By Herb Kavet
Herb talks about his experience riding on SpiceRoads Kyushu’s Hot Springs and Volcanoes cycle tour.
Most bike trips I have taken involve original and intriguing scenery, hard climbs and long days in the saddle. They usually introduce me to new cultures, different peoples with surprisingly similar feelings to our own, and new foods that I often find frightening. This was all true on my recent bike ride through Kyushu, the southern most Island of Japan. What made this trip more authentic was using classic ryokans for our accommodations.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese Inns harking back to a style several hundred years old. The rooms are tatami matted, simply decorated and with thin sliding doors. You sleep on a futon placed on the floor which I found rather comfortable. All have communal baths and in this area of serious volcanic activity they were heated to body scorching temperatures by thermal springs.
Once I learned the somewhat rigid method of washing with a tiny cloth before entering the baths and ensuring your soap suds never polluted the water, steaming with a group of naked (mostly) men was delightful. This was especially so after a hard day of biking in cool and sometimes wet conditions.
Shoes are never worn in the ryokan. They provide you with a pair of slippers upon entering and rigidly ensure all guests use them. Another set of slippers are offered for walking to the baths should they be over some stone walkways. The toilets in all rooms always have another set of slippers for that place and naturally a fourth set of slippers is provided should you want to venture out on your balcony. This is all very fine but evidently Japanese feet are much smaller than American feet. The slippers they provided covered my toes quite nicely but never made it to the heels of my feet. I slipped and stumbled a great deal.
The meals at a ryokan were most intriguing. I do enjoy Japanese food and happily eat the somewhat Americanized version available at home. But here each meal was offered as a traditional banquet. Our places would be set on a low table and everyone ate sitting on the floor. Somehow my almost 79 year old bones didn’t bend the way younger people’s do and I suffered uncomfortably until I overcame my embarrassment and opted for a low chair. I counted up to 30 dishes at a typical meal: tiny dishes, mysterious dishes and many many raw dishes. Raw fish, sashimi, was standard at every meal. Raw horse meat a couple of times and a few things like whole small fish whose head you had to bite off and eat with a crunch. I elected not to attempt that one. There was always lots of rice and miso soup and no one went hungry. The Japanese seem to eat little sugar and desserts were non existent. Very healthy I suppose but all of us Caucasians craved and attacked candy bars wherever we could find them. Tea was served endlessly but coffee could usually be found only at vending machines.
The thermal activity was present almost every day seen as steam that rose from spots on the mountains. The affect was magical. In many places people were able to bake potatoes and boil eggs in outdoor geothermic ovens. The tour brochure described steaming vents, feudal castles, waterfalls and stately old growth pine forests. They were all there, as well as delightful guides from Spiceroads and their local agent Japan Biking. For me however the essence of the trip was living and eating in traditional Japanese fashion.
A week after returning from Kyushu I learned of the devastating earthquakes that shook the exact area in which we were biking. All the steam and thermal heat energy we enjoyed for our bathing had an dangerous element which we never imagined.