kyushu, as from here I have taken a ferry back to Osaka and will be heading both northwards and upwards, where the Japanese alps should have just about thawed out enough to explore.