I’ve been wanting to visit Nagasaki ever since reading David Mitchell’s wonderful novel “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” which is set in the city in 1799. What better way to arrive in this historical city than on a bicycle? A look at the map showed that I could ride there in a couple of days via a couple of islands, Nagashima and Amakusa. I really enjoy island hopping with the bike, something I experienced in Croatia a few years ago. Planning for my short trip was easy. I booked a minshuku on Nagashima, a hotel in Nagasaki, and a cheap flight from Nagasaki to Haneda with Solaseed Air. After checking that the ferries would be running, I was set.
I headed out from Miyazaki at 7 a.m. with my bike transformed from TT into a light tourer. I used my excellent Topeak MTX trunk bag and dedicated seatpost rack, and my Ortleib bar bag. My only worry was having to use race wheels and tyres, but the roads were good the whole way. I followed the Oyodo River north-west out of the city and then picked up Route 10 which continues westwards until it meets the 268. There were no real alternatives to these roads for the first 50 km to Kobayashi, so I was worried about the traffic. Once I left the city, the traffic did get lighter, but I soon realised that I would need to buy a map and get on to smaller roads past Kobayashi. Despite the cars and trucks, it is a pleasant road through hills and forests with the occasional views of the river.
I picked up a map at a seven-eleven and turned on to Route 53 at Kobayashi. It was a great decision. Hardly any traffic passed me as I gradually climbed through quiet villages to a ridge with great views and great riding. The 53 skirts south of Ebino and ends at the busier Route 55. I took this road a couple of kilometres south and then crossed the Sendai River at Yoshimatsu. After that I took the tiny 448 which zigzags steeply up through a forest to a 500-metre pass and then down along a beautiful stream to the next valley. Route 48 continues directly westward most of the way to Izumi city. It is another fine cycling road with little traffic and great scenery.
Having started the day worrying about heavy traffic and thundering trucks, I had found a near perfect route across Kyushu. To make things even better, I had been pushed for much of the way by a rare easterly wind which strengthened as I approached the sea. Not wanting to waste this tailwind, I carried on right to the coast where I got the biggest surprise of the trip. As I cycled down a tiny road through marshy fields, a couple of giant birds stood flapping their wings ahead of me. Somehow I had chanced upon one of Japan’s great migration spots. Thousands of cranes were standing in fields, nervously jumping up with a flap of their wings, and then gliding back down. Other flocks circled overhead against the backdrop of distant mountains. Despite all this avian drama, I was the only person there.
The coastline around to the Nagashima Bridge is very dramatic. Route 378 runs high above the sea and offers dramatic views of Nagashima and the other islands in the Yatsushiro Sea. It is a bit hard on tired legs, but it is well worth the diversion. The last climb seemed a bit unnecessary – surely they could find an easier route through the hills – but the descent to the bridge was fun.
Route 378 Coastline
It was inevitably very windy on the bridge so I was relieved that I had the crossing to myself and could stick to the middle of the road. Once on Nagashima, the wind died down a bit, and I put my head down for the last 18 km to Kuranomoto. The Ebisu Minshuku is not hard to find as there are only a few buildings huddled around the ferry terminal. The ferry sat in the dock towering over the minshuku; clearly I wouldn’t have far to go in the morning.
End of Day 1
The owner of Ebisu is an interesting chap. Over dinner, he told me of his adventures in the 1970s on various fishing boats around the world. He had a large atlas with all the places he had worked, including Southern Africa, South-East Asia, North America and Europe. It seems that he had come back to his home village after a decade of adventure on the high seas and slightly regretted it ever since. He showed me amazing pictures of South Africa and Namibia in the 70s, and the devoured my own stories of travel and adventure. If he’d had a bike, I think he would have got on the ferry with me. Instead, he put on his dapper white sailor’s uniform and went out to take a group of tourists to see luminescent creatures swimming beneath his “bottom glass” boat.
The next morning I was up early for the first ferry of the day which left the port at 7:20 a.m. The owner of the minshuku had got up much earlier to prepare my breakfast and send me on my way. This early start gave me a dramatic view of the Yatsushiro Sea and its numerous islands silhouetted against the early morning sun. It was one of those short boat trips which you know will live in your memory forever.
Dawn on the Yatsushiro Sea
Concrete craziness in Ushibuka
The ferry crosses to Ushibuka on the southern tip of Amakusa Island. Despite its remote location, government money has found its way to this beautiful spot and turned it into a cat’s cradle of concrete looping over the port and adjacent bay. It is an astonishing way to treat such an area of natural beauty. I headed quickly out of town and on to Route 26 which hugs the eastern coastline all the way up to the north of the island. The first half of this road is a cycling paradise. The road is almost touching the sea in places, but has virtually no traffic at all. It was hard to get anywhere as I kept stopping to soak up the views.
The stunning south-eastern coastline of Amakusa
The downside was the obvious poverty of the people living in the villages along this lovely coastline. From a distance they looked like charming groups of tradition wooden houses, but closer up most of them were on the verge of collapse. There seem to be no young people anywhere, so the elderly are left to look after themselves as best they can. In one village, an old man was hanging a fishing line into the river. It looked like he was fishing for his dinner rather than for pleasure.
At Amakusa City, normality is restored. The road widens to two lanes, which are lined the whole way with the usual pachinko parlours and soulless shopping malls. In a few minutes, I was torn 100 years forward in time to a world of hybrid cars and Starbucks coffee. I also had to start fighting for position on the road which came as a bit of a shock. Fortunately, it is only another 12 or 13 kilometres north along the coast to the ferry port of Oniike where I had another pleasant ride back to the mainland south-east of Nagasaki.
I was a bit pessimistic about the road to Nagasaki as it looked on the map like it would have heavy traffic. However, the first 25 km to Obama are not bad at all. At Obama, which inevitably has lurid statues of the great man, I took the tiny Route 201 which missed out a busy section of the main road, and then I only had a couple of kilometres on the thunderingly busy route 57 until I could turn off on to the somewhat quieter 251.
Route 57 is a perfect escape from the main road.
At Iimori I somehow managed to find a tiny road which wound steeply up through thick forest and then down into the lovely village of Kawashimo with Shimono and Kamino islands in its bay. I could have probably found a quieter way to ride into Nagasaki City, but my tired legs told me to bite the bullet and brave the heavy traffic rushing through the tunnels that pierce the mountains that surround the city. There is only a sidewalk on the right side of the road, so I had to wait for a small gap in the traffic and dart across the road. I was glad of the relative safety of the pavement as the tunnels are long and very narrow. It seems that they forgot all about cyclists when the built the roads into Nagasaki.
Once out of the tunnels, it is a fast, wild ride down into the city centre. It felt like the tunnels had taken me all the way through to Europe as Nagasaki has more in common with Lisbon than with any other city I have been in Japan. Instead of the usual flat expanse of concrete, buildings climb up every slope to the tops of ridges. In places, the architecture is much more European than Japanese, and trams run clanging up and down the roads. These roads are not in the usual grid pattern, which added to the European feel. It also added to my confusion as I was soon completely lost in what was a much bigger city than I had expected. Finally, I found my hotel just where it was supposed to be and my two-day ride was over.
East Meets West in Nagasaki
Day 1: Miyazaki to Nagashima
Day 2: Nagashima to Nagasaki