Sleepy Saga

Nagasaki – Tosu

96 miles

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Leaving Nagasaki, I cycled back on myself for a short time, as I headed north-easterly – returning to Isahaya momentarily before branching away toward the coast of the Ariake Sea. There, I meandered around the hazy foothills of Mt. Tara, passing through a number of laid back rural villages before slipping into the incredibly sleepy Saga Prefecture.

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In my fleeting visit to this quaint prefecture – that plays the part of the middle man between Nagasaki and Fukuoka – I would spend the afternoon cycling amongst its charming and picturesque countryside.

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The pace of life here seemed relaxed, its drivers even willing to pass me by with an etiquette of grace. My pace however was rapid, as I made good ground amongst the prefecture’s abundant low-lying agricultural plains and reached Saga City by nightfall. A city about as exciting as a wet sock, where I struggled to find anywhere to bum camp for the night. And so I continued to cycle further and deeper into the night along Route 34, in the direction of Fukuoka.

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The entire 40 mile stretch from Saga to Fukuoka, appeared to build up with more highways, industrial factories and residential dwellings, the closer I got to Kyūshū’s biggest city. It would be close to midnight before I’d find some suitable habitat in which to camp.

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On the cuff of the prefectural border – in the city of Tosu – I found a patch of parkland in which to throw up a tent for a few hours; knowing that tomorrow morning the overall quiet and sleepy grace of Saga would be a thing of the past.

STATS

Dates: 16/09/2014

Total miles traversed: 5,446 miles

Total time in the saddle: 550 hours and 55 minutes

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For a more gratuitous insight into my journey please take a visit to your respective Amazon store or contact me directly for a signed copy and colour map:

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Nagasaki

Isahaya – Nagasaki

23 miles

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The ride into Nagasaki from Isahaya was short; climbing over the mountains to the east I would descend down into the heart of the city for breakfast. It’s a city that rarely needs an introduction, being only the second ever city in history to face nuclear demolition. At 11:02 local time on 9th August 1945 – just 3 days after the bombing of Hiroshima, the American B-29 Bomber Bockscar released the ‘Fat Man,’ a plutonium bomb with the critical impact of 20,000 tonnes of high explosives. The bomb would incinerate 40,000 people instantly, another 40,000 would follow in due course from the side effects. These ranged from severe burns, radiation sickness, leukaemia, malnutrition and a whole array of varying other chronic and debilitating injuries.

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The bomb, although more powerful than the ‘Little Boy’ dropped on Hiroshima, did less damage, due to the area’s uneven terrain. Locked in amongst the mountains – visibility from the skies at the time of the bombing were poor and the actual bomb itself missed its mark by some two miles. Yet the bomb would still cause damage on an unprecedented scale, flattening whole neighbourhoods, torching crops, blitzing the dock yards and destroying many remnants of the city’s once cosmopolitan past.

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Six days later, on August 15th – Japan surrendered; marking the end of World War II. Cycling through the city in the glorious sunshine and around its affluent port area, with its scenic backdrop of Mt. Inasa, I again struggled to come to terms with the fact that this vibrant city – like Hiroshima – was once turned inside out.

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Heading over to the Peace Memorial Park, the site of the hypocenter of the bomb, would spell things out a little more clearly. Here one can find remnants of Urakami Cathedral, a solid stone structure that, at the time of the bombing, must have been tossed around like a child’s teddy bear, in the jaws of a rabid Rottweiler. The cathedral was also a link to Nagasaki’s longstanding relationship with the West that dates back to the 16th Century, when Portuguese Jesuits first came to its shores, to spread the word of Christ. They also traded produce, thus making Nagasaki one of the first cosmopolitan cities of Japan.

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To see the city flourish like it clearly once did – walking hand-in-hand with the West, signifies the epiphany of peace and reconciliation that was and still is so important to Japan and the rest of the world post 1945. The past cannot be erased but the future can be altered, so that we never have to see a repeat of that fateful day, back in 1945, for rest of eternity.

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Just off the coast of Nagasaki was a place of great intrigue to me. Gunkanjima, a.k.a. Battleship Island. It is a small rock just 10 miles from the port of Nagasaki that was once heavily mined for its coal reserves. In its heyday it was home to some 5000 inhabitants, it housed apartment blocks, schools, bathhouses, shops, restaurants and a hospital. The island measured just 480 meters long by 150 meters wide and was so built up that from the sea it looked like a gigantic, fortified battleship. In 1974, however, the mining operations ceased and the island was abandoned, leaving it to the ruinous wrath of both time and Nature.

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For over 35 years the island and its decaying buildings have sat as ghostly relics in the East China Sea. But, in 2009, tour operators began to run tours to the island and I was more than interested in paying a visit.

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After securing my bike at the ferry terminal and stuffing all of my belongings into a coffin-sized locker, I was joyfully whisked away on the 50-minute ferry ride to the island.

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Gunkanjima also featured in the bond movie ‘Skyfall,’ to where many like myself would also associate the island. I expected no Bond-esque shenanigans today though as the ferry waded docilely through the calm ocean waters toward the island. On the approach, the first thing that strikes one is the high-rise almost communist style era apartment blocks, an eyesore upon the horizon. Dull and weathered looking buildings with blown out windows that looked as if they’d felt the full force of a thousand typhoons.

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When the ferry docked, a number of tour guides split people up into groups, before leading them around the island. Unfortunately, you can’t roam at will, as many of the structures are considered unsafe. Most of the scenes in Skyfall were filmed in the special effects green room back at Pinewood Studios, England. But just from walking along the stable sections of the island, it was enough to soak in this edificial graveyard of former habitation. Rubble lay strewn across the ground, whilst rustic steel framework protruded out of the decaying buildings. Vegetation grew out of the cracks in the ground and smothered everything in its path. It was an eerie place, a place where one definitely wouldn’t want to find oneself stranded for too long. It was most definitely the perfect Bond villain hideout. I happily snapped photographs for an hour or so, amongst fellow tourists and Bond fans alike – before taking the ferry back to Nagasaki.

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On the way back, everyone on the boat seemed to have had their energy zapped from them, myself included. After a couple of mild days, the weather had now chirped up again and the temperature was pushing back up into the thirties. In these sorts of climes, it doesn’t take long for one to lose energy. I looked around the boat and saw a contingent of people with their heads down, or nuzzled upon a partner’s shoulder, throwing out a merciless supply of ‘zzzzzz’s.’

I tried my hardest to fight the curse, but before I knew it, the ferry had docked back at Nagasaki harbour as I found myself jutting awake suddenly – as a group of passengers piled past me, each one of them looking at me like I was some sort of bleary-eyed smack addict.

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It was early evening when I met up with Couchsurfer, Richie, a Kiwi teaching English in Nagasaki. Richie and his Japanese friend, Jin, took me out for some sushi, before we headed up 333 meters to the summit of Mt. Inasa. The city below was a hive of activity, glistening with a flurry of lights, all the way up into the darkness of the mountains on the opposite side of the valley.

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From the ashes, this great city had risen again, to prove the worth of existence through belief, courage – and some seriously hard fucking labour. Nagasaki was back on the map; here to stay.

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For a more gratuitous insight into my journey please take a visit to your respective Amazon store or contact me directly for a signed copy and colour map:

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The Golfer Extraordinaire of Isahaya

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The ferry across the Ariake Sea to Shimbara took about an hour, by design I was the last man on and the last man off the vessel. Mt. Unzen leered dauntingly over the city upon my arrival, as I prepped my bike for the road. I headed through the busy town’s high street and out into rural Nagasaki prefecture. The rice crops – a mixture of greens and yellows – illuminated the surrounding landscape as the background was eaten up by the dark and menacing outline of a fearsome set of mountains. Straddling the coast, I avoided these harbingers of doom as I made for Isahaya in the centre of the prefecture.

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Arriving just before nightfall I was in a good position to make it to Nagasaki City in the morning – just some 20 miles away to the south-west.

For a Saturday night, Isahaya was about as lively as a morgue. Cycling through its uneventful streets in the darkness, I stopped off at a supermarket to get some late night deli counter deals, and in doing so, I happened across some much needed light entertainment. Propping my bike up against the supermarket window, I noticed an elderly gent who was practising an imaginary golf swing. On a nearby bench sat an open jar of sake. He wobbled as he sliced the invisible ball into the night sky. I quickly snuck past him and into the supermarket, just as he was looking to the skies to see where his invisible ball was going to land. Throughout my life, I’ve always had this massively talented ability to attract the eccentric… and the drunk. So as I escaped the drunken night golfer – on this occasion – I knew deep down that it wouldn’t be long before he inevitably caught up with me, for it was fate, plain and simple.

At the deli counter, I grabbed a couple of discount boxes of sashimi and went to exit the store. Just as I was about to leave, I felt the sudden urge to make small talk with the urinals, so I headed over to the toilets – an instantly regrettable idea. Inside was the aged drunken golfer extraordinaire. The problem was there was only one urinal and it was in use by the said drunk. Upon noticing my presence, he instantly turned towards me. Now I didn’t look directly at ‘it’ per se, but I was more than aware of a certain fleshy item peeking out from between his legs that appeared to be leaking fluids. I jumped instinctively backwards into the wall, to escape its dribbly wrath.

‘Oh, so sorry,’ said the golfer.

‘Err… err… that’s okay… I guess,’ I uttered, meekly.

‘My…my power swing,’ he continued, as he began to demonstrate his technique.

It was then that it dawned on me that he wasn’t actually apologising for nearly pissing on my shoes, but more so for his lacklustre imaginary golf swing. I mean he had every right to be concerned, as he wasn’t arching his back enough for my liking – but considering the circumstances that wasn’t really the point.

‘Ok, well  err…ganbatte ne!’ I left sharpishly, nearly tripping over his bottle of sake on the way out, suddenly not needing the toilet so much after all.

It was a bizarre incident, just when I thought I’d seen it all. I cycled round the corner – laughing it off – before finding a set of swings in a dark and weed infested playground. I sat on one of the swings and scoffed my sashimi, looking over my shoulder from time to time to make sure that there weren’t any drunks around, practising their slice or any imaginary golf balls heading in my general direction. Thankfully there wasn’t and I was very much alone.

After my late night dinner, I set up my tent atop a disused skate ramp. And as I lay in the black of night, the tree tops around me began to rustle and creak as a steady wind set in. When I closed my eyes, I saw drunken Japanese penises everywhere and they were coming straight for me. I slept uneasily.

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Leaving Kumamon Country

Aso – Isahaya

68 miles

The descent from Aso was dangerously dicey, and because I’m a ridiculous person, exciting. I blazed along the heaving Route 57, mere inches from self-destruction; the accelerating speed only adding to the intensity as I shot past trucks and slower road vehicles like a man possessed. Coming down from the mountains with the aid of speed, allowed me to make my mark at a greater rate, making it down to the flats of Kumamoto in a little over 2 hours – almost halving the time it took me to ascend. From the city I rode further west towards Kumamoto Port. There, a ferry to Shimbara, Nagasaki Prefecture would await me.

As I reached the ferry terminal at 13:32, I saw a notice board indicating that the next ferry would be departing at 13:40. Once again, I was cutting it fine as I raced into the terminal and over to the ticket counter. Initially, there were no queues, but then suddenly a man appeared from nowhere. We both ended up awkwardly approaching the ticket counter at the exact same time. We then had a silent stand-off, glaring into one another’s eyes, my determination to go first rife, as I knew that I was about to miss my ferry and I’d have to wait another 2 hours for the next one. And so for a solid 3.2 seconds we eyeballed one another intently, before the man no doubt sensed my desperation and urged me ahead of him. I nodded a thanks and stepped quickly forward, only to find that I’d completely forgotten how to speak Japanese. The lady at the counter asked me what I wanted and as my jumbled brain failed to recollect any words of relevance, I simply pursed my lips together and made a weird, mostly sad sounding noise. I needed to take a few moments to collect my thoughts and question whether or not I’d just had some sort of stroke.

I took a step away from the counter and ushered in the man who had kindly let me go ahead of him. He nodded in kind and asked for one ticket to Shimbara. ‘Shimabara made ichi-mai kudasai.’ He was served his ticket immediately and left the premises with his dignity intact. Mine in tatters and smeared all over the waiting room floor, I stepped up to the counter for another shot.

‘Shimabara made ichi-mai kudasai,’ I said, like a boss. And, like the previous customer, I was served a ticket within seconds, yet when the lady behind the counter handed me my ticket she tapped her finger upon her watch to express that I didn’t have much time left. Then she grabbed a walkie talkie and shouted into it something about an alien wanting to come aboard.

I dashed outside and into the car park where one of the ferry crew would greet me. He also tapped his watch. I hastily jumped onto my bike and as the crew member raced ahead of me, I followed him all the way up and into the glum hull of the ferry. Within seconds, the drawbridge was raised and the hull secured, and at 13:40 – on the dot – we were off to Nagasaki.

STATS

Dates: 10/09/2014 – 13/09/2014

Total miles traversed: 5,327 miles

Total time in the saddle: 535 hours and 2 minutes

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For a more gratuitous insight into my journey please take a visit to your respective Amazon store or contact me directly for a signed copy and colour map:

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Big Aso

Kumamoto – Aso

28 miles

I didn’t quite get as much sleep as I’d intended. My heart palpitations were bothering me,  so I ended up surfing the Internet deep into the night.

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After which, I headed off into the mountains of the Aso Kujū National Park.

I’d start out in the dark just before dawn, the air cool and crisp. And even as the sun broke upon the horizon directly ahead of me from the east, the climes would reach an accommodating 18°C. The ascent along Route 57 however was far less accommodating and more borderline frightening with vast stretches of road undergoing maintenance, allowing for meagre gaps between myself and the hefty deluge of passing traffic. Occasionally, I’d get held up by traffic lights, that were allowing the flow of a one-way traffic system along some tight sections of road. A safe and precautionary measure for motorised vehicles no doubt, yet for the budding cyclist not so much. When one starts out on an ascent through a green light and doesn’t quite make it out at the other end – before the lights go green for the oncoming traffic – this will always lead to an assortment of capers.

It was all very ugly to say the least and I could tell that the construction workers clearly hadn’t thought that there might be a halfwit with a bicycle ascending the mountains. This was more than noticeable as I passed through one such section, much to the bewilderment of a construction worker who began to rapidly scratch his head in confusion, before commenting to me ‘Abunai yo!’ It’s dangerous!

‘No shit,’ I confirmed.

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By late morning, I’d made it to the city of Aso, where I’d pre-booked a night’s accommodation in a backpacker’s hostel. There, I dumped my bags and tied up my steed in the stables – before jumping on the next bus to Mt. Aso.

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Mt. Aso looms grandly over the city, the largest of Japan’s active volcanoes with its highest peak at 1,592m above sea level and a caldera with a circumference of some 75 miles. It has five actual peaks, of which only one is active, Naka-dake. The land unravels into a natural spectacle the closer one draws to the summit. It has a mixture of rolling green hills and rich fertile plains that are grazed by both cattle and horses. Random clumps of rock lay dispersed across the park from eruptions that date back as far as 300,000 years ago. The giant mountains are claimed to be one of the most ancient and active bad boys in the land.

IMG_8945i Looking up toward the barren and craggy crater of Naka-dake, would reveal that it was almost excessively rampant with life as smoke bellowed up furiously into the atmosphere. This however led to disappointment upon reaching the Aso-Nishi base station, as it meant that both the walkway and cable car ropeway to the summit were currently off limits. Just 2 months after my visit, the volcano would spew its guts up for the first time in 22 years, projecting lava, smoke, debris and plumes of ash up to half a mile high. The ash reaching as far away as Kumamoto City – some 25 miles to the west – this in turn also led to significant crop damage in the area and the cancellation of flights. IMG_8925

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I was though in need of a trekking fix, and so walked back in the direction of Aso City to scale the summit of the inactive Mt. Kishima. Its cylindrical crater was paved over by  a lush coating of grass and would’ve been the perfect locale for an exotic baseball pitch. Views in the direction of Naka-dake were now limited by a smoky haze, it was like trying to look at something incredibly sexy through steamed up spectacles. Even so, it was still incredibly sexy.

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For a more gratuitous insight into my journey please take a visit to your respective Amazon store or contact me directly for a signed copy and colour map:

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Origin of the Bear

Minamata – Kumamoto

63 miles

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It was a crimson dawn, just as beautiful as the previous night’s sunset. Layers of heat were already beginning to ripple off the surrounding mountains, as I ventured over to a 7-Eleven to carry out my morning ritual of causing absolute anarchy in the toilets. Without my iPhone now, I could no longer get casual GPS updates at convenience stores, my route was becoming holistically devised around hand written notes and my untrustworthy ‘Made in China’ map book of Japan – complete with incomplete pages. Today though there would be no qualms, Kumamoto City, being the prefectural capital would be well sign-posted and easy to find.

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It is a city that in recent years has seen a spike in tourism; largely associated with the prefecture’s cutesy mascot ‘Kumamon’. In 2011 Kumamon won the mascot equivalent of ‘Pop Idol’ or ‘The X-Factor’ by being voted the country’s most favourite mascot. And he certainly is a rather infectious character, a big, well-rounded and clunky black bear with big red dimples, that would make the most ardent of badasses go ‘Awww, kawaii!’(Awww, so cute!) One can’t go far around the bustling city of some 700,000 inhabitants without spotting an image of him with teenage girls, and fully grown hairy men alike, posing by his side whilst throwing out the V’s.

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He’s got the masses under a spell, that much I’m certain of. But what his true underlying intentions were, I just couldn’t pinpoint – I suspect it to be something baleful and untoward. Citizens of Japan, don’t say I haven’t warned you.

I’d find little in the way of parks or covert places in which to camp, so found myself heading easterly into the city’s outer suburbs to a Manga Café. In the dim and seedy glow of the Café, I filled up a bowl with ice cream and sauntered off to my private booth to infiltrate the world of the Internet, or as my Nan would call it, ‘The Interwebs.’ I love Nans, they’re great.


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Back on the Ol’ Two-Wheeled Wagon

Kagoshima – Minamata

76 miles

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The alcohol shakes had just about subsided upon disembarkation at the Kagoshima ferry terminal. It was now time for a more straight edge approach as I headed north-westerly out of the city and along the lugubrious Route 3, towards Kumamoto Prefecture. The drivers of Kyūshū back to their old tricks of trying to turn me into mincemeat, I would cling to the sides of the roads like a squirrel clings to his prized nuts, but even then I wasn’t safe. At one point in the afternoon I met a Scottish cyclist coming from the opposite direction, both of us stopped for a quick chinwag. He’d only been cycling around Kyūshū for a few days, but couldn’t quite believe that he wasn’t dead yet. I confirmed that I often wondered myself whether or not I was invisible, judging by how many near misses I’d had on the island. But the fact that my fellow Brit had noticed my very presence and was talking to me just about cleared up any anxieties that I might have been having at the time. We wished each other God-speed before both going our separate ways. After two weeks of pissing my life savings up the wall in Okinawa, there was some small hope that as I started back out on the road again – it being September – that the climes would have simmered somewhat, yet at a baking 30°C there was no such luck. Not only would I continue sweating from where I last left off but my pace had also slowed considerably, making me feel lethargic; my weaker right knee beginning to ache again just as it did when I first started out cycling at the beginning of my tour. And to top it off, my weird heart palpitations continued to worry me. All a bad omen. Yet, despite these physical setbacks, I did still manage to make my mark by reaching Minamata by early evening.

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Minamata Bay is a place with a grim past. During the 1950’s and ‘60’s a series of residents from the local fishing community began to fall mysteriously ill, their nervous system’s breaking down. They began to lose their sight, their hearing would become impaired, their speech and movement would degrade as chronic fatigue and severe headaches would also set in – before ultimately leading to death. The cause was mercury poisoning. Mercury was being deposited into the surrounding bay by a local chemical factory; a factory that despite being aware of the damage it was causing, didn’t actually stop releasing harmful metals into  the waters until 1968. By this time, Minamata Disease affected the lives of some 2,265 people – 1,784 of which would lose their lives. Chisso, the company behind the disaster, is still in operation but has long since fessed up to the damages caused, compensating thousands of local residents.

A vast section of the bay was dredged of its contaminants at great expense to Chisso and the national government. And then on an area of reclaimed land, a substantial eco-park was built. The park’s grounds are beautified with a collection of ornate gardens, memorial sculptures, a museum, a scientific research centre, a playground, an athletics field and a splendid bayside esplanade. I sat on a bench along the esplanade with a box of wet wipes, removing layers of thick black gunk from my legs.

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The sun looked like a giant enflamed peach as it slowly sunk behind a set of islands dotted unevenly across the bay. People happily walked their dogs and did laps of the esplanade. It was unquestionably a beautiful park, it’s just a shame that it was born out of the death and misery of others. Shame on you Chisso, shame on you.


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For a more gratuitous insight into my journey please take a visit to your respective Amazon store or contact me directly for a signed copy and colour map:

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