A Japanese Underworld

Shimonseki – Hagi

67 miles

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I’d spent the night on a promenade overlooking the Kanmon Strait. Over a convenience store breakfast, I watched a selection of ships sail its busy waters. It is a strait that has seen hundreds of vessels ply its waters on a daily basis, for many hundreds of years. From the surrounding ocean, many a fisherman will return with their prized catches, namely Fugu, a.k.a. the pufferfish. Shimonoseki is considered the “Fugu Capital” of Japan, where specially licensed chefs will precariously prepare the fish, so that they are palatable for human consumption. If prepared incorrectly, the fish contains enough neurotoxins to paralyse every muscle in the human body… which in turn can lead to death. Knowing this, and knowing that I still had over 1500 miles to cover, I decided that for breakfast I’d stick to a 7-Eleven ham and cheese toasty.

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A cold front reaching out off of the strait saw me don my fleece for the first time in months; a coldness that would trail north with me up into the highlands of the rather majestic Akiyoshidai Plateau. This is a 50-square-mile area that some 300 million years ago was actually a coral reef, yet through time geological processes have shaped the limestone karst topography into an ocean of weather beaten rocks that dot a landscape of abundantly rolling green hills – making it look like a giant monolithic creature, bathing in an ocean of grass. Underneath these hills run a network of some 400 or so limestone caverns, the biggest of which – the Akiyoshidō Cave – can be explored on foot. The cave is said to span some 5 miles and it is one of the longest in Asia. Walking down a flight of steps, 100 metres into the earth – amongst a permanently cool 16℃ – a dark and mysterious world unfolds. A world of stalagmites and stalactites, with waterfalls that run a dazzling cobalt blue and iridescent limestone pools that sit stacked up like rice paddies of the underworld. A world just as beautiful and imaginative underground as it is above; yet here inside the earth, Nature’s artistry seemed at its most drug fuelled and zaniest.

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Emerging back into the daylight, I descended from the scenic plateau into the freshly harvested paddy fields of northern Yamaguchi. By late afternoon, I reached the coast and the old samurai town of Hagi. A town that has been relatively untouched since the beginnings of the 17th Century Edo Period. Here a number of old residential and merchant properties still stand amongst the town’s narrow streets. I explored them before dusk set in, then found a small copse close to Kikugahama Beach, where I set up camp.

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I sat on the beach and watched the sun go down. I was beginning to lose light earlier in the day now, and more than the mileage represented upon my odometer, the seasons had dictated the length of time that I had been on the road. From the bleak and freezing sleepless nights of winter, through to the wet and dreary sleepless nights of the rainy season – and then on into the hot and sweaty sleepless nights of summer. I had seasonally gone full circle as the climes finally became agreeable for my cycling trip around Japan.

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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:

Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan

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Leaving Kyushu

Fukuoka –  Shimonoseki

75 miles

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Leaving central Fukuoka,  was slow and tedious. Traffic lights, busy three lane highways, clustered and bumpy sidewalks and of course a cutthroat contingent of guileless mamachari. The weather was overcast, yet extremely humid, the vast throngs of heavy traffic and exhaust fumes only adding fuel to the surrounding stickiness. Eventually, when the traffic finally thinned out, and I’d left the last of the high-rise apartment blocks behind me, I secured myself a scenic route through a procession of lonely hills and rice paddies. This would lead me on to the scruffy industrial sprawl of Kitakyūshū. Kitakyūshū is the northern most city of Kyūshū with over a million inhabitants and it serves as one of the largest industrial hubs in the country. It is also a gateway to the neighbouring island, Honshū. Cycling along the north of the Dokai Bay, I saw nothing but dull looking factories and an expanse of power plants.

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In the 1960’s, the bay was referred to as the ‘Sea of Death,’ due in part to the amount of wastewater and pollutants that were being evacuated into the bay on a daily basis. Yet amid protests that started with housewives complaining that they couldn’t dry their laundry on washing lines – because when they took it in, it was black with soot… the city council began to feel the pressure. Over the years the city’s industrial sector would learn to grind out the country’s needs in a more environmentally friendly manner. Of course, that doesn’t stop the place looking like a complete shit hole… But then, industrial zones are not meant to be pretty, their job is to produce product and by any means produce it well. And, considering the amount of trucks whizzing past me every 5 seconds, that was exactly what Kitakyūshū must have been doing.

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I hit a stumbling block upon reaching the suburb of Wakamatsu, where I found a bridge and a tunnel that could lead me across the bay and further into central Kitakyūshū. Unfortunately, both bridge and tunnel happened to be toll roads, and as the traffic steadily flowed I would be greeted by a no cycling sign. I was though feeling somewhat crafty. Halting near the bridge entrance, I took a sneaky look around.   Go on Dan, you know you want to, it’s probably only about 400 metres across, it’ll be fine, nobody will probably even notice…probably, and if they do just play the dumb foreigner card… My eyes narrowed as I set about pedalling, and the very moment that I did, I heard a whistle blow. Shit! Through some mesh fencing, a uniformed man appeared from a little bunker with a cigarette in his mouth, he wagged his finger at me like an angry headmaster. Double shit! I smiled cheekily and swiftly did a 180° turn, darting off in the opposite direction blushing slightly. I was too embarrassed to look back over my shoulder because I’d been a naughty boy. For some five miles or so I backtracked around the bay, until I found a bicycle friendly bridge. But here my frustrations would mount as I hit the rush hour traffic and a number of other no cycling signs that forced me to find alternate routes. Lacking any maps or notes in which to aid me through this urban nightmare, I would try my best to orienteer my way through the city via compass, but unfortunately it had no way of detecting dead ends. Heading up a steep, almost vertical hill, for about 20 minutes in a residential area, I found a dead end. Coming back down the hill the same way, I found another dead end that I swore wasn’t there earlier. The layout of the city was preposterous. An absolute mindfuck. After further milling about, I found Dokai Bay again and the other side of the toll bridge from Wakamatsu. I’d just wasted the best part of 2 hours! I looked around for something dainty and soft to kick, yet there was nothing but concrete, so I just pushed onwards into the brewing dusk, my rage haphazardly piling up in the process. From the Oseto Strait I trailed the coast through Kokura, considered the heart of Kitakyūshū and once home to one of the biggest armament factories in the country. This had been the primary target for the second atomic bomb during World War II. On the cloudy morning of 6th August 1945, Major General Charles Sweeney piloted the Bockscar to Kokura, yet due to climatic conditions was unable to find the target, thus Kokura was spared. Instead, turning the plane around, Sweeney would guide the weapon of mass destruction to its secondary target of Nagasaki, where fate was not so kind.

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Continuing farther afield, I cycled parallel to the Kanmon Strait, across from which I could now see the bright lights of Shimonoseki. A multi-coloured Ferris wheel lit up the night sky, along with an ambient glow cast from the Kaikyō Yume Tower – a structure that standing at 153 metres tall was the tallest building in Western Japan. Reaching the old trading port of Moji, I found a lift that took me deep down into the ground. There a sweaty 780 metre long pedestrian tunnel led me directly under the Kanmon Strait and back onto the island of Honshū.

The final stages of my trip were now drawing ever closer, and suddenly the stresses of the manic streets of Kitakyūshū were relieved.

STATS

Dates: 17/09/2014 – 18/09/2014

Total miles traversed: 5,551 miles

Total time in the saddle: 559 hours and 54 minutes

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:

Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan

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Into the Neon

Tosu – Fukuoka

30 miles

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With a population of close to 1.5 million people, Fukuoka City is some 5 times larger than Saga City, making it not only the biggest city in Kyūshū but the 6th largest in the country. From Tosu it would take me just over an hour to reach downtown Fukuoka. The city’s streets were choked with traffic whilst its sidewalks took a pummelling from the hoards of shopaholics milling from one shopping mall to the next. I’d booked a night in a hostel close to the city centre and upon arrival found myself taking a little siesta. I’d hammered it from Nagasaki yesterday and the wear and tear on my body was more than evident as from the moment I lay my head down, I was out like a light.

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Awaking around dusk I put on my best soy sauce stained t-shirt and took a walk over to Nakasu Island. The inner city island surrounded by the Naka and Hakata Rivers is one of the busiest red light districts in Western Japan after Osaka. Huge neon billboards were perched atop a row of high-rise buildings advertising various alcoholic beverages, hostess clubs and love hotels. Yet on the deck I couldn’t see anything that resembled the seedy world of a red light district, just a few convenience stores, a Mister Donut and a couple of 100 Yen shops. All seemed very innocent and inoffensive. My main draw for being here however was not to experience an expensive and meaningless chat with an attractive Japanese girl, whilst she lights cigarettes that I don’t even know how to smoke properly, but more to sample one of Fukuoka’s yatai, an open air food stand. Across the city one might find some 150 yatai stands which generally sit around 6 to 8 people, and if you can find a seat, it’s yours. The air lingered richly with the fine smells of Japanese cuisine as I took a seat at one such stand and ordered some Hakata Ramen, one of the local favourites. Served with ultra-thin noodles it was a thick bleached white looking broth made from the boiling of pork bones, collagen and fat. It was scorching hot and would take me nearly 30 minutes to nurse, but it was delicious and made a welcome change from 7-Eleven noodles. I washed the ramen down with my first beer since Okinawa. Yes, yes, I know I said I was never going to drink again, but my strange heart palpitations had since ceased and so one could only assume that I was fixed and therefore ready to enter back into the sordid realms of the booze industry.

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By the time I’d left the yatai stand it was gone 10pm, there were now reams of drunken salarymen parading up and down the banks of the river, one drunk was giving another a piggy back, whilst a colleague chased after them, kicking them both up the arse. Suddenly, the innocence of the pre-10pm watershed was lost. Scantily clad girls began to loiter the neighbourhood, many wielding signboards that detailed some information that I couldn’t understand along with how long one gets and how much money it will cost them. Many of the girls seemed upbeat putting on brave smiles as they screeched out their wares and invited passers-by into their clubs, others looked miserable as sin as their mind played on the night ahead. I watched one young girl lead a happy bunch of middle aged salarymen into a shady looking building, the men would enter happy and no doubt leave happy. Sadly, I felt the same perhaps couldn’t be said for the bulk of girls working in this industry. The thought depressed me a little and I called it a night.

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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:

Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan

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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:

Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan

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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:

Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan

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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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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:

Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan

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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:

Tokyo to Tokyo: A Cycling Adventure Around Japan

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