Arriving in Japan was a bit overwhelming, I hadn’t planned anything, all I knew was that I wanted to see as much as I could without rushing. After an overnight ferry from Busan I arrived in Fukuoka, a large port city on Japan’s southern tropical island of Kyushu which is home to Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima, among others.
The large central Island of Honshu is home to Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka and Hiroshima, along with black bears in the Japanese alps which I can attest to. Then there is the Island of Hokkaido to the far north with Sapporo, famous for its beer, its Siberian winter climate, black bears and large brown bears. Japan is a volcanic archipelago of 6,273 islands… a lot to explore!
It was with a kind of surreal feeling that I had finally made it. It felt very very odd to finally be here after a year and eight days of travelling, aiming towards this far off place. So I sat next to a café, a little dazed and confused, and used the Wi-Fi to get my bearings, scour the map and formulate a plan. I didn’t see any of Fukuoka. Being in an odd rush to get started on this amazing country, I left in the opposite direction to Tokyo – which felt very counterproductive – and started towards Nagasaki.
I know this trip was originally meant to take six months but I’m so glad I had a change of heart about the type of journey I wanted, it could have been a mad six-month ego boost but luckily I realised after a few days in Bishkek, life is too short not to take your time. If you’re always rushing towards a distant goal, have you actually lived?
Immediately within the first day I was struck by the beauty of this place, cycling along the coast and sleeping on the beach under the stars for my first night. Although being one of the most densely populated countries on earth it also seems to have so much nature and is very wild in places. The towns and villages seem to integrate so much more with the natural environment and this makes sense. Closed off from the rest of the world for much of its history, Japan had to be independent which meant it had to look after its land if it was to then be provided with the materials the country would need to support itself. The very mountainous terrain is not suitable for building and must also aid in protecting the environment. It felt so wild, enormous swallow-tailed butterflies distracted me as I cycled along the incredibly clean roads and pavements. Loud, unfamiliar birdsong echoed through the mist-blanketed pine forests in the early morning and strange plants lined the roads. I kept stopping to take photos of them for my Mum, a gardener. What a good son I am.
Incredibly well-kept gardens and houses caught my eye at every turn. This country is rich in every sense of the word, a sensory overload, there was too much to take in and I knew I was missing so much out as I travelled through it.
I slowly made my way to Nagasaki wondering what it would feel like to be in a city that, along with most of its population, had been totally obliterated 73 years before. The closer I got the more I couldn’t help imagining what it would have been like for the people 20km away, then ten, then five.
When I arrived at the black monolith that represented ground zero in Nagasaki it did indeed feel strange, a chill ran through my body, through my soul, the people in this area would have been vaporised, it was a fact I couldn’t get out of my head. For me and I’m sure many others who visit, it was a place that brought to mind the deepest questions about humanity, it made me wonder about our past, what we have survived as a civilisation, how close we’ve come to mutually assured destruction but also our future, what unknowns lay before us and what might we create that could have 1000 times the influence that nuclear weapons have had. Let’s hope it’s a positive influence.
Nagasaki is still a nice city, despite how new it now is. It borders the sea and is surrounded by rolling hills, having a relaxed feel to it. I stayed with Evi, an Indonesian Couchsurfing host who told me the door was unlocked and to just let myself in. Another fact about Japan, it’s incredibly safe, just like Korea. In fact, children as young as three will travel across Tokyo on their own, using the metro system to go to school. Throughout my travels in the country I’ve seen them walking to school, not even 2ft tall with their little backpacks or book bags, they look like very serious cute little businessmen or women, getting ready for a life of office work.
After Nagasaki, where I didn’t do a lot except contemplate our intelligence as a species – or lack of it – I made my way towards Mt Aso, Japan’s largest and most active volcano. I stayed on an organic farm with Jiro Yamaguchi and his family, near the village of Takamori. It was a truly beautiful place with forest and steep hills surrounding the foothills of the volcano, the calls of deer echoing through the pines.
Jiro’s home was very rustic, the water for bathing was heated by a wood burner and you sat on a stool in a little shed ladling hot water over yourself to wash. There was no tv and the three kids entertained themselves with art or music. At the time I was there it was flower planting season so I spent a good chunk of time over two days planting baby flowers which was back breaking work but it really felt good to earn my keep. Unfortunately, Jiro had food poisoning when I was there so I didn’t get to see him much and I didn’t get a photo of all of us together which I’m sad about.
Takamori is meant to be the most beautiful village in Japan. It has one attraction that’s really worth going to. Just before I went there I was feeling a bit disappointed that although stunning, Japan seemed quite normal, everybody had told me how bizarre and strange it was but it didn’t feel too different. Then I went to the Takamori tunnel park where they had tried to dig a tunnel for a train line and hit a freshwater spring so they turned it into a tunnel park…
It stays at a constant 17°C all year, inside it was lit with multicoloured lights, strange shiny decorations and effigies of cartoon characters and people I didn’t recognise hung from the ceiling above the stream that runs down the middle of the tunnel with a path either side. The multicoloured lights were reflected off the cool dark water, creating psychedelic colours and patterns that created excellent opportunities for some light art photography. One side room had a pool with fish and fluorescent lights inside, creating an electrifying scene of black fish swimming in a fluorescent purple pool. I began to get cold in the tunnel, which was 1km long. In summer, when people emerge from the tunnel, they’re hit with a blast of warm, humid air.
Another magical place to visit near Takamori is the Kamishakimikumano shrine. In a kind of magical setting it lies in an old pine forest with a moss-covered Shinto gate set before steep stone stairs. With the light streaming in shafts between the trunks and branches of the forest, it felt incredibly peaceful, like you could leave there and one hundred years would’ve passed in the world outside.
From Aso I continued on to Hiroshima, leaving the stunning island of Kyushu for the main Island of Honshu. I stayed with an English Couchsurfing host called James, we spent most evenings talking, drinking beer and eating crisps after he had finished work.
Again, Hiroshima was a place that really makes you think, you can’t believe it happened twice, a whole city obliterated. I had many of the same thoughts and feelings that I had in Nagasaki but this time, just before leaving the city, I had an encounter that made me feel extremely lucky. Outside a supermarket I met an old Japanese man who was interested in where I was going after he saw my enormous ‘bike’. I told him and then he told me a little about his own travels and then mentioned that he was a survivor of the bomb that was dropped. He told he was 5 years old and lived 5km from the hypocentre, he was playing in the garden and looked up into the sky and shouted ‘Mummy, the sun is falling out of the sky!’. His mother managed to drag him into the house and seconds later it fell down around them when the shockwave hit. I was flabbergasted to hear this account, it was so shocking but I felt so grateful to have met this man and heard his story.