Japan (Part 1): The Opening Doors Experience of Cycling in Kyushu

A family that invited us over for the night on the way to Nagasaki

A family that invited us over for the night on the way to Nagasaki

Random Acts of Kindness
When asking cycle tourers what is their favourite part about cycle touring, the answer is often ‘random acts of kindness’. I guess there is something about seeing people on bikes that opens people’s hearts. It may be curiosity, or pity, or just basic human kindness.

We had experienced this many times during our bike trips, but what we experienced so far in Japan was far beyond our previous experiences. I am sure the combination of having a baby and some bad weather along the way helped too. We were often given food, toys for Neil and many invitations to spend the night.

Ramen with Asami

Ramen with Asami

Couchsurfing and Warm Showers Hospitality in Fukuoka
It all started with Asami, our first Couchsurfing host in Fukuoka. We arrived in Fukuoka on a rainy morning after catching the ferry from Busan in South Korea. We were a bit disoriented at first as we also had to get used to cycling on the left side. The sidewalks were slippery and everything felt different.

Asami met us on her folding bike in a central location and led us to her lovely apartment. We spent the next three days with her as she showed us around her home town. We visited a few temples and shrines, but most importantly she led us to a few of the best places to eat in Fukuoka. Apparently, Fukuoka is the Mecca of ramen, with different types and flavours. It is also famous for Yatai, food stands that are only open at night.

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Yatai in Fukuoka

We spent a good few hours in Hakata Station, where the smell led us to Il Forno del Mignon, a hole in the wall, where they only make tiny croissants, and there is always a line up. The result is that the croissants are always hot and fresh. We made a point of passing through Hakata Station every day, of course.

Asami was also a great cook, and she spoiled us with dinners that included Takoyaki, delicious filled peppers and a yummy pancake breakfast.

Cycling to our Warm Showers hosts

Cycling to our Warm Showers hosts

Since we weren’t ready to leave Fukuoka just yet, and we wanted to get to know another part of the city, we moved to Julia and Jacob, an American couple who offered to host us through Warm Showers. We learned about their perspective of foreigners living in Japan and we enjoyed a few meals together.

A Night by the Ice Cream Shop
We were finally ready to leave Fukuoka and its great food behind. It was a misty morning and getting out of the city was pretty easy. We even found a few cycling paths and a small restaurant for lunch with tatami mats for Neil to crawl on.

Misty day cycling out of Fukauka

Misty day cycling out of Fukuoka

But the rain started in the late afternoon, and when we saw the sign for “Loiter Gelato” we were ready to stop anyway. Despite what we heard, that there is no good ice cream in Japan, this was one of the best we ever had, with an interesting flavor of “solt”. The rain became harder so we asked the ice cream guy if we could camp by his ice cream truck. Later we were invited to spend the night at the owner’s house next door. It was his second home and he was not going to sleep there that night.

Excellent gelato about 40 km from Fukuoka

Excellent gelato about 40 km from Fukuoka

As we were settling in, the ice cream guy and his wife came back with a few items for dinner and breakfast. This was not a bad start for cycling in Japan, and little did we know that it was only the beginning.

A Meeting Room Turns into a Sleeping Room
We enjoyed two days of cycling in good weather and on quiet roads. We passed many beautiful beaches, small towns and cute villages. We arrived to the small rest area where we planned to stay the night at dusk, after crossing an impressive bridge to the island of Takashima. We had an excellent dinner of sashimi and Japanese curry at the local restaurant and then we settled into our tent for the night. The rest areas (michi no eki) are perfect for cyclists since they often have food and a convenient place to camp.

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Camping at a michi no eki (rest area)

During the night it started raining. In the morning it was still raining and the area surrounding our tent turned into a huge puddle. We packed up, waited for a bit and then decided there was no way we’d be cycling that day. While it was pouring buckets we realized that we were going to spend the day in that rest area.

At first I thought it was going to be pretty boring, but the day passed quickly. Also, with an eight months old that just started crawling boring doesn’t really exist. The workers of the shop adopted us, especially Hiromi who took special care of us.

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With Hiromi who took special care of us

As the evening rolled in, they offered us to sleep in the meeting room of the rest area. While it was raining so hard outside we were grateful for any dry space and the meeting room did the job. I am still not sure why a rest area has a meeting room, but the fact was that at 10am the next day they actually held a meeting there.

Stormy day

Stormy day

A Half Paid Hotel Room
It was still raining buckets, maybe just a bit less, but we didn’t want to spend another day at the rest area. So off we went. We hadn’t cycled in such hard rain since our trip to Alaska, and we didn’t bring our rain pants too (my bad, I admit). We needed to catch a small ferry and there were no signs at all so we pretty much guessed the turn-off and arrived to a tiny fishing village.

Almost private ferry

Almost private ferry

When we stopped we discovered that Neil’s trailer was not so waterproof and he was sitting in a small puddle. It was very frustrating to keep on taking water out and changing his clothes a few times during that day.

We still weren’t sure there was going to be a ferry and if we were waiting in the right place. When the ferry finally arrived, the workers looked as surprised to see us as we were surprised to see the ferry. It was a relief to be in a dry place for a while before one of our wettest rides ever to Hirado.

Golden Gate Bridge?

Golden Gate Bridge?

When we arrived to Hirado after crossing a bridge that was too similar to the Golden Gate Bridge, we were soaking wet. We entered the first store we saw, which was a pharmacy and asked about a place to spend the night. For the next little while the whole store was busy with trying to find us a place to sleep.

Eventually two police officers led us to a nearby hotel and insisted on paying almost half of the room price. For some reason they also chose the biggest room that had an extra tatami mat room attached to it, which we named the ‘crawling room’. A long hot shower that night was well appreciated before we put almost all of our belongings in the dryer.

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Beautiful roads on Hirado-shima

Burgers and the Navy
When we left Hirado it was still drizzling and I was very reluctant about cycling in the rain again. Luckily the weather improved quickly and we cycled some very nice roads on Hirado-shima. We made good time despite some hills and made it with time to spare to the 4pm ferry to Sasebo.

This time it was a super fast ferry and we were the only passengers. We liked Sasebo immediately, maybe partly due to the fact that we found an excellent gelato place just as we were getting off the ferry.

Ready for some burgers

Ready for some burgers

Jonathan, our Couchsurfing host, left his apartment open for us while he had to spend the night on the ship. It turned out that there is a big American Navy base in Sasebo and therefore there are many Americans too. The navy rented a three bedroom apartment for him so he had plenty of room to host travellers.

Sunset over Sasebo

Sunset over Sasebo

There are also at least 30 burger joints in Sasebo. After WW 2 the Americans introduced burgers to this town and it was adopted by the Japanese who gave the burgers different twists. Every burger place had its own specialty, like home made buns, or a muffin burger, chicken burger and so on.

A short quiet section on the way to Nagasaki

A short quiet section on the way to Nagasaki

Shelter from the Storm on the Way to Nagasaki
After a few relaxing days in Sasebo we started riding towards Nagasaki. That was probably the worst riding we’ve done on this trip and maybe ever, and having Neil with us in the wide trailer made me at least ten times more nervous.

First of all there was heavy traffic out of Sasebo and the roads just got busier as we got closer to Nagasaki. Then there were some long dark tunnels, narrow to non-existent shoulders and as if things couldn’t get any worse it started raining.

Dinner with the extended family

Dinner with the extended family

It was already getting late and even though we weren’t all that far I knew that with the hilly road and rain there was no way we were going to make it to our Warm Showers hosts that evening.

We thought about camping in a park we found but the rain was getting harder. Things looked pretty grim but an hour later we were already warm and cozy, after a long hot shower, surrounded by our new friends.

They adored Neil (of course!)

They adored Neil (of course!)

A nice family, with a daughter the same age as Neil invited us to spend the night at their place. We had dinner with the extended family and Neil played with the rest of the kids. Then the grandma made up our beds (mattresses and blankets on tatami mats) right by their living room temple. We all had a good night’s sleep while the storm roared outside.

Atomic bomb moment in Nagasaki

Atomic bomb moment in Nagasaki

Cold Days in Nagasaki
For historic reasons and since it was on our way we decided we’d pay a visit to Nagasaki. We spent two nights with Yukiko and Shoichi, Warm Showers hosts who lived in a log cabin just outside of the city. They tried to teach us a thing or two about Japanese table manners that we were so obviously lacking in…

After two nights at their place we left the bikes there and moved into a hostel in town. Nagasaki is not a cycling friendly city at all, with its narrow and hilly streets and in fact it didn’t feel pedestrian friendly either.

Kim, with his drawings, Casa Blanca Hostel

Kim, with his drawings, Casa Blanca Hostel

We landed on a cold spell which fit the grim atmosphere of visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum and the Peace Park. The personal stories of people who were affected by the bomb, especially of young kids and moms got to us the most.

We stayed at Casa Blanca, a new hostel in China Town that just opened a month ago. Despite our tiny room the place was really friendly and the staff took a special liking to Neil, the youngest guest so far. One of the workers, Kim, drew a picture of us in Manga style which is very popular in Japan.

The beautiful Onsen overlooking the city

The beautiful Onsen overlooking the city

Our favourite place in Nagasaki was a beautiful onsen (hot spring) overlooking the city. It is especially pretty after dark when you can see the lights of the city while soaking in heavenly hot water in the cold night air. The place also had an all you can eat buffet with 130 different dishes, including a chocolate fountain that paired perfectly with the soft serve ice cream.

Breakfast at the community centre

Breakfast at the community centre

A Night at a Community Centre
We went back to pick up our bikes and planned to camp that night before leaving Nagasaki for good. Our plan didn’t really work out since we were invited to spend the night at a community centre. We had already set up the tent when a woman with three dogs passed by. It was a cold night and seeing foreigners going to camp out (and with a baby!) was not acceptable.

Cycling out of Nagasaki on the Magami Bridge

Cycling out of Nagasaki on the Megami Bridge

She returned soon after with food for dinner (our second dinner by then) and with the offer to sleep indoors in their community centre where she went to dance. Her English was very limited but we understood each other perfectly. It was indeed much warmer sleeping under the heater.

In the morning she and a few of her elderly friends came by with breakfast for us: an excellent homemade Udon soup, bread, mandarins, cake and more.

A Fun Night Out with a Japanese Grandpa 
Cycling out of Nagasaki was a lot less painful than our arrival, but it was raining again… We crossed Megami Bridge, a huge white bridge which bypasses the city and led us quickly to some smaller roads. At lunch we adopted the “community plaza” in a gas station for a few hours, taking advantage of the heater to dry our clothes.

Neil with one of the workers at the gas station

Neil with one of the workers at the gas station

Luckily by the time we finished lunch the rain stopped and we found ourselves on a quiet and scenic road that passed by bamboo forest and loquat orchards (too bad it wasn’t the season). We arrived to the unimpressive village of Mogi where we had planned to spend the night.

A quiet road on the way to Mogi

A quiet road on the way to Mogi

The local hotel was full of drunk Polish people for some reason, so we thought we would camp by the ferry terminal. One of the workers who took a liking to us (and Neil of course) said there was no way he was going to let us camp in the cold and he’d take us to sleep in his house although he lived in Isahaya, half an hour away by car.

Thanks for a fun evening and for hosting us!

Thanks for a fun evening and for hosting us!

We left the bikes at the ferry terminal and went with him. However before arriving at his place he first took us out for dinner, excellent Okonomiyaki (his treat), a thick savoury pancake. He loved Neil and enjoyed holding and playing with him while we had dinner. Then he took us to a really nice onsen (his treat again) before driving us to his home to made up beds that his wife arranged for us in advance, which was good because Neil already fell asleep in the car.

I love Obama

I love Obama

I Love Obama
The weather finally improved and we were on our way to Obama. The road was busier than we expected with almost no shoulder and lots of curves.

Since the weather was good we found a hidden park and camped for the night. In the morning a guy on a motorbike came with piles of food and a stuffed animal for Neil which we later gave away to some other kids. Even at an out of the way location, we still couldn’t avoid the gifts! Then our private campground turned into a croquet field, a very popular game in Japan which always reminds us of Alice in Wonderland.

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An intense game of croquet, in the park where we camped

Obama is a hot springs town with steam seemingly coming out from everywhere. The longest foot onsen in Japan is there and also no less than 21 different hot springs including a very scenic one right on the ocean that we enjoyed for a while. We also cooked our lunch on the steam vents: potatoes, sweet potatoes and gooey eggs (our favourite).

The Bath is Ready
We managed to leave Obama quite early (i.e 9:30am) and after a nice easy ride we caught the ferry to Shimoshima. Of course it started raining as we were getting off the ferry, but we decided to push on for 11 or so kilometers till the closest town, Amakusa City.

Beautiful onsen in Obama

Beautiful onsen in Obama

A bit soaked we found an excellent restaurant with a mackarel lunch deal (teishoku) and with their help we also found a hostel for the night. The hostel had a tatami mat room waiting for us and they also filled the bath.

Just before another storm

Just before another storm

Yes, in Japan people take baths. First you shower, separately from where the bath is, in a sitting position (so as not to spray the bath) and then you soak in a hot bath. They have a system to keep the water warm and everyone takes a bath in the same water. After trying it out, it actually makes perfect sense. At home we sometimes take a shower just to get it over with, but this way we came to fully appreciate and enjoy our baths.

Bamboo forest

Bamboo forest

(Dead) Grandpa’s House
We kept on going, each day trying to cycle as much as we could before the storm hit. On some days we even managed to stay dry for most of the day, but it was still quite cold.

We decided we’d do anything we could to avoid busy roads and tunnels even if it meant going up and down 500 meters. We took the quietest road of them all, following a beautiful bamboo forest that led to a thick wood forest and up a mountain. Then the descent began and the road became even narrower and steeper.

A long steep downhill

A long steep downhill

The whole day felt like we were very remote, far from the bustling cities and busy roads. When we were finally back in civilization it was already getting late and we had to find a place to spend the night.

We set up our tent by the river and went to have dinner at a noodle restaurant we noticed at an intersection nearby. There we met Saya and her three children and her parents who own the restaurant. Saya spent a year in Vancouver ten years ago and had very fond memories and was happy to chat with us. Her four year old son just wanted to play with Neil all the time.

Playing at the ramen restaurant

Playing at the ramen restaurant, near Grandpa’s house

When they heard we were camping by the river they offered us to stay in a tiny apartment by the restaurant. The grandpa used to live there but… he died. According to the evidence it looked like Grandpa had died just a few weeks before. We slept by his temple with a big photo of him, a few apples as an offering and what looked like his ashes. It was a bit weird but very comfy and warm.

French-Japanese Hospitality
When we arrived to the small village of Kumi we wanted to prevent the situation that we’d set up camp and then get invited over, avoiding the unnecessary packing and unpacking. We were also quite cold after a long descent so a night indoors sounded appealing. We went to the supermarket to get some supplies and to hang out and sure enough we got invited.

Neil with Mina and Nai

Neil with Mina and Nai

Max, a French guy married to a Japanese woman was quite surprised to see other foreigners in his village. He took us under his wing and led us to his home, which was a Samurai’s House over 100 years ago, which he had renovated himself. There we met Yoko his wife and their two sweet young girls Mina and Nai. The girls fell for Neil instantly and by the time we sat down for dinner we were all friends.

We meant to leave the next morning but we woke up to rain again. Instead we spent the day with the family, went to an onsen together and Gili made us all a delicious pasta dinner. The girls were delighted that Neil stayed an extra day and kept on offering him toys, especially their barbie dolls which he seemed to like.

Sushi for lunch - hello Kagoshima!

Sushi for lunch – hello Kagoshima!

Into Sunny Kagoshima
We woke up to a bluebird sky day and it was even quite warm. Despite Kagoshima being a big city, cycling into it was easy and soon enough we found ourselves in a central area.

We found a hole-in-the-wall sushi place and had a picnic in a park and I even took a nap in the sun. We made it and now it was time to relax. The distance we rode from Fukuoka was only 575 km but it felt way longer. The weather may have not been ideal but it sure opened some doors for us to people’s homes, although I am pretty sure it was Neil who opened their hearts.

All of us with a friend - Amakusa Spring Hostel

All of us with a friend – Amakusa Spring Hostel

This entry was posted in Cycling & Cycle Touring, Outdoor Recreation, Overseas, Travel, Trip Reports, Trips with Kids. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Japan (Part 1): The Opening Doors Experience of Cycling in Kyushu

  1. Peta says:

    Interesting that you had so many offers of hospitality to sleep in people’s homes. Very atypical in Japan… Although this was Ben’s experience in the big cities, which could be the difference.

    Love the photo of Neil with the gas station guy. Cute pics with the kids. In some photos looks like Neil has red hair? He is getting so big!! The sight of gaijin sleeping outside in a tent in the winter must have been positively shocking to them. The onsen look amazing! We went to a huge one in Tokyo when we had a 16 hour layover there. Am sure that was a good treat after all the rain. Sounds very cold and wet! Especially for biking!

    The sashimi and ramen look yummy !

    Enjoy the rest. We are currently sitting in a plane on our way to LA en route to Myanmar! Can’t wait to be in the sun in Asia again!

    • Gili says:

      Yes, it could be the big city vs. small towns, or it could be largely due to Neil being with us, but it’s definitely the most offers of hospitality we have ever had, anywhere…

      Yes, Neil has grown a lot, and even just since the beginning of the trip, he has started crawling, standing, and grew two teeth. His hair appears to be blonde but you are right, when looking at it at some angles it looks a bit red, we’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out.

      Enjoy your trip, sounds exciting!

  2. kanako sasano says:

    Long time no see,How are you?
    Always with everyone,I have said that I wonder are travelling any around now.
    Thank you put your photos to blog.
    That day will be recalled that it was a lot of fun.
    Please continue the journey to be careful.

    • Gili says:

      Thanks so much for hosting us! It was wonderful to meet you and the family, and we will always remember your generosity and friendship. All the best to you, and please remember that our home is ready for your visit to Vancouver.

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