Fukuoka, San Diego & a Japan Bike tour to Hiroshima

August 31, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

Passing through immigration in Fukuoka was fairly uneventful. Interestingly while I was not asked to show a departing ticket (I had only a few days before I had to leave for a conference), Dan was asked, but he had listed 6 weeks for his duration (since no conference for him). After the debacle in Panama, we pay keen attention to these things.

We made our way on foot from the ferry terminal to Tongai Hostel & Cafe, which ended up being a lovely place to stay. It was clean with a nice kitchen and a good common room on our floor, as well as use of the well-appointed cafe space on the ground floor.

Once settled in we went for breakfast, where I inadvertently selected a meal that involved raw egg. Nothing hot to stir it into, just straight up raw egg. After so much food poisoning I looked that egg in the eye and said, ‘I love you Japan’ and ate it. And did not get sick.

Near to Tongai were some tasty restaurants that we sampled, including a ramen shop and a curry shop next door to it. Japanese ‘kare’ is a beast all its own. When I lived in Japan back in 2006 I reacted to it like soy milk: I didn’t like because it seemed like it was pretending to be something else (Indian curry). But once I learned to appreciate on its own terms, my eyes were opened and I began to appreciate its deliciousness.

There was also a sweet kaiten sushi restaurant, which is conveyor belt sushi that rolls around with a fixed cost per plate. This place, Hamazushi, is a chain that also had a fancy touch screen ordering system so they could send you anything you particularly craved, specially marked so that people knew it was an order and not the standard fare. And I was shocked that my Iowa-bred spouse got the corn-and-mayo nigiri, truly, shaken to the core.

We got lucky in that the Mitama Matsuri was happening at the Gokoku Shrine for three of the days we were in Fukuoka. During this festival thousands of lanterns are hung at the shrine, and food and goods vendors are out in force in proper matsuri fashion. We strolled the vendors which included some cool antique dealers as well as the usual nama biru and yaki soba. And I spent enough time photographing the lanterns to thoroughly exhaust Dan.

With Dan planning a bicycle tour to Hiroshima, we spent a good bit of time wandering bike shops in the area, both new and used. After finding the shop where ultimately he bought his bicycle, we went out for ‘katsu kare’ which is a breaded fried pork cutlet (the katsu part) paired with Japanse kare. The shop was chock full of manga (which is a common thing restaurants of this style will do for the entertainment of their party-of-one customers) and I magically was seated by the Death Note series. Shout out to Josue who introduced me to Death Note and watched the live action film with me in the theater ages ago.

Then it was time for me to get on my way to San Diego for one of my three annual conferences that I attend for my professional society (which I am still volunteering for despite being on a travel hiatus). I was able to get a direct flight from Tokyo to San Diego, but that still left me one of the longest possible direct skinkansen rides in Japan. It’s about 5 hours from Fukuoka to Tokyo, then another 1 or 1.5 to Narita Airport, then a 9 hour overnight flight to California… So I elected to not make myself suffer overly much, and stayed in Tokyo on Friday night before my flight the next day.

I got a quick ring workout in once I arrived. A lot of small parks in Japan seem to be like this one: all dirt. Except for the pair of amorous teenagers cuddling by the slide, the only other people were there to take a smoke break. But hey, it it did the trick! Interestingly no one really looked at me. I’m used to being stared at by now, or having people ask about the rings, but this was… nothing. Tokyo-ites just aren’t impressed by my weirdness.

I got cleaned up and went to meet up with Tony for dinner as previously planned! We were also joined by Valerie, who I was introduced to online via a mutual Nerd Fitness friend who realized that we were both in Japan. As luck would have it, she was in Tokyo that night too!

The three of us met up in Shinjuku (which is madness on a Friday night) and we had okonomiyaki at Teppan Baby. Tony and I caught up on the past year since Mexico, like whhhat? Yeah, a year. It was great to get to see him and catch up, and thanks again Tony for letting us crash at your place! So nice! It was also a delight getting to chat with Valerie about her adventures in puppeteering and to reminisce about Camp Nerd Fitness 2016. You rock babe! So great to meet you!

Afterwards we got Tony his first taste of natto, which I describe as the Vegemite of Japan. It’s a fermented soy bean dish that’s very stringy, and either you like it, or you really hate it. You can get it at most convenience stores in packs of three small Styrofoam boxes. Tony was nice about it because he knew I liked it, but him and natto were a one time thing, not gonna happen again.

Post-natto we said our good-byes and headed our separate ways. I was staying in Asakusa so I took the opportunity to wander through Senso-ji on my way back to my hotel. I’ve decided that I like it best at night. It’s beautifully lit, there’s fewer people, and some entertaining drunks. Asakusa in general is a pretty quite neighborhood at night and its easy to forget you’re in one of the world’s largest metropolises.

The next day I made my way to the airport. I passed some people playing Mario Kart in real life on the streets of Tokyo (is there a Tokyo course in MK? There must be right?). I got to fly my favorite airline, JAL, and I am indebted to them for introducing me to Mos burger for in-flight breakfast.

In San Diego my buddy Tom, who I know from DC, but just happened to move to SD within the past year, came to get me at the airport (yay! thank you!). We got to have lunch and catch up before I (took a nap and) settled in to prepare for my week at the conference, which was busy but delightful. I took a course, attended committee meetings and networking events, and even made it to some talks!

Among the many friends and colleagues I got to catch up with were Perla and Guillermo, who hosted us and showed us around Monterrey during the first international stop of our trip! We got to have lunch and talk about the past year and plans for the near future, which was fun. Missed you guys! Later in the week I also got to have Tom join me as my plus one for the award banquet, which was great. We look good in suits.

The week went by in a blur, and suddenly I was back at the San Diego airport, bound for Japan! As an interesting piece of trivia, ‘baby’ qualifies as a gender in the San Diego airport. Who knew. Also, I bought a cool new hat in Korea, btw. Now, back to Dan in the studio!

Dan:

While Christina was away in San Diego, I decided to spend my week cycling from Fukuoka to Hiroshima. So first up was buying a bike. Bikes are everywhere in Japan so it seemed like it shouldn’t be too hard. Generally speaking it isn’t hard to find a cheap new or used bike.

I was able to locate some used bike shops in Fukuoka and stopped by several on our first day there. Unfortunately most were closed due to a holiday (see Mitama Matsuri above). With the smaller shops closed I started looking at department stores for the cheapest possible used bike.

What I wanted was a bike with a rear rack, preferably gears, and a front rack. Mostly I was aiming to get a mamachari, which is the iconic Japanese town bike. I think most people were surprised at my plans for the bike, but it ended up making for a pretty decent touring bike. I’m super glad that I got gears because the center of Japan is very mountainous.

Anyway, the department store bikes seemed a bit too spendy for what I wanted, and I was going to have to try to sell the bike in Hiroshima. During my bike hunt, I found the cheapest new bike with my requirements at a Trial Supercenter for 13000 yen, in case you might be looking for something similar, but not all Trials stock bikes..

I bought a bike the morning when Christina left for Tokyo, and so that was the morning which I started my trip. It was from a small little shop selling low end used bikes. It cost more than I was expecting for an old bike, but it seemed in decent condition. It was 13800 yen. They were super friendly and threw in a bungee cord which was actually quite perfect for my bag and even matched the color scheme 🙂

One of the unique things about bike purchasing and ownership Japan is that bicycle registration is mandatory. It’s a hassle and costs 600 yen, but they were able to help me with it at the bike shop. They were very confused as to how to fill out the form for a foreigner and they wanted to put down my hostel address, but I insisted and eventually got them to use the address on my driver’s license since I figured it would be most convincing if the bike was questioned by the police.

The bike was great, and I really loved the hub generated front light, the kickstand, and the integrated lock for the rear wheel. Japan is super safe in general and bikes are so common that most people just leave their bikes free locked with these rear-wheel locks. Some bikes don’t even get locked up. It’s a lovely little bike paradise here.

Besides needing to be in Hiroshima in a little over a week, the only other item on my agenda was to watch some Keirin. It’s now an Olympic sport (with some modifications). It was started in Japan after the war. It seems like it was created in part to promote the bicycle industry, which was seen as a way of modernizing the country. It is also a gambling sport, one of a few in Japan, and the proceeds go to public works of varying types.

Today, it’s mostly a sport that crusty old men bet on while watching it on TV at gambling stations rather than a spectator sport. But I wanted to go be one of the few people that showed up to the stadium to watch it in person. One of the first tracks ever built is along the way to Hiroshima in Kitakyushu. So that became my one and only deadline along the way. Beyond that I decided to roughly follow the route on this website, because it was better than nothing which was my only other alternative.

My first day got off to a late start. The whole bike buying process took the better part of the morning and I stopped by a few more stores getting a second bike lock (turned out to be really useful for securing my bag to the frame more than I actually needed the security but it was nice to have) and some snacks. Then I had to figure out how to strap my stuff onto the bike. The bike shop gave me a bungee cord, which worked out pretty well and I used our clothesline to strap it down further and give myself a false sense of security about the stability.

I slowly made my way out of town stopping constantly to readjust the bag and hit up some department stores to look for a tent or mosquito net of some kind (I never did find something to my liking). In the end I didn’t actually take off for my first day until around 4 pm. Anyway, enjoy these pictures showing the evolution of my packed bike (see how I used the bike lock, that was critical).

It’s only 60 km to Kitakyushu, but I was making very slow progress, slowing down for things like taking pictures, checking my bag, waiting for traffic lights, checking my route. Most of the day was along a busy coastal road. I alternated between the road and sidewalk depending on which seemed faster or more calm. I’m not a sidewalk rider, but the drivers in Japan are so freaking careful of pedestrians that I really had no problem with it here. This place is a paradise of transit systems.

After sunset I pulled away from the coast for a pleasant lonely ride through some rice fields. It was smooth going on a cool summer night with a slight ocean breeze and beautiful twilight scenery. And I felt total freedom. I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep for the night, but it didn’t matter. It was one of my favorite parts of the ride.

I eventually found a promising looking patch of green on Google maps that looked like a public park on the beach. I was worried about mosquitoes so I figured the breeze on the beach would keep me safe. It was a decent camping spot. No bathroom, but I found a patch of grass in a breezy area and I was happy enough. I just slept in a taco of our picnic blanket with my sarong. Not too bad.

I woke up with my alarm at 5 am and immediately a stream of cars was entering the parking lot with the sun. It was a popular surfing beach! No one questioned the weird foreigner sleeping on the ground. Cool! I felt like my lack of a plan was working out just fine.

At this point I was in contact with some Couch Surfing hosts in Kitakyushu. So I was resolved to make it there that day. It wasn’t a far ride. The next segment on the coast was probably my second favorite part of the ride. It was along ocean cliff side and was great start to my morning.

Along the way at one point I had to brake hard and I snapped by front brake cable. I still had the rear hub brake and the going was flat, but I decided to stop into a shop to get the broken cable replaced. The owner was super friendly and we stumbled along through a conversation only half understanding each other as I tried to explain my trip. He also replaced the worn out brake pads. I guess the bike wasn’t in such great shape.

 

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With the bike fixed I continued onward to Kitakyushu. I choose a route that seemed promising. A small road next to a golf course. Golf courses are flat right? Nope it was straight up and down a mountain.

This became a common theme on the trip. Google only has driving and walking directions in this area and those don’t really take into account elevation and terrain for bikes. By the end of the trip I was looking at a combination of walking suggestions, driving directions minus toll roads and highways, and sometimes burning through our mobile data to load the elevation/terrain information. Still I ended up on some undesirable segments, but generally there aren’t any bad roads to be on in Japan, it was just a matter of being a little difficult when I was tired.

I arrived in Kitakyushu to stay with my first host, Haruka. She’s a local, but spent the last six years traveling out of the country and only recently returned to Japan. She took off to China, not speaking any English and just figuring it out along the way. She worked odd jobs in all sorts of places to keep traveling. Now she speaks excellent English and has traveled all over. That’s just amazing to me.

She invited me along to a summer festival with her friends from elementary school. It was such on odd mix. The alternative hippy dread-locked traveler, the posh city girl back home from Tokyo, and the new mother. Plus some weird foreign guy that Haruka just met. We could have been a sitcom pilot. Her friends were shocked to learn that we just met each other that afternoon, but rolled with it and we all got along great.

The festival was a small local event. There were taiko drums while we arrived and people just milling about picnicking. We spent most of the time wandering for fair food. First stop was okonomyaki on a stick. It was unfortunately not very good. but okonomyaki is one of my favorite Japanese foods. In short it’s a savory pancake, but for fair food they roll it up onto a pair of chopsticks. Clever.

A bit later Haruka and I went off to check out the huge line dance thing that was advertised. My ignorant assessment is that was basically a huge gathering of people doing the dances like what I’ve seen old Chinese ladies do in parks. But each neighborhood had their own outfits and the whole thing moved in a giant circle. Haruka knew some of the songs, so I think they are common folk songs.

I was coaxed into joining the dance. I joined the red neighborhood. They had obviously practiced (but not much) and I just flailed my arms about as best I could, to the obvious delight of some folks and I’m sure to the chagrin of others. Haruka found it hilarious and I completed the whole circle. The shoveling dance was the easiest. For what that’s worth.

Finally, there were fireworks. The girls were super jazzed about them. We squatted on a dusty baseball field to watch and they were just fine by my estimation. Sparkly things that went boom. But the girls were so bummed. Almost immediately they all started telling me that it was a terrible low budget local show. The timing was all off, terrible sequencing, and poor management of placement. I have never heard such thorough opinion of fireworks. At most, people in the US say ‘Well that was great, traffic getting out of here is going to be shit though’.

I loved their opinions. It made the game Fantavision, which was one of a few release titles for the PS2 in the US, make sense. It was a game about fireworks and no one bought it or understood it. Well my brother and I did buy it, but as some sort of ironic video game thing.

We were picked up by the girl’s go-to taxi driver, they’ve got a guy. Haruka and I accompanied Haruna, the friend from Tokyo, to her mothers house to stay for the night. Haruna had never heard of Couch Surfing and doesn’t do much traveling. Her mother, Emiko, though is an avid traveler. She works for part of the year and quits and then takes about 2-3 months to go live in another country and immerse herself in the language and culture. Being a little burnt out on travel after a year, but still loving it at the same time, this is exactly the sort of life I would want to live. It was inspiring. She speaks English, Spanish, and Italian. I shared some of my favorite Spanish podcasts with her and she served up some cake and plum wine while we all talked late into the night.

After coffee and breakfast the next morning, Emiko drove us back to Haruka’s place so we could go up into the mountains. We went to this absolutely gorgeous area speckled with bare limestone rocks jutting out everywhere and visited a small little cave. The entrance looked like a villain’s lair. I would totally use it as my lair versus charging admission if I owned the land, but to each their own.

Then we went off to the campground, which was just a big patch of grass. At Haruka’s place she had pulled out three sleds and tossed them in the van. Now those came into play because there was a steep grass hill and we went to go slide down it. It was super fun. There was a mesh of plastic that the grass grew through and it made the ride quite fast and uncontrollable and probably gave some nasty scraps if you fell off. Ok maybe we weren’t really allowed to do that without camping so we hustled off. We went back into town and I fell asleep in the car.

That evening I had arranged to stay with another Couch Surfing host, who just so happened to be very close by. Jun is a young university student that took a year off of his studies to travel around the world. He hit so many countries in a 10 month span that it must have been a whirlwind. But he’s studying foreign relations so I’m sure it was excellent for his career. We didn’t have a lot of time together, but we went out with his friend and classmate to get tempura. We had a great time and generally talked about cultural differences and travel.

After dinner I set off to finally see my Keirin race at the Kokura Track. It was scheduled for 9 pm and I showed up at 9:30. The Media dome velodrome looked oddly dark and empty. I went around and around looking for an entrance and asking security guards. I just got the arm X. Someone kept telling me something about television. Maybe I got it wrong or it was cancelled. So I go back and Jun helps me out by calling the velodrome and finding out that this was a special pre-filmed midnight race. They hold the race at 9pm with no spectators and then air it at midnight. Crap luck.

The next morning I say my farewells and on the way out of town I stop by the velodrome again. This time I found an obvious entrance and walked in. There were a handful of folks placing bets for the race on the TV screen. I asked a guard if I could just view the track. He called over a young guy that spoke a handful of English words and drug me along to go see the track.

First he took me up to a viewing deck where I couldn’t see much. Then he realized that I just want some pictures as a tourist and so he put his fingers to his lips and said ‘secret secret’ and we hustled downstairs and he let me into some box seats and then down to the general seating and I got to snap a few pictures. It’s a really cool stadium and I would have loved to seen some races there. After much bowing and thank yous, I took off.

In leaving the city I rode through the port area of Kitakyushu, which is really cute with brick streets, and boardwalks and lots of little shops and restaurants along the marina. At the north part of the city is the crossing point from the island of Kyushu to the main island Honshu. There is a large impressive suspension bridge, a tunnel for the bullet train, and a dedicated Kanmon Tunnel for pedestrians that goes under the ocean for 780 meters. Construction was started before the war and finished afterwards. It’s a really impressive public work for pedestrians, and I love that the Japanese have such dedication and priority to pedestrians and cyclists.

I took the elevator down 80 meters and walked my bike through the tunnel. Oddly it goes down and back up in a V shape. Possibly for structural reasons, or maybe just following the contour of the ocean floor. At the exit I dropped of my 20 yen into the collection box for taking my bicycle through. It was a cool experience.

Then, at Jun’s suggestion I rode down to the wharf on the other side for some seafood. A lot of the good places only opened at 5 pm though. I went to a blowfish restaurant, but I think I ordered tempura shrimp. I have no clue. I did get some cool cream soda flavored ice cream though.

And then I was left without any destination. I could go to the west or east coast, or straight up the center. Up the center seemed like a bad idea due to the mountains, but that’s the route that my guide suggested, so what the hell. There was a point of interest at Akiyoshido so I figured I would make my way towards that. Along the way I passed a few interesting looking buildings and on a whim stopped by to see what they were. There was a Shimano Factory and Cup Noodles factory. I tried to get a tour inside, but just got some arm Xs. It was worth a shot.

Again it got late, and I was bicycling in the dark. I really do love biking in the twilight during the summer. I was going through some mountain farms as the sun was going down and it was delightful. It was fully dark when I got to Route 233. It looks like a decently large road on Google maps, but it’s a paved single track in serious disrepair. I actually felt a little apprehensive about it as I made my way through it in the dark.

There I was, creaking along up the hill uncertain if the road even went anywhere or if the over growth was going to completely take over soon. At the top of the hill I figured I had made it, but it was very slow going back down the other side of the hill as I tried to not over ride the throw of the hub light. I soon became aware of the steep drop off to my side. Despite the abandoned nature of the road, there were several areas with pylons with blinking lights. I think they were marking washout areas of the hillside below. Comforting. Finally, I burst out of the woods into a properly paved road and farmland startling a family of deer sleeping next to the path. Phew.

After that I decided to grab the next place I could to sleep since I wasn’t going to make it to a proper town. I passed by a few houses and onto a decent sized road which had a pull-off next to a grove of nice evenly spaced cedar trees that were being farmed. A perfect place to camp and I suspected that I would be treated to a wonderful view when I woke up in the morning. So I ate some snacks and generally got ready to camp alongside the road.

It was totally peaceful. I had pulled my bike up into the woods and just getting the last of my things from beside the road when a car came by. It was the first car I had seen that night (three total). No big deal I thought. I didn’t want to be seen and was probably a bit creepy looking crouched by the side of the road, but whatever.

I lay down to sleep, journal a bit, and I was just going to sleep when I heard some voices. Then I see three flashlights combing the woods. Shit. But it’s Japan, I’m ok. They obviously spotted the reflectors on my bike and so I sit up and say hello. It’s three police officers. What the hell, how did they find me here?

One of the officers spoke pretty good English and through the course of the discussion I kind of gathered that someone called the police because they saw something suspicious. It must have been that passing car. I asked if it was illegal to camp here and the officer said, ‘I don’t know, not illegal, but maybe not all the way legal.’ The other officer put horns on his head and hissed saying ‘snake, dangerous.’ Ok.

I apologized profusely and tried explain. They said that I would have to go to the nearest town and find a park. They thought hard about where I could stay and ended up suggesting to go to the rail station to sleep. Imagine that, being safer staying in an unattended train station or public park in a city versus tucked away in the woods somewhere. Oh Japan.

Anyway, they made me produce my passport, called in my bike registration, and made me open up all of my bags. Pretty thorough given the circumstances. Eventually I packed up and asked for my passport back. Mass confusion ensued. They had lost it. I knew it was in someones pocket, but they made me go back through my bags until one guy was like, ‘oops sorry here it is.’ I have the feeling it was a great embarrassment for them. They were super apologetic.

With all of my stuff packed up again, off I went another 8 km in my pajamas to the nearest small town. I ended up sleeping in the rail station on the floor. I was worried about getting questioned again and there were taxis idling their cars outside the rail station all night long, even though no trains came. Not sure why, but they didn’t seem to mind the weird guy milling about in the middle of the night. There was at least a bathroom there and I was able to charge my devices. In the morning I found out that there was free WiFi too. Not too bad in the end.

That morning I took off for the Akiyoshido cave. I got there before most things were open. There is a long walkway that I guess is pedestrian only. When I got to the entrance they turned me back with my bike.

So at this point it’s worth noting that my set up was my main backpack strapped to the rear rack. The zippers are locked but not very well. Under close inspection it’s actually really easy to get into the bag, it just looks locked up. The bag is then chained to the bike. If my bike is free locked you could just take the whole bike with you. But in general I’ve just been leaving the bike that like outside of stores when I go in. I have my passport and money with me in my small bag, but it would really suck to lose the big one and my computer is in there also. But somehow it feels safe in Japan and I haven’t had any issue.

This trip to the caves was the longest time I left my bike unattended. I used a crappy little cable that I made myself to tie the bike to a post, but a swift kick would do that in without problem. I also left my cool new (but cheap) Feiyue shoes in the basket and I’ve just had no issue.

On to the caves. Japan is the type of place where you get a discount for entrance as a foreigner, which is opposite to most of the countries we have visited. Which was great because I think I would have skipped the caves for a $12 entry fee, but $7 worked for me.

I’m so glad I went, these caves were amazing. The main entrance area feels like the river Hades with these eerie lights in the fog of the cave. Great atmosphere. Then there are tons of amazing rock formations of great diversity. My favorite were these little pool arrays that were filled with perfectly still water. It looked something out of a surreal CGI landscape that you would have on the cover of your folders in 1996. I went the length of the cave and then back up the center to the karst viewing area. You get a nice view of the surrounding hills, but nothing too spectacular. And then back out the caves, and I was again left with no clue of where to go.

Haruka had suggested a beautiful island named Tsunoshima. I thought I could carve back to the west coast and hit that, but it would have required a ton of back tracking. So I opted instead to go to Omi Island, hoping maybe that it would be good enough. It is described as having cool rock formations.

Finally I had good wind and downhill and I made great time to the coast. I was at Omi island in the early afternoon. I was hot and sweaty and I figured I would go take a dip in the ocean. So I went up over the steep bridge to the island and then followed the road across the island. The road unfortunately takes you over several steep climbs and back down. By the time I got to the other side I was extremely sweaty, tired, had little water, and still had a huge hill between myself and the coast. This didn’t turn out to be such a great idea.

I parked my bike, again with all my stuff on it, and stubbornly continued the journey to the water on foot along a hiking trail. I was greeted by scenic vista after scenic vista, but no clear way down to the water. Now I love a scenic vista, but I really wanted to cool off in the water and the vistas informed me that the water was an amazing perfect clear blue. The sort of stuff you would see in a tourism ad.

Finally I spotted some steps down and when I got to them there was a locked gate with all sorts of warning signs. Same with the next set of steps. I did see a group of people snorkeling down at one area. Perhaps they are private beaches owned by the nearby dive shop. I don’t know, but I was bummed. I hiked a bit more, but eventually gave up and took in one last vista before resigning myself to several more climbs back over the hills to the mainland. I did stop at a small rocky beach on the mainland side of the island  and took a dip in the slightly windier and less pristine water before heading back over the bridge. Good enough.

My next stop for the day was a town called Hagi. It was recommended by Jun. It has some historic significance as a Samurai town of influence during the Edo period and has a lot of old buildings from that era. Perfect. I made it there in the evening. I stopped by a family dinner chain called Joyfull and ate way way way too much but it was delicious. I ordered a Japanese shaved ice desert. Bingsu in Korea was better, but this was reasonably priced and still awesome.

Then I had to sort out a place to stay for the night. Scared of a repeat of last night I was resolved to be as sneaky as possible. I found a park at the top of a hill that might be empty and secluded. I got there and it seemed to be the case. They had pristine bathrooms and I was able to wash off well enough and get ready for bed. I was worried though because I tripped the automatic lights.

As I was finishing up I heard a car idling outside. Ugh it begins again. I went out and it seemed to be just a normal car, but parked close to my bike. I just packed up slowly and walked my bike away up the hill. Shortly thereafter the car took off up the hill passing me. I was worried I was being watched and didn’t know what to do. There was a small pavilion that I was eyeing to sleep in since it was cloudy. I eventually turned back and just then a service vehicle came into the area where I wanted to sleep. I was sure that I was being watched at this point so I went off and then saw another car parked on a hill.

I was going nuts because I just wanted to go to bed and not be disturbed. After sitting down and just watching the situation, I figured ‘what the hell’ and went up to another pavilion and laid down to sleep, no unpacking of a blanket or anything. And then up on the hill nearby I hear voices and see flash lights. Seriously, what luck!? But nothing came of it. It was a really windy night, but no rain and I slept quite well. In the morning I was packing up and was greeted by a Japanese man with a large hiking backpack. Ah a fellow traveler, I thought. Maybe I wasn’t the only person camping here. No, he was training for mountain climbing and just came over to say hello and ask where I was going. Friendly enough.

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I changed locations to eat breakfast of coffee, pastry, and vegetable juice and just look like a regular person enjoying the morning in the park rather than a suspicious camping vagabond. And then I saw the hiking man going back to my old location in a car. I wave to him and he speeds up the hill to meet me. He brought me breakfast. Funny enough, it was practically the same breakfast I was eating with the addition of a sandwich. His random generous act was so kind and it really made my morning.

After that I did some research about the camping situation and it’s totally legal in any public space like a park or train station. So on the side of the road is questionable and in a tree farm probably not legal. It turns out I was just being paranoid in the park the night before, which unfortunately kept me up later than I hoped. So just like the night before I got less than five hours of sleep. This turned out to not be great for the rest of my day. But I was so touched by hiking guy that I just felt great.

I went into Hagi do see the old town. It was lovely. Everything was closed until 9 am, but it was just nice to be lazily peddling through the old buildings. It made me want to watch Samurai Champloo again. That was the first time I ‘got’ an anime and so probably super influential for me finding all the rest of the cool Japanese stuff that I love.

In town there were lots of birthplaces and burial sites, but I don’t know any of the history to appreciate it all. I did recognize the name Terumoto. I was proud that I obviously had some knowledge in my brain until I realized that I was confusing the famous samurai for the Spanish word for earthquake. Ok, I know nothing about samurai except for having watched some anachronistic anime series. Good enough for me though. I still had fun.

The main thing to see in Hagi is the ruins of an old Edo castle. It sounded unspectacular so I wasn’t going to go, but somehow I found my way into the back side of the park past the ticket counter. I headed out when I eventually realized this, but I confirmed that it’s only a mildly interesting place. Not sure what the entry is but I would have been disappointed if I paid more than 200 yen.

Now time for a side note. In one of the gardens and during the hike on Omi Island, I saw these pipes. Maybe they were being used as trash cans. Maybe they were some sort of air intake or ventilation. I just know that I expected a Venus fly trap to be growing out of one of them. Maybe they relate to some type of Japanese fairy tale which would be in keeping with some of the other elements of Mario. Eventually I tried to look it up and see what the historic use was. But I couldn’t find anything beyond this article. But that seems to be describing something different. So what are these things?

At this point I still had several days to make it to Hiroshima, but the news in the area was that a typhoon was coming in two days. I had no clue how bad it would be and decided that it would be best to hightail it to Hiroshima or at least get within a short train ride of the city. In case I couldn’t finish the bike trip, I still wanted to be able to meet up with Christina on time when she got back.

So I started off on a grueling long day straight over the mountains from the West coast to the East coast in the face of some pretty strong pre-hurricane winds. I was just riding as fast as I could and stopping as little as possible. Whenever I needed a break there was always a convenience store not too far away where I could pull off for some snacks. I unfortunately don’t recall a lot of the scenery and didn’t take many pictures. I only remember watching the wind whipping through the rice fields being pretty dramatic.

I got to the town of Hofu in the afternoon and ate some ramen. I was still feeling pretty strong and decided that I could make it further that night. The hurricane was coming in the afternoon the next day, so I wanted to be as close to Hiroshima as possible before then. The weather was still nice, if a bit windy. Off I went and was just cruising along hoping to reach Iwakuni if possible, which was 72 km away.

At the edge of Hofu I came to the Sanyo Expressway. It didn’t sound like a road I wanted to be on, but it was actually a small access road that ran alongside a huge expressway (but the huge road wasn’t called an expressway). Anyway, the road sometimes annoyingly crossed over the highway without any sort of help for pedestrians and there were a few segments where I had to ride a narrow shoulder. It was a little uncomfortable, but I always quickly made it back to the small Sanyo Expressway.

Into the night I road and missed a few turns here and there. I was getting tired and frustrated with the back tracking. I felt like I stayed at 15 km away from Iwakuni for way too long. Finally I made it to a juncture that put me back on what seemed like the main highway. It was Route 15 and it looked like a reasonably small road on Google maps and it was the suggested walking route to town. It didn’t look very pleasant, but it was a steep down hill and I was hopeful that a nice shoulder would appear for me soon.

That was not the case at all.

It was a high speed shipping route and the shoulder would disappear entirely at times. Luckily it was late at night so there were huge gaps in traffic and the downhill had me covering a lot of distance before I had to pull off to let semi trucks whiz past. Still I wanted off the road (also unknown to me at the time, my rear light was out of battery so this was actually much worse than I knew).

I was still waiting for Google’s recommendation to make sense when I came to a tunnel. Certainly there will be a pedestrian walkway I thought. But no, there was only a narrow, maybe 1 ft wide service ledge on either side. This road was decidedly not for pedestrians at all. Heading back up the hill seemed impossible at this point. I tried to walk my bike on the ledge but that was impossible too. I ended up rolling my bike along the ledge with myself in the road, which was just barely wide enough to fit the semi trucks passing each other at high speed.

I ran my bike along the ledge and then squeezed up next to it when I saw the headlights of trucks behind me. I would brace myself against the rush of air that they pushed through the tunnel. It was a huge 1 km long tunnel and I was counting down the distance posted on the emergency signs on the wall. It was harrowing and when I was out the other side I didn’t know what to do. I felt trapped. I sat for a long time on Google maps trying to figure out what happened and if I had any alternatives now or before I got on the road.

Google was stubborn about telling me to stay on this road and there were more tunnels in my future. I was about to try to flag someone down for help but then, on maps, I spied a small road to the side, right near where I was at. It seemed to lead to nowhere, but if I zoomed in at just the right level I saw it was labeled as the Sanyo expressway!!! Oh saved I thought. But I had to cross the road and there was a huge fence there.

I crossed the highway on foot and started running along until I came to a guard rail. There was no fence there and the hill down to the Sanyo wasn’t too steep at that point. It wasn’t easy with the overgrowth, but it would be infinitely better than this hellish road I was trapped on. So I forced myself and my bike down the hill.

When I arrived I brushed myself off and removed the vines that my bike picked up. At this point, it seemed like I was in the clear, back on the old Sanyo Expressway that I knew and loved, but I didn’t get too excited. I had no clue if this would just dump me back onto 15 soon. So with great skepticism, I pedaled off. Luckily, very luckily, I was fine. The road was a narrow slow speed local route with barely any traffic. I was saved and eventually what I had just done sank in and I started to realize how much adrenaline I had pumping through my system and it was just a crazy feeling.

I could have made it through the rest of Route 15 if I was cautious, but it wouldn’t have been advisable, especially given that my tail light was dead. But I was so relieved to be off of 15 that it didn’t bother me when I realized that I had another 15 km to go until town and it was 12:30 am. Luckily I found a small nearly abandoned park only 10 km away. There was a stone bench, a portable toilet, and best of all, a faucet on the ground that I was able to rinse off with. After 140 km through the mountains and into the wind, I slept great on that stone bench. Unfortunately I only slept for 3 hrs before the sun came up.

 

But now I was close enough that I knew I could make it to Hiroshima in the morning. I took off and quickly came to Iwakuni and the wooden Kintai bridge that it’s famous for. The reflection off of the calm river in the morning was super cool. I used the bridge to cross the river. It was a 350 yen fee, which I didn’t realize at the time, but dropped off some coins in the unstaffed admission booth. It was a terrible bridge to cross with a loaded bicycle with awkward shallow steps up and down the arches. Taking a bike across probably was not very good for the bridge either. I wouldn’t do that again.

On this last day of my ride I cranked along the ocean. It was supposed to be the day of the hurricane’s arrival. But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was brutally hot and I was tired. The wind was strong, but nothing worse than yesterday. I eventually made it into Hiroshima. It’s a beautiful town with a tributary of rivers slicing through it. So there are lots of river side parks and jogging paths and pretty bridges to cross over. It’s a wonderful place to bike around.

 

I arrived at Simple Stay Hostel early, around noon, but there was no one there to check me in. Only a cleaning person that said to come back at the check in time of 3 pm and that I couldn’t even stay in the lobby before check in. Very uncommon for hostels and given my last few days, very upsetting. Also the hurricane was supposed to hit around 3 pm. Great. So I went for lunch and just waited out the time in a riverside park beating away the sleep as best I could. Finally I checked in at three and there was no sign of the hurricane at all. In fact, all evening it was calmer than the day before and didn’t rain a drop. My flight was all for nothing, but that’s fine.

I stayed up as best I could after cleaning up. I went to bed early and was out cold until the next morning. I don’t think I moved a bit for 12 hrs. I stayed two nights there to rest up and left only once to re-up on snacks at a convenience store down the street. It felt really good to be that lazy for a full day.

The next day by check out, I had realized that they weren’t so strict about check in times and staying in the lobby past check out so that relieved some of my stress. I left my bags there and headed off to the local Keirin Velodrome. Unfortunately there are no races happening here until next month. I guess it’s not a very popular venue. But I was lucky because this particular Saturday they were holding an exhibition race of some high school riders. So I went off to go view that.

The velodrome isn’t in great shape. The track is fine, but the building is a bit decrepit. When I showed up I found a whole mix of people from little kids on Strider bikes to adults on road bikes slowly riding around the track. In between the races they had a free ride! So I asked if I could ride my mamachari a few laps and got permission.  So I hustled off to get my bike and putzed around the track for 5 km and I was able to get the volunteer to snap one photo of me. Not my fastest velodrome ride during the trip, but tons of fun nonetheless. After that I watched the high schoolers race. It was a simple 10 km race around the track. There was a crash but pretty minor and everyone was ok.

After the velodrome I wandered around town stopping in used bike shops and trying to see if anyone would take my mamachari. I think I stopped into about 10 used bike shops that I found on Google maps. None of them would even consider buying my bike. I’m not sure if it was because I was a foreigner and they didn’t understand that I had registered it, or my Google translation text didn’t make any sense, or they actually didn’t take used bikes. I don’t know where they got the used bikes to sell, but most didn’t even look at the bike that I had parked out front. So that was a big let down.

Eventually, once Christina arrived and we were staying at another hostel, I found a member of the hostel staff that was interested in buying the bike for 2000. It was a killer deal for them. I wish I had gotten more money back from the sale, but I’m glad it went to a good home. Also since they spoke fluent Japanese, the process of transferring the title over to them at the police station was a slow but smooth process. Even still, the officer was a bit uncertain about what to do with my US address that I put on the registration form.

I spent my last two nights before Christina got back just outside of Hiroshima. I had scoped out a few parks where I could sleep and ended up staying in the same park two nights in a row. Kairoyama Park was on top of a hill and had a really nice view of the surrounding area. The moon was full while I stayed there and it made for a really awesome peaceful place to spend the night.

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2 thoughts on “Fukuoka, San Diego & a Japan Bike tour to Hiroshima

  1. Pingback: Hiroshima: the Peace Memorial, deer, okonomiyaki, and a friend comes to visit! | Wott could go wrong?

  2. Pingback: Tokyo & Kyoto: bicycle races, a vending machine bar, and Nijo Castle | Wott could go wrong?

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