I was getting closer to my flight from Japan to Korea but there was still a little time left. From Nagasaki I used my rail pass for the final time and took a train back to Fukuoka and then got on another train heading west. Unfortunately I got off at the wrong station to make my next connection and had to wait 30 minutes for another train to come along, but I used the time to upload photos to Instagram. When the next train arrived I boarded it and continued steadily westward. My final destination was Itoshima, a town on the northern coast of Kyushu. It was time to really get off the tourist trail and pay a visit to the boondocks of Japan.
Itoshima is fairly unremarkable town, and that’s exactly why I came there. I was curious to see a part of the country that had almost nothing to attract tourists to it and consequently got few outside visitors. Sure, if you do an Internet search you can find some articles by outsiders who have gone there (and maybe that’s how you found this post) but for now Itoshima is still a place that is largely undiscovered by the tourist horde. The place that I stayed in was effectively an Air BnB—a house with individual rooms being rented out by the owner. The lady who ran the place didn’t speak English but once again Google Translate’s microphone functionality stepped in and bridged our language gap. For dinner I walked to a local grocery store to buy some food. I couldn’t help but notice all the glances and stares I got from locals. None of them were looks of antagonism, but rather curiosity. What was the Westerner doing way out here? Children, in particular, were prone to staring at me, perhaps because they had not yet been trained in Japanese social norms. The cashier guy summed things up when he said to me, in very shaky English, “Not many of you come out here.” I returned to the house and ate dinner there, and the TV in the living area just so happened to be on the channel that was showing the current Sasuke competition (aka Ninja Warrior in America). Having watched the American broadcast of numerous Sasuke competitions back in my college and post-college days, I recognized a lot of the older competitors who were now retired and coaching the contestants. After dinner I ended up chatting with a Korean guy who was on a vacation across Kyushu with his wife and children. We talked about tensions on the Korean Peninsula, politics, and other things. He and his family were leaving early the following day to get to their next destination. I, on the other hand, intended on sleeping in.
True to my intentions, I didn’t get up until sometime after 8:00am the next day. That might not seem like sleeping in to some people, but compared to all the other days on my journey where I was getting up at 6:00am or earlier it certainly felt like a late start. I took a very leisure pace in getting ready that morning and hung some laundry out to dry before leaving the house. Originally I was going to ask the lady in charge of the house if I could borrow a bicycle but she was gone when I woke up that day and being the raving idiot that I am I hadn’t gotten her contact info the previous night. Oh well, that was another notch on Ricardo’s Travel Mistakes belt. Around mid-morning I left the house and spent the next few hours wandering around Itoshima. Being a Monday, a lot of places were closed but I still got a good feel for the town. As I said earlier, Itoshima is a place with almost nothing to attract tourists to it, and I imagine some of the locals were confused when they saw me walking around and taking photos. There’s a main boulevard running through the middle of town, a pedestrian shopping street, a city hall, schools, parks, and all the other regular stuff you’d find in any smaller town in the developed world, but being in Japan somehow made all these mundane things seem more interesting, at least for a day. I’m sure if I stayed there for longer than a day the novelty would have worn off. Probably the most surprising discovery I made in Itoshima was finding something I didn’t expect to come across—a baptist church. Had I had been in Itoshima on a Sunday I would have loved to have seen what a service there was like, even though I would have had no idea what anyone was saying.
While walking around Itoshima I also made an attempt to rent a bicycle but came up empty handed. On my phone I located two places in town that advertised bicycle rentals, but the first was closed and the second required a Japanese phone number in order to rent a bicycle. Seeing as how I only had my American phone on me, I was out of luck. That was another lesson for future trips and if I’m ever able to come back to Japan and I think I’ll get some sort of Japanese rental phone to have on me just in case it’s needed for a situation like that one.
At around 2:30pm I had seen much of the town of Itoshima and decided to explore some of the nearby area. I got on a train heading west and got off about eight miles down the line at Dainyu Station. Dainyu would be more accurately called a train stop rather than a train station, seeing how it’s just a pair of platforms and an automated ticket machine. The beach is only about two hundred feet away, past a small gas station and through a narrow thicket of trees and bushes. I came out onto the beach to find myself all alone there. If it weren’t for the occasional sound of a passing car or train you’d think that you had discovered some sort of hidden beach that no one else knew about. The salt air and little waves were a calming presence. I got some photos of this scenic little beach and then moved on towards the rock pier out in the harbor where I could see local fishermen casting their lines into the sea. It took longer than expected to reach the pier on foot but on the plus side I saw a bit more of the village that’s on the small peninsula there. As I was looking around pier and the harbor I’m guessing the fishermen were wondering what exactly I was doing in such an out of the way place like their hometown. If I spoke Japanese perhaps I could have tried to start a conversation with one of them. When I was done I walked back to Dainyu Station to catch a train heading east. Seeing as how there are platforms on both sides of the tracks at Dainyu, you would think it reasonable to assume that I needed to be on the opposite platform from the one I arrived on, but you would be wrong. Both westbound and eastbound trains stop on the same side of the train station and consequently I missed the train I meant to get on. I had to wait thirty minutes for the next train and this was a bit frustrating, but it actually worked out for the best.
The next eastbound train arrived on time, as trains always do in Japan, and I stepped on thinking that I’d just go back to Itoshima. A minute into the ride, however, I changed my mind and instead I got off at Chikuzen-Fukae Station, which is about five miles down the line west of Itoshima. There’s another town there, larger than the one at Dainyu Station but smaller than Itoshima. I exited the train station and walked for a few minutes towards the beach. Along the way I passed some sort of shrine, and looking at Google Maps I’m pretty sure it was Fukae Shrine, but I didn’t stop to go in. I arrived at the beach at just the right time, as the sun was setting and giving a reddish orange glow to the horizon. It wasn’t the best sunset I’ve ever seen—that honor probably goes to the sunset I saw in Tarifa, Spain—but it was still really good. For the next half hour I took a lot of photos but also tried to just enjoy the sunset as much as I could. Out in the water a group of teenagers had gone for a swim and about five or six people passed me by on the beach. When the light was almost gone I started my walk back towards the train station.
I got back to the house in Itoshima after dark. Most of the other guests had checked out that day and I think there was only one other person still there besides me. I bought a little more food at the local grocery store and showered off before writing up the day’s events in my notebook and then going to bed. The day hadn’t quite turned out the way I had hoped, seeing as how I hadn’t done any bicycling, but I was still mostly content.
My shot at cycling the region around Itoshima, however, would come unexpectedly the following morning. I got up and backed my bag, intending to leave early, but the lady who ran the house showed up and I knew it was now or never. I asked her about borrowing a bicycle and she said I could, so instead of departing Itoshima in the morning I left my backpack at the house and began the longest, and most strenuous bike ride I took while in Japan. The bike I borrowed was one of those cheap, single-gear bicycles that you can see people riding on in towns all over Japan and it wasn’t well-suited for what I was about to do, but I didn’t care. I was going for a ride and nothing was going to hold me back. My intended destination was a small shrine on the shore about six miles directly north of the house. Seeing as how there was no straight, direct route to it and that I was working with a single-gear bicycle, this ride would be longer than one might think, but it was also very scenic. Once I managed to get out of Itoshima I worked my way through a long stretch of rural Japan, passing by farmlands and a few villages. I’m sure that plenty of other Westerners have biked or driven the same roads I was on, but it felt like I was exploring some sort of undiscovered region of the country and I won’t deny that it was a little bit exhilarating. After awhile I finally reached the ocean and then followed the coastal highway to my destination: the wedded rocks at Futamigaura. The wedded rocks are a pair of rocks a short distance out from a beach that have a long, heavy prayer rope linking them to each other. In front of the rocks is a white torii gate that’s out in the water most of the day, but similar to the torii gate at Miyajima it can be reached on foot when the tide goes out. I was a hot, sweaty mess and needed a couple of minutes to cool off in the shade when I arrived. Once I felt better I went down to the water’s edge and got some photos of the rocks and the gate. If you look at the photos below you’ll notice that the torii gate has a few reddish stains that almost look like a flow of blood coming out of the gate. I’m not sure what exactly those were, but because of them I refer to this particular gate as “the wounded torii.” While I was capturing photos and taking in the scenery about a dozen or so Japanese people came and went from the beach. There’s a small parking lot and public restrooms just off the road near the shrine and I’m guessing the wedded rocks are a popular place for people to stop while driving along the coast. I looked around the area for a few more minutes after finishing with photos but unfortunately couldn’t stay longer than that since I still needed to get back to Itoshima to depart for the next leg of the journey across Japan. After taking one last minute to cool off again in the shade I got back on my bike and started to make my way back to the house.
To return to Itoshima I took a different route that swung wide to the west and followed the coast for half the ride. This path had more uphill sections than the one I used to reach the wedded rocks, so my legs got quite a workout on that single-gear bike. Several times Google Maps tried to route me down narrow gravel paths through rice paddies but I opted to stay on pavement. I passed by farmland, forests, and coastal villages as I steadily drew nearer to Itoshima. The last leg of the ride I had to get off and walk because of the steep incline up towards the house. When I stepped into the house I can’t imagine what my host thought of the sight of me. On top of being hot and very sweaty, I was sunburned because I had left the house in such a hurry that I forgot to apply sunscreen before heading out. Whatever the case, she graciously let me cool off, wash my face and head, towel away the sweat, and drink a lot of water for five minutes before I grabbed my backpack and walked down to the train station.
At Itoshima’s train station I first bought some sort of mango drink from a vending machine, and proceeded to drink it in its entirety right there, and then I went up to the train platforms to await my ride out of town. My time in Itoshima had not gone according to my original plan, but somehow things had worked out in the end and I was feeling strangely victorious, even with the sunburn and muscle strain I had gotten from the bike ride. The next stop in my trip was Fukuoka, the city I had passed through twice at this point but hadn’t actually stayed in. It would be only a brief stay for a single night, and it would also be the last city I visited in Japan before flying out to Korea.