Yufu-in and Mt. Yufudake 由布院

About an hour after crossing the bridge from Shimonoseki to Kitakyushu — from Honshu Island to Kyushu — we approached Beppu, a coastal town with nearly 3,000 onsen and sento. If you are at all onsen-aware and are heading to Kyushu, you will hear about Beppu. A LOT.

But I haven’t read much about the smell of Beppu — which comes at you hard as you crest the range of small hills to the north of town. You’ll see pipes belching steam, and the powerful smell of sulpher and eggs will have you rolling up your car windows fast!

But our first destination on Kyushu wasn’t Beppu. Instead, we were aiming for a campground about 30 minutes west of town.

True, the VOXY was our wheels-kitchen-tent-and-campground all rolled into one, so we didn’t really NEED to stay in a physical campground. The impulse to “check out a campground in Japan” was nothing more than an experiment, a curiosity.

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Shidakako Campground, as it turned out, was sort of a dud. Not bad. Not painful. The bathrooms were acceptably clean. Ditto the long trough provided for washing dishes. And there was a peaceful and pastoral vibe, with a small lake on one end of the campground and distant views of Yufu-dake. But the experience was a bit anti-climactic, with campers that leaned toward the reclusive — quietly tending small campfires or holed up in their mini-RVs.

Still, we were out under the stars, and as the evening turned to night, with nothing but quiet coming from our fellow campers, we also turned in early and got one of the best nights of sleep ever.

Ultimately, the whim proved informative. We survived our first campground in Japan! And we had fun cooking and eating food outside — using a tarp as our picnic table and our plastic containers as chairs.

We set off the next morning and arrived at the trailhead to Yufu-dake around 11. After the usual chit chat with some fellow hikers, we headed toward what looked like a smooth and gradual hike.

The early part of the trail puts you on a gradual and straight walk through dark dirt and grasses. Then it zig-zags and starts to climb through an eerie and primeval forest, through increasingly drier and drier terrain. The closer to the twin peaks of Yufudake you get, the more exposed and open the trail becomes.

Pretty soon even the brown grasses wane and you are left hiking among volcanic rock. Interesting to note that the trail was just recently reopened, after some volcanic activity closed the trail for a few years (which actually “rearranged” the upper peak of Higashi-mine, the eastern-most summit of the twin-peaked volcano).

You might read some harrowing accounts of climbing Yufu-dake, but really, all you need is time and a modicum of will to do this hike. It’s hardly a challenging peak. But it is exceptionally beautiful — especially the views toward Yufuin City as you get closer and closer to the summit.

Our travels in Kyushu were cut short by a quick return to Osaka, but before we turned around and followed our tracks north, we spent an amazing hour or so in one of Yufuin’s public onsen, Shimonda. This onsen, in a thatch-roofed hut, was out by the town’s lake. A small metal box in front was the extent of the ceremony surrounding this public onsen (the box was where you left your 200 yen…just two bucks to soak in piping hot onsen water!).

The tiny bath was a mixed onsen, meaning men and women bathed there. While Meg and I swooned over the hot water, congratulating ourselves for making the 15-minute drive from town, two local men arrived to wash up and soak. The first was a smiling, laughing, gregarious type who filled us in on the customs of the small bathhouse. His big, toothless smile a reminder of how so much of modern life in Japan mimics the old. The second was a less wordy sort who did his washing and soaking in record time.

The onsen was simple (just two soaking pools), clean and we could tell, much loved by the locals. Interestingly, a sister onsen was located across the street from this one, but by the signage and on the advice offered by said toothless guy who saw me eying the front door, said it was off limits to tourists — exclusively for the use by locals, the sign read.

What a place, Kyushu. Although we were there for just a single day (oh, maybe 36 hours), we definitely want to go back. More time in Yufuin and a few days, at least, in smelly old Beppu.

Hiroshima+Miyajima

Driving down the Honshu coastline from Osaka, we passed through Onomichi and Takehara — both towns are worth seeing if you are ever in the area. Onomichi for the beauty that comes from a mash-up of hills, its seaside setting and horizon dotted end-to-end with the softly etched isles of the Seto Inland Sea; and the town has a spectacular hilltop Buddhist temple and park (Senkoji Temple, Senkoji Park). Check out Takehara for its historically rich and preserved district that shows off architecture and design elements from its 350-year history.

And then there is Miyajima Island, a destination that so completely lives up to its reputation (I usually go into these well-known, broadly hyped places with way too much skepticisim). But the various Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples on the island — with the stand-out Itsukushima — will humble even the most temple-weary traveler.

The island’s giant Torii, which stands about 50 feet high and according to most references weighs about 60 tons, is much more than a mere tourist attraction. We nabbed a triple on our visit…Torii Gate at low tide, at sunset, and under a full-ish moon.

Miyajima was an unexpected highlight of our travels in Japan.
The hike up Mt. Misen, the highest point on the island, was no slouch of a trail. The steep, many-stepped affair is a formula you become used to in Japan, but the payoff here is on the unique side — the view across the Inland Sea with a dozen or so velvety silhouettes of islands stretching off into the distance will leave you in awe.

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Go, people. GO!

Traveling in Shikoku: Mt. Tsurugi and Mt. Ishizuchi

Our return to Shikoku included climbing that island’s two highest peaks, Mt Tsurugi and Mt. Ishizuchi.

Tsurugi was a do-over. We’d been in Shikoku earlier in the winter and approached Tsurugi from the west, on a route that was (we learned the hard way) closed due to a bridge that was being rebuilt. A fun adventure but a climbing FAIL.

This time we approached from the east on a more popular route to the trailhead, and later in the year so there was less snow.

We were still ahead of the regular hiking season so the trail was wonderfully empty — the few folks (only two or three) we did meet were employees of various lodges or mountain huts, hauling up supplies and getting ready for the upcoming onslaught of hikers expected for Golden Week.

Ishizuchi was probably the highlight of our Japan hikes. We overnighted in a roadside parking lot with about 15 or 20 other hikers, some who planned on getting up before dawn to begin their hikes. The night was cold and we dipped into our supply of dollar-shop handwarmers to stuff into our sleeping bags, to stay warm.

We met some true mountain devotees on that hike, not just silly folk decked out in Mont Belle attire.

Meg pushed herself to climb the Tengu extension from the peak of Ishizuchi.
I came face to face with my fear of falling, fear of death.
All in all, good times above the clouds.

Osugidani Gorge 大杉谷 Trail

We totally scored when we hiked the Osugi-dani Gorge, a deep, challenging, cliff-side trail that skirts the Miya River in Mie Prefecture. Our starting point was the Miyagawa Power Station about an hour outside of Odai (a town known for the tea fields that surround it and wealth that come from logging).

The trail had been destroyed after taking damage from a 2004 typhoon and had only recently reopened (in late 2014). Apparently, it’s not yet on anyone’s radar, as over our two days of hiking — about 15 hours of combined trail walking — we’d met only three other hikers.

The highpoints of this hike are the crystal clear river, the wide variety of trees that line the trail (beech, pine, fir, cherry…and the fact that the forest had not even been thinned), the bouncy suspension bridges we crossed along the way, the absence of any noise from nearby roads (as the trail, except for the beginning and end points, has absolutely no contact with roads or highways), and the challenge of keeping one’s balance on the trail’s many narrow ledges.

Meg and I have been on a bunch of hikes now but Osugi-dani ranks as one of the most rewarding.

Trail Basics:

The total length of the trail, from the Miyagawa Daisan Power Station at the end of Highway 53 to the parking lot at the Odaigahara Visitors Center, is a bit over 14 km.

We started at the power station and walked as far as Nana-Tsugama Falls, just past the Momonoki Yamanoie Lodge (the Japanese use the word “hut” but that’s a misnomer, believe me).

Difficulty is easy to moderate. The portions with chains could be a challenge or even a deal-breaker for anyone with a fear of heights (as the drop off in many places is nearly straight down and sometimes over a 100 feet above the river or rocks!).

Definitely a fun hike!

Michi no Eki Part III: Takahara

The last one of three Michi no Eki videos. This one is in Takahara, near Hiroshima. We were driving toward Kyushu. The town was famous for the preserved “old Japan” part of town. What’s amazing about this Michi no Eki is you can actually sleep inside if you want to! The front door to the main building shop stays open all night so travelers can sit around, tap the WiFi signal, stay warm, and use the bathrooms. What a concept!

What really “Michi no Eki” is about?

Unmasking Japan’s Michi-no-Eki

I’d heard about these roadside rest stops in Japan, known as michi-no eki, for a few months prior to our trip to Japan — how they dotted the highways, offered offered safe, overnight havens for tired drivers, as well as how they showcased the local area by promoting nearby sights, local produce and crafts — but I could never wrap my head around the various descriptions I was exposed to. I couldn’t grasp the idea of a country getting behind a something so useful and utilitarian. And I could never imagine what they really looked like, even after I came across and studied various web sites (each michi-no-eki has its own). The facades I saw online looked cartoony and unreal, too light an iteration for such a grand concept.

Then, when I stumbled on a Facebook group whose admin had created an interactive Google map of every michi-no-eki in Japan and I was able to see the scope of this countrywide effort, I was doubly blown away. There are A LOT of these rest stops in Japan (well over a thousand at last count, a steady increase since their inception in the early 90s).

So, after spending the night in about ten of them, stopping at a dozen or so of them for food or bathroom breaks, and driving by yet another dozen at least, here’s the deal with michi-no-eki.

They are very real, are not at all cartoony or light, and across their various attributes (which always includes parking, restrooms, information booths, restaurants, vending machines, and, often, WiFi) offer tons of support to short and long-distance drivers, including us vanlife types.

Attributes which are mandated by the Japan government are as follows:
Always-open bathrooms. Which run the gamut from the basic and hum-drum to the ultra-luxe variety. Be forewarned that most of the bathrooms we came across were built with open exposures to the elements. IOW, hefty concrete structures without doors and windows. And rarely was there hot water. So, you’ll always have clean and well-supplied bathrooms at a michi-no-eki, but you might not want to loiter. On the other hand, I’ve seen some absolutely over the top bathrooms at the more recently built michi-no-ekis (see the videos below). At these locations you’ll find heated structures, hot-water, and invariably a number of handicap-compliant bathrooms that rival any hospital bathroom or one you’d find in a five-star hotel. Not kidding, here. You really have to see these modern bathrooms to believe it.

Plenty of parking where no one bats an eye if you spend the night. Sometimes there is open space to walk in or picnic tables to set up at, but never did I see a michi-no-eki that encouraged camping or outdoor cooking.

And public telephones, which is kind of a non-issue today given we all have cell phones and onboard GPS navi systems in our cars.

But it’s the stuff beyond the mandated facilities that will blow your mind.
Some michi-no-eki are 24-hour operations with vast grocery stores that rival any you’d find in a big city. There’s usually at least one restaurant housed in the main michi-no-eki building, sometimes more than one, and always vending machines selling hot and cold drinks. Because each michi-no-eki showcases local products, you are likely to see flowers, produce, baked goods, coffee, and locally made crafts on sale.

The fun thing about the network of michi-no-ekis is that you never really know what you’re going to find: we were shut out in Hongu, waking up to that town’s michi-no-eki on the one day during the week it was closed; To the west of Hiroshima on National Highway 2, exhausted from driving, we arrived at Soreneshunan Rest Area and were dumbfounded by its monumental architecture (more sophisticated than many airports), the fact it was open 24-hours, the carpet of flowers and potted plants for sale in front, the five-star toilets and then the social scene that ensued the following morning (I swear, the local kids brought their dates here to cruise the stalls selling coffee, bakery items as well as hang out at the creekside-placed picnic tables!); and in Takehara, the michi-no-eki was unstaffed but still open 24 hours (offering decent WiFi, outlets to recharge our cell phones, comfy sofas, super clean toilets, and lots of heat, which helped on the cold, cold night we were there).

Rarely located on the bucolic backroads of Japan — more likely near to a tollroad or larger highway — they exist as a welcome place to sleep for the night, buy local produce, pick up a map or two, and refresh for more miles. The michi-no-eki system is a total boon to vanlifers (to say nothing of the reciprocal benefit they provide to local farmers and the local workforce).

Five stars and high fives to Japan’s michi-no-eki network!

(Hey, pardon the obsession with bathrooms, but you’ll see in the videos below but these public bathrooms are pretty darn stunning.)

Japanese Super Bathroom….

The Japanese do bathrooms differently — clean, well-stocked with toilet paper, motion-activated lighting, modern fixtures, and often super-sized. They dot the roads and highways, making road-tripping in Japan a pleasure.

This bathroom, on the highway near Hiroshima, was a total charmer — probably the most over-the-top pit stop so far (and we’re talking dozens and dozens of bathroom breaks over the past months).

Bonus post!! —> Curt just added a companion video on our Instagram page. A “how-to” that deciphers the often-baffling control panel on a Japanese toilet. It’s a must-see!