Saturday, July 23, 2005

Nippo Coast Kayak Trip

The Nippo Kaigan is a rias coast forming the easternmost part of Kyushu. Across the Bungo Strait to the east, Shikoku, the smallest and least developed of Japan’s four main islands, casts a distant mountainous silhouette. The Nippo coast is rugged and riddled with peninsulas and bays. To the north lies Japan’s Inland Sea, and to the south, the open Pacific; consequently, strong tidal currents flow, and the sea is rarely resting even in calm weather. So was the case this mid-July weekend, when we chose to traverse a 70km stretch of the Nippo coast, between the village of Aso in Miyazaki Prefecture and the industrial city of Saiki in adjacent Oita Prefecture.
A typhoon was raging about 1500 kilometers away in southern Okinawa, and although here the weather was settled and calm, long waves from the typhoon had had no trouble traversing the intervening distance, arriving at 10 second intervals and a height of about 2 meters. Relative to the familiar waters of the East China Sea, the restless surface of the ocean evoked a distinctly different gut feeling.


fukasima1, originally uploaded by vibromama.

Departing Shimoaso Beach, we were wisely warned by the lifeguard about the rip currents and told that even though today swimming is prohibited, we’ll be OK, right? Waiting for an ephemeral lull in the incoming waves, we made it past the surf line without embarrassment. Away from the coast, the water surface took on an oily feeling. The air was quite hot and still. The typhoon swell manifested itself as a periodic heaving of our boats: slowly up, then down. Luckily, neither of us are especially susceptible to seasickness. Past the natural breakwater of Shimanoura Island, the ocean became a rolling, moving landscape, and the coastline where the waves were breaking violently was only visible from the crests of the typhoon waves. Staying well clear of all rocky obstacles, we steered for Fukashima, a small island with an alluring profile about 3km off the coast. At its southern cape, where this picture was taken, the swell was heaving and breaking against the cliffs with superhuman force. The cape’s steep-to profile afforded us a close yet safe vantage point to watch the dissipation of the ocean’s vast energies. Around us, streams of white foam floated on the ocean surface; traversing these in a kayak was blinding in the sunshine, and rather psychedelic.


Fukashima is a rather mountainous place but where the sea has nearly eroded the island in two, there is an acre or two of relatively flat land. “There are no uninhabited islands in Japan”, a ship’s captain once told us on the way to Tsushima, and in that spirit, a couple dozen houses cling here to the narrow isthmus. The ramshackle appearance of the village was natural enough to be picturesque. What do people do here for a living? we asked ourselves – maybe they fish these waters? – but a lively throng of young sunburned children confirmed that the place is thriving, and gave us the feeling of islands much farther to the south, away from the bustle of advanced civilization.

fukasima, originally uploaded by vibromama.


hamayu, originally uploaded by vibromama.

“Hamayu” is a large plant that grows naturally in the immediate vicinity of the sea, colonizing the difficult niches of the salty, shifting sands. It seems to love drought and heat, and chooses to flower in the middle of the summer’s heat wave. Scoffing at the sun’s heat and the hardships incurred by the ocean, this plant has won the enthusiasm of the Japanese, who strongly categorize nature into that which is utterly worthless and only to be conquered and overcome (about 95%) and that which is to be admired. And so, hamayu is often seen in Kyushu planted along coastal highways and in ornamental gardens. In this impromptu Fukashima garden, within a stone’s throw of the sea near a concrete seawall and overhung by the ubiquitous phone and power cables, these hamayu thrive hardly minding the encroachment of humans and their incongruous things.


motozaru, originally uploaded by vibromama.
Boomers are the bane of any coastal traveler. These well-baited traps occur over isolated shallow places that are not always obvious to the causal paddler-by. The depth that a wave traveling the sea “feels” underneath it is equal to about one half of the distance between its successive crests. Over places shallower than this, a wave may break violently and with little warning. Typhoon waves are long: 50 meters or more, so a wave may topple over surprisingly deep water. The very shallow places are always obvious with crashing and foam, but the real treachery occurs where the depth is just right for about 1 in 50 waves to break. All one can do is watch out for these on approach and try to avoid them.
While photographing this boomer off an outlying cape, suddenly, an unusually large wave broke very near my kayak. Instinctively, I braced for the ride, but the foamy crest subsided before it reached me. I sprinted away from the danger zone, all involuntary muscles at maximum tension. Boomer-ridden places are not for sightseeing!


okiguro3, originally uploaded by vibromama.

The Nippo coast will never be very populated. The mountains drop too steeply into the sea and while the inlets have small villages clinging on, the roads traversing these are so circuitous one can barely make faster progress on land than on the sea. Most of the promontories are road-less and deserted. And so it was we found the perfect place to camp for the night: a beach not exposed to the sea swell, with dark gray coarse sand that did not stick to everything wet, and a view to the north-east of the islands and coasts we were to traverse the next day. Investigating above the beach we found stone walls separating flattened places (ideal for camping) - some time ago, evidently even this remote place had been thoroughly cultivated. The unforgiving Nature and perhaps even more so, the government’s tyrannical taxation schemes of the past had made it so. The effort that must have been involved to grow some food in this remote thicket, before the convenience of mechanization, was hard to imagine. Now the descendants of the tough folk that had once transformed this land work 16-hour days in some office or factory, while the terrace walls behind this beach slowly topple over and overgrow with weeds.


turumi, originally uploaded by vibromama.
Rounding the cliffy Tsurumi Cape, the easternmost point of Kyushu, we arrived at a civilized place for the first time since Fukashima: the tiny hamlet of Shimokajiyose. A couple of families were enjoying an uncrowded seaside picnic, relaxing in their tents on the verge of the tiny artificial beach. No other tourists had made it to this end of a long, dead-end road. Some interesting-looking buildings a little higher aroused our curiosity; wandering up, we happened on a lighthouse museum. The enthusiastic curator invited us in immediately and gave us an excellent explanation of all the exhibits, constantly making sure we understood everything he said. The building housing the museum was more than 100 years old, and had been designed by a German architect in semi-Japanese style. It looked absolutely no worse for wear. Proper lighthouses had not been introduced to Japan until the Meiji Era (Japan’s Industrial Revolution) in the mid- to late 1800’s, and the present building had been erected to manage the operations of the Mizunoko lighthouse, which was hazily visible in the distance half-way to Shikoku on a tiny storm-beaten rock in the middle of the Bungo Strait, a busy shipping route to the many large ports further north. Among the exhibits was a collection of more than 500 stuffed migratory birds that had been found dead on the rock over the years by an industrious lighthouse keeper, having collided with the lighthouse in the night. One certainly cannot begrudge a lonely lighthouse keeper such a hobby, and neither could we begrudge the friendly curator his enthusiasm: we wondered to ourselves if we were his only visitors that day.


seawall, originally uploaded by vibromama.

We now turned west, and in the distance spotted a tall smokestack in Saiki, belching large quantities of smoke; this became our beacon. On one of the several promontories we passed on the way, a stone wall had been built to keep the sea from breaking through and damaging some fish farms on the other side of a narrow isthmus. No concrete had been used, and the wall surely sees some action from time to time, with the ocean lapping at its base. Yet the stacked stones stubbornly continue holding their place.

We arrived at Saiki at 4pm, where in the industrial Banjo River estuary dozens of dead fish were floating. Near a small riverside picnic area we had hidden a bicycle, and presently, I hauled it out of the bush and began chugging back south along the coast to recover the car. Leaving the water, the 30+ degree heat quickly made itself felt, and I stopped before each hill to refresh myself with an ice-cold soda at a ‘jidouhanbaiki’: the vending machine that is a ubiquitous part of any Japanese landscape, reflecting simultaneously the country’s (extremely low) level of vandalism and its (extremely high) level of decadence and wastefulness. More or less at the end of my rope and courting heat exhaustion, I struggled up the hills that cut through the mountainous capes, and followed the level but circuitous roads along the inlets where ramshackle villages cling to the edge of the mountain lest they fall into the sea. These inner waters of the Nippo coast are so crowded with fish farms and other junk they are of no interest to the kayaker, romantic as they may look on the map. Finally, 58 kilometers and 2½ hours later, I arrived at the car, drenched in salty sweat. Wearily, I broke down the bike, loaded it into the back of the mini-car and began the long drive back to the kayaks, and across the width of Kyushu back to our home in Amakusa.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Inoshishi- wild boars

inoshishi, originally uploaded by vibromama.

One of the only wild animals found in Amakusa is the wild boar. These animals rule the mountains, digging up baby bamboo, sweet potatoes and every other edible root vegetable. This destructive behavior lends these animals a deservedly bad reputation. The farmers retaliate by installing electric fencing around all fields and setting up traps in strategic locations. These thin wires add extra shocking obstacles to our mountain biking trails. We have yet to see a wild boar caught in one of these traps, although when we are biking we often come across large groups of these clever, cute and stinky animals.

The story goes that a long time ago, there were no wild boars in Amakusa. These brave animals apparently swam across the Yatsushiro Sea from mainland Kyushu to our fine island. Go figure!

Friday, July 01, 2005


ajisai6, originally uploaded by vibromama.


tanadan, originally uploaded by vibromama.

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