From Nagasaki I rode east across to the Shimabara Peninsula, which mostly consists of the active volcano Mount Unzen, which is actually a volcanic group of several overlapping stratovolcanoes, if you want to get technical.
In 1792, the collapse of one of its several lava domes triggered a tsunami that killed around 15,000 people. The most recent deadly eruption killed 43 people in 1991, including three volcanologists, proving even so called ‘experts’ cannot fully predict the powers of nature.
The road went up the southern slope of the volcano with great views, to a small town near the top called Unzen, where a series of steaming hot volcanic fumaroles pipe boiling water, mud and volcanic gases to the Earth’s surface. It was pretty strange riding across this parched landscape, especially as the road went right through the middle of all the fuming sulphuric gases.
Unzen town is, as you’d expect, laden with hot-spring resorts, which are called Unzen-onsen (onsen being the Japanese word for hot springs). At least it’s easy to remember! The boiling volcanic vents are locally called ‘Jigoku’ (the Japanese word for ‘Hell’), and into these numerous Christians were thrown in to their deaths after their failed 17th century revolt. Not a nice way to go at all.
At 800 meters above sea level, Unzen town is still a popular summer resort due to the much cooler climate in hot summer months. It also sports great views of the surrounding Unzen Amakusa National Park, one of the first three national parks made in Japan in 1934.
Most ‘foreign’ religions were banned under Japan’s strict isolationist foreign policies for much of the 17th to 19th centuries, although Dutch, Chinese and a few other merchants were still permitted to enter Japan through Nagasaki in a very limited fashion until Japan was ‘reopened’ again in 1853. At first glance, anyone may think Japan’s 200 year international isolation may have been a bad thing for the country, but when you consider this produced the one of the longest stretches of peace in their history, and allowed the rich, unique culture of Japan to develop, I’m not so sure.
Winding my way back down Mt Unzen to the southeast of the peninsula, I followed the coast to the south.
I was very fortunate to arrive at Kuchinotsu Port in the nick of time to catch the ferry south to Amakusa, no doubt saving a long wait, as I had no idea what time the ferries went, how often or even when they stopped running.
On the ferry I met Japanese biker Kazunori who was touring Japan on his Yamaha 250 Raid. I loved the way he had attached a large storage box to his bike as a tail box – just goes to show you don’t need to spend a lot of money to achieve the aim! Good for you Kazunori – hope you had a great trip!
The ferry ride was relatively short, and once on Amakusa I sped off to treat myself to a dorm-free hotel to relax in privacy for a similar price.
I arrived at Hotel Kawacho just before the sun set, and quickly donned my running shoes (and shorts and vest) for a sunset jog along the seafront. I usually jog listening to music on my iTouch, and so I was able to use it to snap the beautiful red sunset that evening.
By the way, I love my new running shoes I bought in Thailand – Nike Air Pegasus. For the first time since I can remember, I actually feel comfortable with my pronounced heal strike, for which these shoes are designed for, so a little research really does help!
An aside: Sometimes I wonder how I’m ever doing this trip, being one of the clumsiest, most forgetful and most disorganised people I know. So the good news is, if I can do it, anyone can! Somewhere along the line from Thailand to Japan I’ve lost my disc brake alarm. That’s the second one I’ve lost on this trip. I’ve also lost my summer riding gloves, as well as a whole host of other things. I even left my laptop on the plane from Yangon to Mandalay and had to go back and get it. One thing I have got is plenty of photocopies (and copies saved ‘in the cloud’ on gmail) of all my important personal and bike documents in case I lose any originals. I’ve also got 4 different credit/debit cards and always make sure I carry a good amount of USD (which you can spend pretty much anywhere), distributed in 3 different places.
With my bike parked outside with the panniers still attached (I can take them off and carry them inside if I want to), I suddenly thought how nice it was to be able to leave my bike virtually anywhere without fear of it (or parts) getting stolen or vandalised. There is very little crime in Japan (it’s lower than in all other industrialized countries) which all adds to its appeal as a great, friendly and safe place to visit. I certainly wouldn’t leave my bike alone in the UK without a bike chain attached to something, and bear traps hidden around the perimeter (yes, I’ve already had one motorbike stolen in the UK – my classic ZXR 750 – from my sister’s driveway, of all places!).
Showered and feeling fit, I was starving and ready for a good meal. The people at the hotel were great and took good care of me, ushering me into the attached fresh seafood restaurant and recommending local dishes for me to try.
I really fancied a good sashimi and ended up with a delicious selection of raw fish and octopus. I was also brought a lovely starter of winkles (small sea snails), which I hadn’t had since a kid, when we used to catch our own on the mudflats on the North Norfolk coast near my home town.
As I was finishing my meal an elderly Japanese gent appeared behind the bar and started trying to talk to me. He was lovely – respectful and elegant – but couldn’t speak English, and of course my Japanese is somewhat ridiculously useless.
I hate not being able to speak with people, and I always feel very ignorant and embarrassed when I can’t speak another person’s language. Unfortunately I just seem to find it very difficult to remember foreign words. The funny thing was he seemed more embarrassed than me by the fact he couldn’t speak English, and would not stop apologising for the fact.
Thankfully we didn’t let a minor thing like language stop us communicating, and after a while the old gent pulled up a stool and produced a bottle of his delicious homemade plum wine called Umeshu for me to sample. By now I had guessed correctly he was the owner, and I deployed my iPhone and the brilliant ‘Google Translate’ application to start asking him questions, to which he replied in whatever way he could to make himself understood.
He had owned the restaurant for many years and it was all run by his large family. We talked about pretty much everything under the sun, and it was very interesting to hear the views of this wise old man on a variety of worldly subjects.
The conversation was aided by a constant stream of local drinks – everything under the sun from beer, sake, shochu and other homemade wine & brews – none of which he’d let me pay for – and he made sure my glasses were never empty (yes, I always had to have 2 drinks on the go).
It was a totally unexpected, pleasant evening, and helped cement my view that the Japanese are some of the friendliest and most respectful people I have met on my world tour.
I slept very well, no doubt helped by the alcohol intake of last night, and again was ushered through to the restaurant for a huge self-service breakfast buffet. The old gent’s grandchildren were visiting, and I was surprised to see the children eating with folks and spoons instead of chop-sticks. I almost asked for some myself – have you ever tried to eat a fried egg with chop-sticks?
I set off down the west coast of Amakura and along the prehistoric sandstone Myoken-Ura coast formed over 33 million years ago. Filled with caves, tunnels and arches on pine tree cliffs, the area is designated as a national place of scenic beauty – and it really is.
It was a gorgeous sunny day, and I just couldn’t understand why there were just so few people around. Beautiful Jusanbutsu Park car-park was practically empty.
I could see from the cliff tops that the water below was crystal clear, and again wished I had my diving gear to jump in and explore. In a bay further south I actually came across a group of divers and wished I could join them for a dip.
I spent the whole morning leisurely cruising the cliffs until I reached the south of the island and caught a ferry across to small Nagashima island.
As I arrived at the ferry I joined the back of a long line of other motorcycles who’d just been on a club ride. They welcomed me with open arms and we spent the short ferry crossing chatting about our travels and places I should go and see back in Kyushu. It’s always great to get some local biker knowledge!
A quick spurt across there brought me back onto Kyushu via a bridge. The day was moving on fast and I wanted to get to Kagashima in south Kyushu, often compared with its Italian sister city of Naples due to a similarly mild climate, palm tree lined streets and apparently hot tempered inhabitants. Kagoshima also stood at the foot of one of the world’s most active volcanos – Sakurajima – which has been erupting almost constantly since 1955. I was looking forward to it!