Japan – Good Friends Along The Way

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Sunday, 05 June 2016.

Leaving Hiroshima was not easy.

For one, its tragic past was an ever-present reminder of the frailty of life and the regrettable folly of man. Yet the city, as with all of the cities I have encountered in Japan, holds a festive mood and a mutual joy of coming together with others, with progress, sustenance, and renewal being a common theme amongst them all.

For another, I had to leave Mai’s side, the girl I met in Beppu, which I so quickly, and effortlessly, became accustomed to. This is not common for me, I do not easily express my affection, in a physical manner, to someone who I am attracted to. Our interactions were natural and unforced, enjoying each others’ company and mutual embrace as if we were long-time friends. But alas, we had to part ways again. I am, however, ever-hopeful of the future and do not take lightly our encountered, and know I shall see her again.

As with the other places I have visited in Japan, I have made many good friends along the way, even though we only met for a short time, and I still keep in contact with some of them, because connections like these, of the heart and the mind, I truly cherish.

My plans had changed slightly in Hiroshima, staying an extra two days, for very good reasons, which means I will only be staying in Kobe for one day instead of two. Apart from that, I am still following my original route and plan, although my hike along the Nakasendo Way is still not adequately planned, for good reasons again I can assure you. Apart from my lack of planning, there is another concern I have about my upcoming trek to Tokyo and that is my back. I have been doing some exercise as I have been travelling, mostly pushups and Capoeira sequences, but in Hiroshima, even before that, I did not warm up properly and now the muscles in my back are in some serious pain, whenever I move my back in a certain way. I also think my heavy backpack that may have played a large part in this. Some rest and a few good stretching sessions will hopefully do the trick before I set off on my most epic of hikes.

And so, I have four days to spend in the Kansai region, first in northern Kyoto, at Amanohashidate, and then one day in Kyoto and one in Kobe. In Kobe, I want to try some Kobe Beef, if it is not too overwhelmingly expensive, and, if I do so, I am sure to write about it in my next post.

Until then.

Starr

Japan – Honshu to Shikoku to Kyushu to Honshu, and Other Observations In-between – Part 1

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Sunday, 29 May 2016.

It is a rainy Sunday morning, in Nagasaki, and I am on a bus, warm and dry, heading to Fukuoka, my final stopover on the island of Kyushu. In three days time, I will once again be back in Honshu, the biggest of the four main islands of Japan, where another infamous city, Hiroshima, awaits me.

But I am getting ahead of myself. It has been a while since I last wrote about my travels through Japan. As you can imagine, I have been busy travelling, of course, which takes up a lot of time. But as I travel, I make notes about my experiences and observations, with the hope of compiling them into a letter format, when the journey affords me a moment’s pause, and which you are witnessing the creation of as we speak.

My cycling trip from Onomichi, in Honshu, to Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands, was a wonderful experience, taking me about 6 hours to cover the 75kms from one end to the other. The bridges across each of the small islands along the way are a unique and magnificent sight to behold. The cycling is not at all strenuous, with the only difficult parts being the steeper climbs up to the bridges.

Arriving in Matsuyama, in the Ehime prefecture of Shikoku, I stayed at a well-run guesthouse, called Sen Guesthouse, in the famous Dogo Spa area. Exploring the castle and surrounding area, and a music festival later, I departed Shikoku again, taking a ferry to the bigger island of Kyushu, and to the city of Beppu.

In Beppu, I met a girl. She was the first person I saw at the guesthouse and, being too early for me to check-in, I settled down in the lounge area and had my lunch. We had a brief chat, as she too was busy in the kitchen making something to eat. She mentioned that she worked there. Later we would talk some more, and even later, the following day, we ended up cycling together in search of a beach nearby, it was at sunset, followed by dinner, a visit to an onsen, and a midnight stroll along the empty arcades and streets of Beppu.

Beppu is an onsen paradise and is well known for this across Japan. It is possibly the place with the cheapest onsen that you can get, with some staying open 24 hours a day. Back at the guesthouse, I listened to an account by two Frenchmen who had hiked up a nearby mountain and found a “wild” onsen. It is literally a hot water pool that you can enjoy for free, and by yourself if you are lucky enough to be the only person who ventured out into the mountains that day.

As is the nature of travelling, I had to leave again. I left Beppu wondering what there may have been for me and the girl I had met if I had stayed for just a bit longer. But some questions, most of them, only find their answer later on in the story.

The less touristy, lesser travelled, prefecture of Miyazaki was my next waypoint. The accommodation I had booked was in the small town of Aoshima and, to my serendipitous surprise, I discovered it to be surf town. I really enjoyed, and was grateful for, being back in the ocean and riding some waves again, even if it was only on a flimsy bodyboard made for children with no flippers to help me on. After two days I moved further south, to Kagoshima.

Kagoshima, in southern Kyushu, is the popular gateway to Okinawa and the famed island of Yakushima, with its towering ancient forests and serene beauty, which was the inspiration behind the forests in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. Unfortunately, my plans, and the time I had set out for each leg of my journey, did not allow me to visit either of these islands, but I did get a chance to explore the much closer island of Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanos in the world.

I then took a ferry north to Amakusa island, which forms part of the Kumamoto prefecture. Amakusa is a laid-back city and not that much frequented by tourists, but has a fascinating history of Western influence, a famed and tragic Edo-period rebellion and the survival of Christians, under extreme persecution, who were later to be known as the Hidden Christians.

Nagasaki then came into my sight, by way of another ferry ride. My time spent there was both joyous and sad. Joyous because of the beauty of the city, nestled in-between the green mountains and large bay, ending in a port, which I did not expect of this city at all. I had actually no idea what to expect from Nagasaki but enjoyed my stay there. Sad because of what the people of the city had gone through during World War 2. Reading first-hand accounts of that wretched day, feeling their confusion and fear, seeing the photos and videos of the mass destructions of life, and standing at the hypocentre of where the bomb was dropped, left me feeling acutely empathic to the people of Nagasaki as they walked on by. To say the least, it was an emotional day.

And so my tour of Japan continues. What lays ahead only time, and the road tread, will reveal. And surely God in His infinite grace, mercy, and love is with me wherever the road may take me.

– Starr

p.s. In case you were wondering, as I am sure you have, I have been keeping in contact with the girl I met in Beppu and will be seeing her later today in Fukuoka. 🙂

Japan – A Familiar Place, Temples Abound, A Brief Stop and A Town By The Inland Sea

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Wednesday, 11 May 2016.

Back in Nara, the deer did indeed bite and also kick, which I happened to witness as a small boy was kicked to the ground as he was trying to feed a twig to a deer. I rushed over as the deer rose on its hind legs and kicked the boy right in the chest, him crying, and picked him up, carrying him over to his startled father. The boy was not hurt but the shock must have been enough to shatter his view on the cuteness of deer. Poor kid, I hope he turns out alright when grows up.

Following Nara, I spent four days in Osaka. On two of those days, I explored the city by bike and, during my explorations, I sensed a similarity to the city and that of my home city of Cape Town. The familiarity was there in the curve of the streets, the western influence in architecture and the laid-back attitude of its townsmen.

Kyoto, to the north of Osaka, was next on my route. Famous temples are found scattered around this former capital of Japan, with an old district of the Geisha, close to where I stayed, amidst narrow streets of ancient origin and street vendors and shops selling their local delicacies and souvenirs. I only had two days in Kyoto and could not fully appreciate the city and its past, although the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its multitude of torii gates winding up along the mountain was quite a sensory and historical experience, but I would be back in a few weeks time to discover more this renowned capital of old.

The esteemed castle city of Himeji quickly followed Kyoto, but only spending a day there I could only explore the magnificent castle itself before having to leave again the next day. Okayama was spent in a similar way, arriving there by local train, along with a fellow traveller, a Frenchman, who I had met in Himeji, and explored the renowned black castle, the only such coloured castle in all of Japan, before heading off again the next day on my journey towards the south of Japan.

The coastal town of Onomichi is my next stop, again only for a day, wherefrom I will cycle along the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido highway, connected by many small islands, to the smallest of the four main islands of Japan called Shikoku. I especially looked forward to this part of my journey, and besides it having rained for the last three days, the weather should be clear and I will have a sunny and rainless day of cycling across the Inland Sea of Japan.

– Starr