Travel

Kyushu by bicycle: Love hotels, hot springs and rugged climbs

Traveling light and fast on two wheels across Japan’s onsen island

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

The weather was muggy as I arrived in the city of Fukuoka on an evening bullet train out of Tokyo. It was 11 p.m and, made hungry by the late hour, I grabbed a bowl of ramen at a yatai (food cart), escaping the rain that had begun to fall as a fine drizzle.

Seeing my bike propped next to his stall, the owner, face reddened by the steam coming off the open soup vat, leaned across and inquired: “You cycling in this?” I nodded an affirmative and replied, “The length of the island. To Kagoshima.” He grunted a reply, a flat tone of neither approval nor disapproval.

The rain eased as I made my final preparations and, wanting to escape the city while the roads were quiet, took my first pedals at midnight. With no traffic to contend with, it took just 90 minutes to cover the 40 kilometers to the old castle town of Akizuki, where I had arranged my first night’s accommodation in a riverside house. I was exhausted, but pleased with my early progress.

The next morning I woke to clear skies, but a strong headwind came off the mountains and impeded my efforts as I made my way south through Fukuoka Prefecture’s Chikugo region, a singularly uninspiring patchwork landscape of green farmland and gray suburbia.

By lunch, the scenery had begun its transformation from arable plane to coastal flats and the road — dipping down to the west shore of Kyushu — was sheltered from the inland winds. My speed picked up and, as rubber rolled over asphalt and the kilometers disappeared, I spent the afternoon watching the sun slowly descend over Mount Unzen in the west. This was the best of Kyushu: coastal, rugged and blissfully warm.

As day became dusk, I began the hunt for my night’s accommodation. In my bag I had a hammock that I planned to string up at the earliest opportunity, but on the coastal flats of northern Kumamoto Prefecture there wasn’t a pair of trees in sight. As I pushed on, the sunset I had been anticipating all day was obscured by a thick band of rain that soaked me to the skin as it passed overhead.

Damp and frustrated, a bridge became my shelter until the rain stopped, and in that time the sun disappeared. The prospect of setting up a hammock in the dark, made cold and wet from the rain, was now distinctly unappealing. With no other option, I continued my journey, and was busy despairing at the night ahead when I chanced upon Hotel York, a truck-stop love hotel.

The building looked like it had seen better days, but the low availability of rooms suggested it was still the site of many a hedonistic affair. There were no staff in the lobby, and the check-in process was automated: When I selected a room from a machine at reception, I was guided by an unseen voice to the hotel’s elevator, which took me immediately to the second floor. From there, an arrow flashed left, down the corridor and to my room. I took three steps inside and, as the door shut behind me, I heard it click. I was locked in, my freedom curtailed by a blinking machine requesting money to leave.

Love hotels are not usually a solo affair, though I began to wonder why as I looked around the room. For the relatively cheap price of ¥5,000 for the night, I had use of extraordinary facilities, including a double bed, bath with jacuzzi, karaoke and an “eclectic” selection of video on demand. In the private, soundproofed darkness that only love hotels offer, I slept undisturbed.

Midafternoon the next day, I cycled into the quaint town of Tsunagi. Arranged around a river, the town has a facsimile of Nagasaki’s Megane Bridge, a beautiful stone structure built by the prefecture’s masons. On the river’s west bank is Tsunagi Onsen Shikisai, a hot spring complex with a wooden annex built into the hill above.

Long way down: The funicular that leads to the upper bath at Tsunagi Onsen Shikisai.
Long way down: The funicular that leads to the upper bath at Tsunagi Onsen Shikisai. | OSCAR BOYD

At the counter I asked the attendant what the hilltop building contained, and she delighted in showing me to a Brunswick green, straight-out-of-The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-funicular that took me on a wobbly journey to the top of the hill. There, looking out across central Kumamoto Prefecture, was a bath. I was alone and reveled in the opportunity to relax my legs in the warm water.

Later, as I crossed the same vista I had been looking out on, cycling toward the border of Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures, I realized how far I’d come in the two days that had passed since I left Fukuoka. Over the past 250 kilometers, I had seen city, suburbia, farmland and coast, but I had yet to encounter true mountains. They were to come.

That night, determined to set up the hammock, I climbed to what Google Maps claimed was a campsite, entering a bamboo forest that became thicker with elevation. The road dwindled to nothing, and lacking signs I believed myself tricked. On the verge of returning the way I had come, I turned a corner to find a charming campsite built on a plateau that overlooked the west coast of Kyushu. It was sunset and, as I watched, the mountains disappeared into the hazy orange of early evening.

King of the swingers: The author relaxes in his hammock.
King of the swingers: The author relaxes in his hammock. | OSCAR BOYD

Setting up the hammock turned out to be laborious, though through no fault of its design. On first attempt, I managed to pin its construction on two deliciously complex-looking slip knots that delivered me and the hammock to the ground when I climbed in.

Others at the campsite looked on with mouths agog as the spectacle unfolded, uncertain as to how one would survive in a hammock for the night. Once it was set up properly, I assured them I’d be OK and struck up conversation with my jovial neighbor Naoki-san, who had traveled to Beppu via ferry from Osaka and then motorbiked down to Kagoshima. Like the others, he couldn’t quite believe my accommodation, and asked to take photos to show to his (presumably equally disbelieving) friends.

Their doubts weren’t unfounded: The temperature dropped to about 8 degrees overnight and I had little to warm me besides a turtleneck rolled over my face and a sleeping bag liner. Tired from shivering, I decided to pack up with the first notion of light and get back on my bike to warm up. I said goodbye to Naoki, who was also awake and looking far better rested than I, and cycled down the hill.

Thirty minutes later, I stepped off my bike to take a picture of the rising sun. As I stepped to the ground, I felt a movement against my thigh that I presumed to be my headphone cable running against my leg. The movement came again, further toward my hip, and I realized I had something crawling underneath my shorts.

“Ant,” I thought, and hit my leg decisively. The slap was met with a sharp bite and I moved into fight-or-flight mode. It being difficult to flee from a piece of clothing you’re wearing, I stripped to confront my assailant and looked down in horror when I saw a mukade — the evil black-and-red centipede that is central to so many Japanese folklore nightmares — occupying the padded area of my shorts. I flicked it out and, in a moment of peculiar serenity, let it scuttle off.

I was standing half naked in the road when Naoki rocked up on his motorbike. He laughed ferociously when I recounted what had happened and assured me it wasn’t worth a trip to the hospital. “In your shorts, eh? Sounds like you got lucky,” he said with a knowing smile, before motoring off, shouting over his shoulder, “Be careful, yeah?”

Free from a set itinerary, the bicycle allows its rider to discover things that neither driving nor walking would ever allow. It is fast enough to get you where you want to go, but it also encourages stopping. Parking is easy, and hopping on and off the bike to explore a curiosity is no more taxing than standing up from your office chair.

The world without us: Bamboo grows through an abandoned house in Kagoshima Prefecture.
The world without us: Bamboo grows through an abandoned house in Kagoshima Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD

And so I conducted the rest of the day. There, in rural Kagoshima, abandoned houses are as much a feature of the landscape as forests and rivers and, when I needed a break, I would dismount to explore these ruined properties, in the process of being consumed by nature.

The journey’s final section, a 20-kilometer climb through some of the most beautifully wild territory Japan has to offer, took me to the ridge of Mount Yae. From there I could see my finish line, the city of Kagoshima, and the road to it, descending gently for 22 kilometers from mountain to coast — a cyclist’s dream.

The road was wide, well-surfaced and free of cars and I was able to release my brakes and fly. Twenty-two kilometers disappeared beneath my wheels in 35 minutes, and before I knew it, I was cruising down the wide boulevard of Asahi-dori avenue among the traffic of Kagoshima.

From the glittering cityscape of Fukuoka to the volcanic wilds of Kagoshima, I had made it 350 kilometers in three days. There is much of Kyushu left to explore but, standing at the port watching Mount Sakurajima gently spewing gray ash into the blue sky, I was content to leave hungry for more.

Bicycles can be relatively easily transported around Japan by plane or train. To bring a bicycle on a train, it must be packed securely in a bicycle bag. Mont Bell and other outdoor stores sell bags (rinkō bukuro) designed for carrying bicycles on trains. A heavy duty carrying case is recommended to transport a bicycle by air. Fukuoka’s Hakata Station is a five-hour bullet train from Tokyo and costs around ¥23,000 one way.