The Beauty and Senescence of Kyushu

Japan is an endlessly beautiful country with carefully manicured gardens, heaps of very ostentatious traditional houses and a mixture of intensive rice growing and horticultural activity with enormous areas of deep forest. It is in many ways like an ecological "lego and" where everything fits together nicely city and country cultivation and wilderness, where everything is clean, where the people drive small efficient vehicles and drive carefully almost to a fault. Although it is heavily populated, the cities still fit in with the countryside seamlessly and vast areas remain in relatively pristine natural forest. While there is some air pollution, by contrast with China the land and air is pure." 

Villages, forests, bridges and geo-engineered rice paddies - all in ecological coexistence.

Kyushu is very mountainous, with volcanoes everywhere and deeply crevassed valleys as the torrential rains in the wet season cut deeply through the softer volcanic substratum. The drivers are also very well behaved so although it's often paralysing driving at these speeds across country, one still finds oneself admiring the relative beauty of the country and the way it is looked after.

An elderly man at Aso town.  In many places we went in regional towns in Kyushu elderly people were in a majortiy

The sad thing is that there are so many old people and so few young children because Japan has one of the lowest reproductive rates on Earth and is at immanent risk of"  population crash that will see many of the lovelly towns and their houses and a good share of the engineering maintenance veer toward dereliction.

The first night we arrived half an hour late in the ferry although we had a very smooth trip with no sign of Typhoon swells and took ages to get through immigration and customs, then catch a bus to Fukuoka central before transferring to the metro for the airport where we hoped to pic up a rental car. But in the process a Japanese guy who spoke English tried to be too helpful and induced us to go one stop too many so we missed the connection tot he right metro and had to walk back with our bags through the centre of Fukuoka.

Street sushi stalls in Fukuoka as we arrived

When we did make it to the airport and found Budget had kept the reservation for us they hiked the cost by about 20% to something like $670 US to cover insurance and taxes. This is always something I don;t like about rental car companies so I stalked off to try to see if I could get a better deal at one of the five or so other offices next door.

Now there are always traps in culture shock than can bring down the unwary. In Japan they have these plate glass doors that don't open for you automatically but you have to push a little tab on them. In this case I was In the process of hurrying into the next door office and walked very fast into what I thought was an open door, but it was a very clean Japanese plate glass door. I felt a terrible smash and my two front teeth snapping off in my mouth. A third one on a titanium peg was all bent back. My nose was bleeding both inside and outside from a gash caused by my glasses slamming into me. I returned to Budget covered in blood with my teeth missing claiming I never had accidents, so ironically had to accept the very nice little Honda compact hatchback with navigation, which is a delight to drive and managed to stick my incisor back in with supergel to prove I could rise as a phoenix from the ashes of credibility.

By the ed of the week all four front teeth had broken off or fallen out by the titanium peg coming out of the root including one life tooth newly snapped off at the base. But so far they are all fucntioning again without inflammation.

We then took off very successfully with a combination of navigation and some Google maps routes I had plotted before we left and managed to exit Fukuoka in the dark and find a remote mountain road after a few false starts which took us to a deserted camping site on top of a nearby mountain, where we camped in the rain under the roof of a picnic shelter.

Fukuoka from our mountain hideout on Wakasugarakuen

Next morning we drove to the summit and visited the Buddhist temple, and headed east through mountain country before turning south to head towards Mount Aso, claimed to the the largest volcanic crater on Earth. We had a couple of ideas of possible camping places to stay but around half way through the day after driving through several forested hill roads opening out into valleys full of towns and rice paddies we took a turn up a side road to where there was supposed to be a park camp site.

Buddhist shrine on the mountain

At first we had trouble finding it and found ourselves in a little valley top village with steep rice terraces constructed permanently with Japanese environmental engineering in the same manner as their copious bridges. But on the way down we found the shrine tori gate that indicated the park and drove in to find a deserted camp with a whole set of beautiful gas-fired hot showers and proceeded to have the first hot shower since we left China and wash our clothes and cook dinner.

At his point, a whole posse of Japanese police arrived in two police cars and tried to arrange for us to be allowed to stay here at the same time warning us of the dangers of camping in the coming typhoon. This standoff gradually blew into an impasse where they began trying to make us go to an expensive hotel and we agreed to leave to get rid of them and took off in the dusk in the rain with little idea of where to go. At about nine at night we pulled into a layby and set the tent up behind the car and fell asleep uninterrupted apart from a couple of loud trucks clattering past at three in the morning, making me think the typhoon was tearing the tent apart.

Stopping where we did was fortuitous because the first part of the trip next day was very visual with steep forested river valleys with rushing waters, deep hydro dams and very high bridges arching over the valleys, with steam vents and little onsens and the road shooting through tunnels and steep cuttings along the river side.

We drove towards Aso climbing slowly up the side of the caldera so the views began to look out far over the surrounding countryside of Kyushu until as we hit high tundra-like paddock, we hit the ring road surrounding the crater arriving just in time to see the central volcano open from the clouds and take a few shots before cloud and rain enshrouded the entire area. The volcano's crater is really very large, despite other example like Toba and Lake Taupo. There are many towns in the crater and the volcano you see is only half way across, erupting regularly from the centre.

Mt. Naka the active cone on Mt. Aso cleared for just a minute or two as we arrived then disappeared completely in the mist and rain

From there we drove down into the crater stopping at a campsite which would have put us up but was concerned the the typhoon was expected to hit later that day.So after visiting the Aso shrine we headed off around the rim in the rain and now howling wind towards Tachicho where there is a stunning river gorge.

Tachicho also holds the key to a founding myth of Japanese origins around which Shinto and the persona of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, who is also present as the fire Goddess of Fuji and is a principal goddess figure defining Japanese culture, even to the rising sun emblems of Zero fighters. This is a story like Hine swallowing Maui in her vagina dentata, causing sexual mortality.

We are following the Shinto shrines through Japan. This might seem strange, as Shinto is an exclusively Japanese cult which has associations with nationalism, but Shinto is also the native animistic religion of life, of birth and marriage and the life force of the people. By contrast, Buddhism is a relative newcomer which is on about renunciation and non-attachment so is less life oriented. If you are talking birth or marriage, or good luck in love, it is"  a Shinto shrine you go to.

In the story, Amaterasu, angered by the misbehavior of her brother exiled herself to a cave in the gorge, sealing it with a boulder plunging the world into darkness. Alarmed the other deities gathered in a nearby cave and the goddess Ama-no-Uzume performed a bawdy dance enticing Amaterasu out and restoring light to the world. The story is reenacted in Iwato-kagura dances in Tachicho.

Fractal stone cairns at the entrance to Amaterasu's cave in Tachicho Gorge

So we set out to find the cave shrine, which was not easy because there are several Shinto shrines in Tachicho and this one proved to be well out of town up a hard-to-find side road, but when we did find it it proved to be an electric experience. The rain was still falling and it was already dusk and we had to walk down deep into the top of the gorge where two rushing streams meet. Bear in mind it is the wet season so the waters are pretty high. The path weaves down and over a little arch bridge before winding into the crevice of the gorge right beside the waters turning at the end into the darkness of the cave where a small shrine lies. All the way in people have piled stones into cairns so the appearance is as of a stone fractal." 

The gorge continues from Tachicho to the sea. At the beginning it is a steep cliff-sided ravine, but as it continues it becomes a vast very high gorge so that bridges spanning the high ground on either side are so high the views look distinctly aerial.

Tachicho gorge further east showing the full hieght of the gorge from a bridge across the top of the valley.

From there we descended into another section of the gorge down a precipitous winding road with the gorge culminating in a narrow rapid like the chute into Huka Falls. I then tried to drive up the road on the other side which was marked with a closed sign causing Christine to freak at the precipitous drop forcing me to do a five point U-turn on the cliff edge.

After that we set out on the 218 finding that it to wound along the hills above the gorge which continued in a precipitous vee with huge high bridges arching above it that left the villages below far below like scenes from an airliner. At dusk we again tried to find a camp site only to find we had again descended into another steep gorge only to drive up several kilometers to find no one knew it existed. We then returned to the little town we had descended through at the fork of two gorges to find we were completely lost and drove up one seemingly deserted side road through avalanche protectors to set up the tent by the road side in the forest.

That night it didn't rain and the moon even briefly shone through the trees and next day we found we were still stuck in this little town called Hinokage with no directions how to get back to the 218. After photographing the town we headed south west along the side of the gorge realizing not only was there a nearby toll motorway but also the high road 218 which we could see arcing above us in great span bridges as well as the one we were on - the older road following the river ravine.


Eventually we hit the coast, motorways and tunnels skipping just before the first toll gate and headed down the coast winding off the highway to a tiny mountain road that passed through fishing villages on the coast before ascending through the forest to a very high coastal mountain overlooking the coast below at times so narrow and winding that even our little Honda Fit was barely able to squeeze through.

From the east coast, we headed down to Miyazaki which, despite it name, echoed in the producer of the famous anime movies such as "Spirited Away", was an uninspiring coastal city. However a little further south we stopped at Aoshima Island, a small palm covered island with a Shinto Shine in its midst. We then drove further south to an even more gripping shrine in a remote cave over huge rocks on the coast which I had to access by climbing the hill it was on at least four times because access to the shrine was actually through a tunnel and down the other side to the coast.

Udo-jingu Jinja

That night found us camping on the beach a few kms south of the Udo-jingu Jinja a Shinto shrine set in a cave above the rocks on a wild surf coast on South East Kyushu. We have had quite a lucky journey so far.

So in the evening we stopped a little further south on a beach outside a little town near Nichiman a few kilometers south of the shrine, The beach had a high sea wall common to many Japanese beaches to help protect against typhoons and tsunamis and was filled with weird rock islands.

Our camp site beach

In the morning, we awoke to find the town was right at the turnoff to a charming little traditional castle town called Ubi with a restored ruined castle and a number of restored houses, some dating back to samurai owners and founding clan times." 

Traditional house of one of the founders of Ubi before his family was bankrupted

From Ubi, we continued down the coast to Cape Toi at the tip the south eastern most point of Kyushu, a little like an upside down version of how Cape Reinga is to New Zealand, with a lighthouse and a very desolate little shrine on a wild cliff face at the very tip as well as the most northern population of wild cycads and a bunch of wild horses - a genetically unique species to Japan.

The little shrine up the cliff at the tip of Cape Toi you can only just see in this photo

From Cape Toi we drove north west towards Kagoshima. Some driving in Japan is mind-numbing if you don't travel on the expensive toll expressways but rather on the local roads. Some of these local roads are also motorways which you can travel on at 70 kph but most local roads have speed limits of 50 and often 40 in built up areas or even 30 on small roads and about half the time you are in built up areas where there are relentless chains of traffic lights. They try to phase the lights so that if you keep with your cohort of cars you can run through about fvie greens before all the lights ahead turn to red in a big wave but it is still relentless an many of these roads go through monotonous ribbon developments where there is nothing to distinguish which are you are in except that it is Japanese limbo." 

Anyway the journey towards Kagoshima was pretty relentless and the entire environment sice half way down the East Coast from Miuzaki seemed to be heavily filled with air pollution. Now Kagoshima has one of the world's most continuously active volcanoes right opposite it across the harbour and when we reached it thinking to spend the night camping on one of its back roads, we realized the pollution covering southern Kyushu was all coming out of the top of the volcano and the plants were all covered in ash and the streets and cars were covered in balls of ash grit. Indeed you could barely see the mountain itself because it was putting out so much fine ash that it had literally disappeared insdie its own toxic cucoon, Nevertheless, for want of a better place to go, we found a deserted place in the pines where we could spend the night realtiely free from risk of inundation because the ground was so porous. 

Kagoshima volcano spewing dust all over southern Kyushu

Next morning, we decided to head north through some of the chains of islands that line Kyushu's western shores. As we drove away from the volcano there was first a gigantic plume emerging from the summit and then gradually the mountain disappeared again inside it's shroud of white ash.

Arriving at Ushibuka

Street scenes Ushibuka

By this time we were getting better at navigating using the sat nav although the buttons kept doing unpredictable things and registered only in Japanese. Being able to navigate made us able to select smaller mountain roads with less traffic obstructions and fewer traffic lights.

A fishing village on Amakusa

We first traveled onto Nagashima traversing a bridge, passing some fishing villages on a rocky set of peninsulas and then caught the vehicle ferry to Amakusa for some 2,600 Yen. Considering the distance was much further than a car ferry to Waiheke in Auckland's Waitemata harbour NZ, the fare was pretty reasonable.

A solar panel farm in a coastal valley on Amakusa

Amakusa is said to be a multiply cursed island. It has suffered genocidal massacres of the Christians converted by European missionaries, been the subject of forced migration to it of Japanese criminals and the unfortunate and a prime source of the Japanese karayuki-san prostitutes who plied an international trade going to other countries. We drove along the island in deep rainy gloom wandering up and down its convoluted fjiord-like peninsulas looking for a place to spend the night, among the fishing villages, ending up stopping in a little park on a bay with an arena of steps down to the water.

Church at Sakitsu

On Amakusa and on the peninsula of Shimabara there are strange little churches dating back to previous centuries of colonial expansion. In fact there was a Christian rebellion on Shimabara that was put down in a complete massacre of the Christians. The first church at Sakitsu was erected by Luis de Almeida in 1569. Persecution of believers was particularly merciless in Sakitsu, according to the commemorative plaque beside the church, forcing them underground to become the hidden Christians of lore, who kept their faith secret in midnight masses and faintly recalled Latin prayers for two-and-a-half centuries before the return of the missionaries.

Two views of a fjiord on Amakusa

This proved fortuitous, because further along the coast the road became a major highway with a lot of industrial activity. We had been intending to return to the mainland through two further small islands connected to Amakusa by a chain of bridges, but on the spur of the moment decided to take another car ferry on to the Shimabara peninusla next to Nagasaki, because it would enable us to make a traverse through more places of interest."  Just as we got to the northern tip of the island we spied the next ferry about to leave and managed to reverse up and race to get a ticket and get on without further delay.

Leaving Amakusa

This time the fare which was supposed to be 2000 Yen proved to be 3400 but it propelled us across the ocean and to Kutchimotsu by 10 am.

Arriving at Kuchimotsu on the Shimabara peninsula in the fog

We then decided despite the overhanging clouds to drive up the volcano to Unzen a geothermal onsen town close to the summit.


This became a drive through torrential rain with visibility almost down to zero, but as we arrived the weather cleared a little, making it possible look at a few boiling mud pools and to do a misty circuit of the 100 yen skyline toll road before heading on to Shimabara." 

The misty mountain top at Unzen

As we descended the view cleared enough to get the sweeping view of the coast and the mainland of Kyushu across the bay that was promised on the skyline road but obscured in the mist.

The view of the coast and the gulf from the lower slopes

We drove past the castle, one of many recently restored concrete pseudo-castles the look picture book but are just modern consctructions as are the ones at Kumamoto and other places.

Shimabara castle

We then got caught in a relentless protracted journey along the coast through ribbon development traffic lights and decided to use the sat nav to take off along the uncharted little roads that form a spider's web through the rice paddies and managed to link to a deserted secondary road that wound on a very wiggly set of corners along the firested edge of the volcano passing alternately rom the forest to valleys full of terraced rice paddies that ran all the way dwon from the steeper forested highlands to the sea in the far distance. These were unique views of how Japan deals with its steep rice areas by building fully engineered concrete terraces requiring minimal maintenance to keep productivity going.

Long valleys of rice paddies sweeping all the way in an unbroken cascade from the mountain to the sea.

From there we navigated to the west side of the peninsula stopping at sunset at a coastal town and heading up into the hills on uncharted local roads, ending up in a little pull in for farmers to load water beside highland tea plantations. This was the most remote and unpopulated place we have stayed in Kyushu with no traffic and no locals depite Japan's high population density because the tea has become fully automated harvested by little combine harvesters which can straddle each orderly row of tea plants and just remove the new shoots, leaving the bushes with unsightly fritz cuts." 

Then for the first time, although we had made it through the night - at 5 am we were deluged by a thunderstorm and had to uncamp in desperation as all our clothes the tent and the bedding were raqpidly becoming saturated. One of the wonders of a good air-con car is the fact that you can dry almost everything out in a day with a bit of a clothesline inside and a few stops at 7-11s or Lawson Station chain convenience stores to let the tent hang on the opened car doors. These stores are ubiquitous in Japan and have another wonderful feature - beautiful toilets with heated seats and spray bidets and bum washes so you can be clean and comfortable on the road.

The next day we headed for Arita, one of four Japanese "porcelain" towns - the smallest and it seems the founding one - where porcelain china cups and plates were first made as a result of the Japanese annexing Korea and bringing over Korean potters who found the white clay near Arita which gave fine porcelain china its origin in Asia. What at first seemed a non-descript little town actually proved to be a photogenic icon with lots of old houses including those used by European merchants, a shrine whose pillars and dragons and its inscriptions were all made of white and blue porcelain and a train station with those little units you see in anime such as Hanasaka Aroha.

Buildings and porcelain in Arita

This was our last day heading to Fukuoka to stay the night before heading out to Taiwan via Shanghai in the morning so time was of the essence but we did manage to drive across country using the satnav to get on smaller more direct roads to a canal town called Yanagawa where there was an ornamental garden some old traditional buildings and boatmen punting Japanese tourists around the canals.

Boatman on the canals in Yanagawa

We then drove north to Fukuoka hoping to get the car which was pretty brand new and shiny back spanking clean to Budget without any extra scratches which they might charge us for. We had already scuffed the front bottoming it in a volcanic rut and scratched the door handles with our elongated fingernails but I had bought black paint from a DIY chain and car wax so it looked pretty good after some careful paint work with a cotton bud or two.

Then just when we thought things were going pretty smoothly on the way into Fukuoka, I turned off the clogged road we were on and found myself approaching a level crossing when the satnav girl said in English "level crossing ahead - drive carefully". Then something really freaky happened. Korea and Japan have intersections with flashing red lights which mean stop and check before going through. I had entered the very long level crossing and in the process noticed two such lights. But before Christine or I could react, the barriers on the crossing came down before and behind trapping us between them and five sets of rails. Christine was nearly jumping out of her skin. Then a schoolgirl who was waiting at the crossing pressed an emergancy button and raised the barriers behind us so we could rapidly reverse out, just in time because along came not just one but four trains in unbroken succession, so we could have been made mince meat.

The last night we returned to the mountain we had stayed in the first night we arrived because we knew how to get there and knew it had a shelter we could put up the tent in since it was already raining. But when we arrived, there was an absolutely torrential tropical storm inundating the surrounding mountainside into flood territory. We seemed to have put ourselves in the worst possible spot to be ready to get to the airport without hitch. Then in the night the shelter, which was just below the summit, was blasted by ale force winds which threatened to blow the tent and us away with it.

Our China Eastern plane with Mt. Wakasugarakuen still brooding with storm clouds as we left.

Nevertheless we made it to the airport managed to ditch the car without penalty although they tried to demand petrol receipts to prove we hadn't accidentally put diesel in it. By then we were late and found we had to take a shuttle bus to the international terminal and when we got to check in the Japanese security pulled my big pack to pieces thinking it had bomb making components (lots of batteries, a couple of gas lighters and a tin of car wax we had used to spruce up the door handles nearly making us too late for our flight.