Biking Japan’s backroads

Sometime late last year, I got a serious urge to visit Japan again after a 20-year hiatus. It was a serious pull.

That urge grew out of the fact that I had lived in Japan for two years, mostly in Kyushu four decades ago, and out of the fact that my family is closely tied to Japan.

Over the course of the winter, that urge turned into a plan for a bike tour for three Haiku guys through Kyushu, Japan’s southern main island, in May. The ride started in Fukuoka, Kyushu’s main metropolitan center, and went through Hita, Yufuin, Beppu, Oita, Aso, Kumamoto and Nagasaki in five days, covering about 200-300 miles through rice paddies, up and down mountains and around an active volcano.

We picked Kyushu because it was big enough to be interesting but much more rural than Honshu, Japan’s main island. Kyushu offered the potentiality for open roads and rural beauty, and it did not fail.

We went in late May because the weather could be perfect: weeks before the rainy season hit and warm but not summer hot. And that’s what we got: roughly the same weather we left on Maui. Five days after we left Japan, the rainy season started. Pure luck.

Why did we think we could do this? Because Tracy Stice and I had done similar rides before. We have been riding the Hana Highway together for 15 years, doing about 30 miles every Sunday morning. We call it the Church of the Hana Highway. We had also done a pair of 300-mile, five-day rides out of Washington, D.C. How hard could Japan be?

Our Haiku neighbor, friend and sometimes ride partner Lance Ellinghausen joined up too. Lance had never done a long ride before but had done the Race to the Sun. He was qualified. Besides, he speaks Japanese.

The schedule was amazingly tight: one day to set up, five days in the saddle and one day to get ready to return to Maui. And it worked.

It worked because the Internet allowed us to locate our guide and tour organizer, Eric Romney. Eric is a professional bicycle racer who used his knowledge of Kyushu’s backroads to create a variety of tours, along with inexpensive accommodations. It worked because Eric knows what he is doing.

It must be painful for a thoroughbred like Eric – who lives and sleeps to be able to knock a few seconds off his next six-hour ride – to have to keep pace with a pair of old Clydesdales like Tracy and me. But he did lead us through gorgeous countryside, up and down major mountains, and safely through monumental metropolitan rush-hour traffic.

Favorite memory: On the night we arrived in Aso, the village at the foot of a towering, active volcano, it was pitch black and about five miles to our hotel. Luckily, Tracy had brought a headlamp and I had a blinking red “butt” light. We rode in a file, with Eric’s headlamp leading and me in the rear with the blinker, through the dark rice paddies. Lance and I were singing “We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz” and laughing our heads off. We must have been a sight to the Japanese who rode up on us in their cars.

Actually, we startled many folks along the way, a line of foreigners on road bikes blasting through their sleepy farming villages at 20 mph. Some had the “what the . . .” look on their faces; others looked more amused and sought opportunities to ask us what we thought we were doing. I did not detect any kind of hostility. Generally, we would explain that we were “buka gaiken” – crazy foreigners. That explanation was usually accepted at face value.

Most folks we saw in the country were focused on planting their neat, ancient rice paddies and never looked up. The beauty of the clear paddy water – with the young rice sprouts poking straight up – reflecting the mountains repeatedly took my breath away. So did the climb up the mountains, so I concentrated on riding instead of taking pictures. But I am keeping the mental pictures I took.

A key part of this trip is that it marked the first time Tracy had ever set foot in Asia. Lance and I are both married to Japanese and can speak Japanese.

Tracy was impressed with the industry and sense of purpose you see everywhere in Japan. The contrast to the Japan I knew 45 years ago was significant. In 1968, Japan was still recovering from defeat. Japan 2014 is First World: wealthy, confident, sophisticated, cool. Perhaps that’s why they think it’s OK to drive on the wrong side of the road.

The cities we went through were clean, and there were no homeless to be seen. More importantly for bicycles, there was no broken glass on the roadway – a common problem on Maui.

And what a first taste of Japan Tracy got. On the first day, right out of Fukuoka, we stopped at the ancient Dazaifu Shrine. (Shinto holy places are shrines, and Buddhist holy places are temples. Most Japanese are both Shintoists and Buddhists. You go to the shrine to get married and the temple to get buried). Dazaifu is a small piece of the ancient capital of Kyoto dropped into Kyushu. It was Sunday afternoon and the place was packed. It included a large shrine, a thousand-year old camphor tree, cars getting blessed by priests in 10th-century temple gowns and a major wedding ceremony. The ceremony included ancient, haunting gagaku court music and songs by dancing virgin maidens. Closing my eyes, I felt like I was in a different time. But we had 60 miles to cover that day and just 20 minutes for the stop. Dazaifu was quickly behind us.

The first day’s destination was Hita, a farming and logging center of about 100,000 in the center of Kyushu. The first I heard of it was when it appeared on the Eric’s itinerary. And as luck would have it, that same Sunday night was the climax of the 50th annual Spring Matsuri (festival). There were loads of food and booze booths, and the whole community was milling around, waiting for the fireworks to start. Japan is famous for its riverside fireworks. Boats set up to be floating dining rooms took guests out on the Mikamakawa River. When it became dark, the night’s sky blew up with a bombardment like I had never seen before. The display would build up to a crescendo in about 15 minutes, and you would expect the event to end, but instead a new bombardment would start, build and climax in about 15 minutes – over and over again for an hour and a half. We partied with the locals until about midnight. At 9 a.m. the next morning, we were on the road to Yufuin and serious mountain climbing.

At Takasaki Mountain, in Oita, we witnessed the feeding of hundreds of macaque monkeys at a Buddhist temple dedicated to their care. The monkeys easily mingle with the humans but because their feedings are strictly controlled and orchestrated, there was no monkey business, except when an occasional fight – among the monkeys – would break out. The monkeys generally waited patiently for their dinner and ignored the humans taking their pictures.

The climb up to the Aso volcano was strenuous, through pine forests and into wide-open pasture. Tracy and I ended up walking a stretch of this climb. Lance could handle whatever Eric threw at him. He had actively trained for the ride, while Tracy and I had actively talked about training. And it showed.

Aso is aptly named: a cinder mound at the top of a 5,000-foot peak. You can look right into the caldera and hear the crackling and grinding of the earth below.

At the bottom of the mountain, on the road to Kumamoto, we came across a standard American roadhouse called Big Boss’s. The place looked like something you would expect to find on Route 66 in Oklahoma: a country-western music hall, a big dance floor, and a pair of very well appointed Harleys on either side of the stage – looking oddly like temple guardian dogs. Big Boss’s offered one of the best hamburgers I have ever eaten, anywhere. Almost like an East meets West scene in an updated version of Alice in Wonderland.

After Aso, the ride became increasingly urban. We came down the slope from the volcano into Kumamoto, a classic Japanese castle town. It is the burial place of Miyamoto Musashi – Japan’s most renowned swordsman – and the home of a spectacular feudal castle. But to see any of it, we had to shoehorn our way through wall-to-wall rush-hour traffic.

Kumamoto is a thoroughly modern city with a population of about 700,000 and a metro-area population of about 1.5 million. We got in about 5 p.m., washed, did our laundry, ate, drank and were in the saddle again the next morning at 9 a.m. We toured the castle for about an hour, then rode for about two hours to hook up with a ferry that would take us to the peninsula where Nagasaki is located. And we rode for another three hours after we got off the ferry.

Nagasaki, of course, is famous for having been obliterated by an American atomic bomb in the closing days of World War II. What we found was a vibrant city that felt a bit older than Kumamoto. Because the ride was over, we were able to allot ourselves the whole next morning to visit the Bomb Museum and Peace Park and Dejima.

The displays in the museum tell the whole story, complete with a full-scale model of the bomb itself. But I was pulled to the stories about the human suffering that occurred that late morning in 1945. They had a powerful impact on me. Next to the museum, the epicenter of the blast is marked by a plain, black monolith. By contrast, the Peace Park is bright, airy and full of wonderful sculpture.

Dejima, a former Dutch trading station, is the one place where the outside world was allowed to interact with Japan between 1630 and 1853. Because the Japanese feared colonization, they kept themselves strictly isolated from foreign contact. Information about Western technology, medicine, science and culture slowly seeped through the Dejima membrane. That history is now well celebrated at the site of the former artificial island – an “island” that is now in the middle of a modern city.

A problem with the way we had organized our ride was that it was all about riding bikes and the touring was incidental, catch as catch can. We spent most days in the saddle. The good part was that we chose to ride in Kyushu, a wonderfully laid-back part of Japan.

While the traffic sometimes got intense, we quickly realized that we had nothing to fear. Those cars and trucks moving right next to us were driven by folks who were used to moving precisely through cramped spaces. And Japanese have absolutely no problem with bicycles. Bikes are an essential part of their culture.

There were situations when the traffic got intense; just when I would think I’d had enough, a grandma (OK, she was probably my age) would ride by in the same traffic in the other direction. So I sucked it up and got over it.

So as the Japan Travel Bureau ad says: Japan is Cool. And our two cultures continue to blend. Japan’s is an amazingly sophisticated culture that sometimes misses a step in its desire to make you feel welcomed, but mostly because they are trying too hard. And if you can find your way to the backroads, it is a great place to ride a bike.