Who would have thought a few miles across the water from Japan’s largest and busiest island, Honshu, lays a tiny, flowered island called Awaji with hardly any traffic at all? Sounds like heaven!
Crossing onto the island from Honshu, just west of Kobe, I rode over the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, which is actually the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,991 metres (6,532 ft). As you can see from the photos, it is quite an impressive sight. I couldn’t help but think it would be a lot more famous if they only painted it a striking colour; a pink Golden Gate Bridge, for example (and given a more user friendly name).
According to the Kojiki and Nihonshoki (the two oldest 7th century extant historical records of Japan), Awaji was the first island created by the gods Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto. Because of this it has traditionally supplied the table of the imperial courts with gourmet food, including huge fruit and vegetables and the Tajima cattle from which Matsuzaka & Kobe steaks are cut. Shame they must export all the good stuff because the Awaji Beefburger I had was mediocre at best; but then again it was from a sloppy joe roadhouse. Well actually I had two as I was starving.
The toll road runs the length of Awaji (33 miles) onto the island Shikoku. Staying on it would have been rather boring and expensive, so I hopped off at the first opportunity (paying my £15 fee) and continued along Awaji’s southern coast road which tightly hugs the coast making a very pleasant, relaxing ride, light-years away from the noise, traffic and congestion of Osaka and the southern Honshu coast. After the last couple of days of rain in Osaka (which is why I decided to stay there so long), it was also a very pleasant experience to be riding in the sun. It wasn’t exactly warm, but it was dry and mild – almost perfect biking weather in fact.
I’d read that Awaji is one of the largest flower production centres in Japan, so I thought I’d better check them out. Climbing into the hills just a few miles south of the bridge, I eventually found Awaji Hanasajiki, which means ‘Flower Garden’. Although I was a little early in the season, some of the flowers had already started blooming, including over 1 million purple and yellow ‘Hanana’, or Rapeseed (the third largest source of vegetable oil in the world).
Further south there’s a museum showing the devastation caused by the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake (or Kobe earthquake) which killed over 6,400 people, mostly from Kobe across the water.
Japan lies on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, home to 90% of the world’s earthquakes, and something I’ve been circling around through California, New Zealand, (parts of) Indonesia and now Japan. Earthquakes around the ring are no surprise, caused by the movement of the Earth’s outer rigid shell (lithospheric plates) floating around on top of a less rigid mantle. Good job it did, because otherwise there would be no land to live on (all our planet’s land has been created by volcanic eruptions). This process is called Plate Tectonics, and this quick Geography lesson was brought to you by my old Geography teacher Mr Clifford (he would be pleased I listened to something!)
The Nojima Fault on the Ring of Fire cuts Awaji in two, and it was movement along this fault that caused the 1995 earthquake. California lies in a similar position to Awaji – cut in half by a moving fault that will continue to cause earthquakes for many years to come.
As the sun was getting low, I started to hurry up a bit and look out for a campsite. I’d found a website that listed hundreds of free (yes, free) campsites throughout Japan, but only problem was it was in Japanese. Apparently they want all tourists to pay for camping (and why not, I suppose).
As it was getting later and colder I would have gladly paid to camp somewhere with a hot shower, but unfortunately I couldn’t find anything anywhere. After a lot of searching on my Japanese Data SIM (which I should have done earlier) I soon discovered there was a distinct lack of affordable accommodation in Awaji, and the cheapest hotel I could find was around £60 (no good on my world traveller’s budget). Eventually I managed to find one glancing reference to a chargeable campsite on the northwest coast at a place called Taganohama Beach. Unfortunately nowhere called Taganohama Beach was showing on my SatNav or Google Maps.
It couldn’t be that hard to find, I thought, so I decided I might as well ride round the rest of the island on my way to the west coast and swing by Nadakuroiwa Suisenkyo (‘Home of the Daffodils’ on the SE coast), where 5 million of the flowers were supposed to be in bloom. I’ve never seen 5 million daffodils before, but I must say I was expecting something a little more spectacular. Maybe I’m just too hard to please. Or maybe I was just too early/late again.
Back on the hunt for somewhere to sleep, it was now sunset and black clouds were rolling in. The forecast was rain, and it was right. Soon it was pelting down cats, dogs and frogs. Then it got really cold and windy. Ideal.
As camping is not much fun in the rain, wind and cold (well, I suppose it depends who you have in your tent), I almost decided to part with £60 and retreat to a hotel. However, the forecast said the rain would stop around 7pm, so I decided to press on with the plan.
I’d read that in Japan you can pretty camp anywhere for free, as long as you’re respectful (of course), discrete and packed away early enough to not be an eyesore in the morning (on the village park). By now it was dark and very cold, and I was looking out for anywhere suitable to pitch and get the stove on.
Two hours later I was still searching, and it was still raining, very cold and windy. It was times like this I wished my heated grips worked properly. Triumph may have made a great bike, but the ‘heated grips’ only reach lukewarm at best, except on boiling hot days, which isn’t very useful.
During my World Tour I have learnt quite a few things, and one of them is: there gets to a point when you stop worrying about whether you can camp somewhere or not. I had reached that point.
Desperate now, I came across an empty park next to the beach with loos, and took shelter from the rain & wind under a veranda. It was 8pm. Looking around I found the loos had showers, but they were locked, and I guessed I’d found the campsite after all, but closed out of season.
My iPhone Weather App has served me very well so far on my tour, and sure enough the rain stopped around 8.30pm. By now I had warmed up a bit, and the full moon had risen to make quite a beautiful evening. I found what I thought was a good spot, and almost had my £20 Home-Mart special tent up in seconds, when one of the peg loops ripped out from the groundsheet. Great! Lesson: Always pitch a new tent at home first as a test before deployment in the field (I actually knew this lesson as well, but was short of a home to test it out in first).
Another lesson – Adapt and overcome.
I managed to make a little pocket to hold the tent pole in the groundsheet, and made a hole in ground sheet to put the peg through. It worked, which is all I cared about.
Camping next to the beach may sound romantic, but I’ve discovered west coast Awaji beaches are windy and freeeezing in the winter, as you’d probably expect, and the wind kept blowing out my gas stove. After quite a lot of perseverance (as I was about to keel over from starvation), I built enough of a shelter around the stove to cook an incredible one-pot meal of Spagetti Bolognaise and eggs. Like most kinds of food when you’re starving, it tasted AMAZING, and instantly made the world look great again.
There are things I love already about Japan, and one of them is the size of their bread slices. In a normal loaf you will only get 5 to 6 slices, which make the thickness of each slice really man sized. Being a huge bread eater (I’m scared to have a gluten sensitivity test in case I’m positive, as I think I really might starve) this gets me really excited, and I love making huge sandwiches from it. I especially savoured dunking it into my spag bol that evening.
Awaji – Day 2
I was awoken around 6am by a band of geriatric golfers whose practice putting green I was camped on. I must say they were jolly nice and cheerful about it and even came over to look at my bike. However, I hope when I retire I at least wait until 9am before venturing outside on such a frosty morning, after a good old fry up.
I was very happy I’d had a great sleep and wasn’t cold at all in my new sleeping bag. I didn’t have a stiff back either (like I usually get camping), so was also very happy I’d spent the extra for a good quality inflatable mat & pillow (yes – luxury camping on a motorbike – not bad!)
It was a cold morning though, but the best thing about being cold is how good it makes the sun feel when it comes out and starts warming you up; and it looked as though it was going to be a lovely day! After a hasty tent dismantling and a quick breakfast, I set off back south to head on over the next bridge to Shikoku, Japan’s 4th largest island.
Random question: Why do many Japanese men and women I see shuffle around dragging their feet? Apparently it has to do with their age old tradition of wearing wooden sandals called geta (particularly with older people) which call for a shuffle to stop them falling off. After a week in Osaka I too found myself shuffling around the hotel wearing the tiny slippers they provided to stop them falling off.
The ride back down south was much more enjoyable than the same road north the night before in the rain, as the sun was out, and I managed to see some more nice, suitable camping beaches I had missed in the dark. It was going to be a great day to sample sparsely populated, mountainous Shikoku and her beautiful beaches.