Japan: Day 1&2 — Kagoshima International Airport to Sakurajima

Wednesday, March 9th, Kirishima, Japan.

It started to rain around 3:00am. I wishfully thought it would clear at dawn. Oh boy, was I wrong. It got so much worst.

The night had been short, really short. I might have slept only 3 hours. I blame the jetlag. I had to wait the break of dawn to do anything anyway. But dawn came with the heavy rain. What should I do? Pack a wet tent? Wait for the rain to ease? I quickly got bored and I had to switch to a more vertical mode. Let say I was wet when I arrived at the airport, as was my bike bag that had spent the nigh out. But Japan being Japan, I went straight for the change room (right next to the too small lockers) and changed into dry clothes.

They say that an adventure is solving problems, one at a time. Problem solving, or solution finding as I like to say, happens to be my day job. And so I went for solving the problem of the day: send my bike bag to Tokyo Haneda airport. I had spotted in advance a luggage delivery and storage service provided by Japan Airline (JAL). This should be an easy one.

For a start, there is no JAL desk. So I went straight to the information desk and explained my plan, in half broken japanese backed up by some english, to a very helpful young lady. I had to explain that I would be using the bike while the bag should be shipped to Haneda (Honto ?!?). She phoned JAL three times to know the feasibility of my perfect scheme. Eventually we learnt that JAL would only store luggages up to a week. Not even close to my 7 weeks journey. I went to the Japan Post office and a private shipping company but they told me the same: no one would store my bag for so long.

Well, let’s switch to plan B. If I can’t ship my bag to Haneda, I can ship it back to Canada and pack my bike with cardboard for the fly back. Well, apparently it’s not an easy task to send a parcel to Canada from an international airport. I would have had to take a bus to Kagoshima. Not optimal.

Then I remembered I knew someone in Japan, someone who lives in Tokyo where we had planned to end our trip. I sent N a Facebook message, but remembered he wasn’t checking his message that often. I was glad I had asked for his phone number before traveling. Where are the pay phones? I dialed the number and got a message in chinese: I’m pretty sure I messed up the prefix. Let’s install Skype on my phone, put some credit on my account and try again.

It worked. N was surprise to get a phone call from me, in french. A quick chat, I explained him my problem, I was glade it wasn’t a problem for him and we convened he would send me his address sometime before G arrives.

Ok, no done yet, but close enough. In the meantime, I had experimented with warm coffee in a can, dispensed by a vending machine: too sweet to my taste, but kind cool.

Next step, breakfast.

Kagoshima Airport hosts a lot of restaurants, and you’ll quickly learn that it’s really hard to have a bad food experience in Japan, as long as your are open to new flavors and textures. Conveniently, you can window shop what you gonna eat, which makes it very easy for non japanese speaking/reading peoples. Trailing my bike bag, I quickly browsed my choices, choose a restaurant and was welcome by the expected “いらっしゃいませ” (irasshaimase), meaning welcome.

Breakfast done.

G was scheduled to arrived around 12:30pm. I had plenty of time left that I killed browsing the various souvenirs shops and reading my kindle.

Time came eventually and I made my progress toward the welcoming area, observing the diverse crowd of, I imagined, newly settled couple welcoming their parents for a stay or long separated sweethearts reunited for a short week. I was looking for G’s flight coming from Shangaï. But it was nowhere to be found. I checked on internet the find a flight matching provenance and scheduled and I found one, that had landed. But no G coming through the doors. An hour passed and I was getting worry (and hungry). Did we messed up our communication? Would he call me from an airport at an other corner of the country? I sent him a message that got quickly answer and after a bunch of “T’es où? Mais t’es où? Nan, mais serieux, t’es où?” I finally understood that I was still at the domestic flight terminal and he had obviously arrived at the international one, literally the building next door.

I went to join him, still trailing my bike bag and found my G, his bright red bike on an airport cart, alone in an empty terminal. After a double sided hug, we quickly touched back and got his bike rolling (and some ramen in).

But back to my bike bag issue, still no news of N and his address. I tried to call to him again but he had warned me it was crazy for him at work. I let the phone ring 4 times, wishing my missed call would remind him of our previous conversation. I nevertheless proceed to the delivery service desk and started to prime understanding with the lady in charge. Seeing us struggle (and what a small word), a lady staff from the airport proposed to act as a translator, which speeded up everything. As we where working on the “how to ship to Canada” issue, I got an answer from N. Yatta! I asked our official translator to fill the address in kanji on the form, dropped the bag, and free to go we were. Before parting, the lady gave us candies and wished us good travel.

At last some forward progress could be made.

Our goal, reach the volcano facing the city of Kagoshima, Sakurajima. Firing my trusted etrex GPS, we started our first ride along the japanese road, on the right side of the road, which, in Japan, happens to be on the left side. And soon we got our first taste of what became the “japanese elevation” issue. I didn’t really realized that the airport wasn’t at sea level and we experience our first crazy downhill road section, the kind you have to brake to not overtake cars. The open street map loaded on my Garmin allowed us to bypass main arteries and enjoy lesser used road that are usually more scenic, a “one stone two birds” case.

Our first encounter with the indigenous happened when G derailed and we had to stop at the entrance of a townhouse to unstuck his chain. At the same time arrived a woman and her your kid. No bothered by us in any way, once done on our side, she began to ask, in english, where we were from. She then suggested we used the garden water tap to wash our greasy hands. First smiles, first good byes.

We were getting used to ride on the left side of the road. We made progress along Kagoshima Bay shores, riding through fishermen’ villages. G had a good pace. Shortly before night fall, we cross a bridge that brought us to the Sakurajima peninsula. We kept an eye on a restaurant/place to sleep but the first villages we rode through were too small. We eventually decided to push for Sakurajima city, at the other side of the volcano. Sakurajima city seems to be very proud of its volcano, but also of its huge daikon: soccer ball size white radish. Image of it are everywhere: on the sidewalks, on divers signs, even as street lamp fixtures. We rode past a Lawson, a convenient shop, where they conveniently serve good and cheap food, provides restrooms and free wifi. Lawson, with Seven Eleven and Family Mart would become the milestones of our journey. As we reached the end of the city border G spotted on YH sign. As I would learn, it stands for Youth Hostel, which are world wide, usually cheap, place to sleep, eat and do your laundry, as long as you don’t mind sharing space. I would also learn that it’s hard to fit all YH into one category. More to come on that.

This hostel is a concrete building with open parking space on the first floor. A large, school like, stair leads to the main 2nd floor. Then, what I would call a mud room, a place where one removes her/his shoes to enter the living area, opens to a reception desk. On the right hand side, behind curtains, is the living/dining area, stairs lead to the rooms. With all the noise we made, someone quickly came greet us. Signs with prices, check-in and out times and floor map made easy for us to understand what was going on. Nevertheless, the old woman gave us a cell phone with someone on the line who spoke english. You see, we were too late for diner, so the old lady wanted to drive us down to the Lawson. We politely declined as we could use a walk. Our room was a large room with tatami and a sliding windows with view on the volcano and the city. Traditional sleeping arrangement: stacked on each corners of the room were a folded futon, a thick blanket, sheets and a pillow, more like a bag of rice. Not cushy at all but comfortable nonetheless. There was even a place to dry my tent. Washrooms are what you would expect from a communal building except cleaner. Japanese likes it clean. G took a while to figure out where were the showers but we did learn there was a onsen—a communal, gender segregated, hot bath—in the building. It was ladies time so we jumped directly to the diner part and walked down the street back to the Lawson. Some provide a room to consume the food they sell, and this one was one of it. We cracked open our first can of Asahi beer to celebrate the start of our adventure and fed ourselves on deep fried stuff and bun stuffed with red beans. Yummy.