UPDATED June 3, 2024

BY Guest Author

IN Journey to the East

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UPDATED June 3, 2024

BY Guest Author

IN Journey to the East

no comments

Exploring Kyushu: Castles, Volcanoes & The TDA Touring Sweet Spot

 

Mats Fredrix is the Content Creator on the 2024 Journey to the East Cycling Tour. He sends this report from the Japanese island of Kyushu.

Kyushu, the southernmost of the country’s major islands, is the first Japanese soil our riders feel under their feet on the TDA Journey to the East tour. The island is one of the lesser known tourist destinations in Japan, although ‘lesser known’ is certainly relative when it comes to tourism in Japan. Yet it’s one of those places that immediately makes an impact. Basking in sunshine, palm trees here and there, lush greenery and blue waters, its landscape reminds one of our Hawaiian riders of home. It’s also a place where you can spend the morning in an Edo period castle, the afternoon climbing into the mouth of an active volcano and the evening overlooking the stars in a rooftop onsen. And that’s exactly what we did. This blog explores how TDA’s Journey to the East finds that, oh so elusive sweet spot, between cycling, nature, scenery and culture in just a single day.

Life on a TDA tour is simple. We cycle, we eat, we sleep. And all through this cycle we do our best to immerse ourselves, plodding through places at what we hope is exactly the right speed to experience our surroundings, while still moving quickly enough to be teased by something fresh and different every day. The balance struck between riding time and time to rest and explore, varies from tour to tour. There are expedition, adventure, touring and hotel-to-hotel tours. That sweet spot will be just a bit different on the spectrum for every tour. Some regions naturally lend themselves to exploring from the bike saddle, while others require a bit more off-the-bike time for culture to seep in.

TDA’s Journey to the East tour, when it finally made its debut on the TDA calendar last year, did so with a bang. The TDA community flocked en masse to this new and exciting route. As a Touring and hotel-to-hotel tour, it’s a bit different than some of the other TDA tours. This tour puts riders’ comfort first. Its setup and way of working is therefore also a bit different from TDA’s Expedition or Adventure tours.

Don’t be fooled by the words ‘riding comfort’, though. When we talk about ‘riding comfort’, we’re talking about putting riding quality and resting quality all the way up there. You will also transfer a bit more to avoid busy or less interesting roads or to reach a busy city. You will have a roof over your head every night, a hot shower, etc.

It, however, does not mean the riding is not challenging. If you join the Journey to the East tour thinking the cycling will be a breeze every day, you’ll quickly learn the truth the hard way. There will be days you will cycle almost 140 km, or when you will climb more than 2000 m. The Korean and Japanese climbs are some of the most breathtaking of all of our tours, but they are no joke. If you’re a more experienced bike rider you’ll know very well that breathtaking views come at a cost. Of course, with TDA you choose what your riding day looks like. Are you just not feeling a climb on a certain day, our crew will be happy to drop you off at that viewpoint on the top. It has to be said though, no descent will ever taste as sweet as it does after a long, tough and sweaty climb.

Riding through South Korea and Japan is a very different experience from riding, say through Botswana or Turkey. The amount of cultural highlights we pass most days is extraordinary. And in this part of the world the pace of our bikes and staying only one night in most places, is just a bit too fast. To cover for that, this tour has more rest days, strategically placed in cultural hotspots, to provide every opportunity to riders to explore the vast expanse of Japanese and Korean culture. On this tour, and on some of our other tours, there are a few days where we take the blending of cycling and culture a step further.

Stage 8 of the Journey to the East was a day like that. Just our second ride in Japan, we woke up in Kumamoto, a big city with considerable cultural lure. But as the rest day was still a few days ahead, the Kumamoto Castle, a famous hilltop fortress from the Edo period, would in normal circumstances have to remain unexplored. During the planning and scouting of the tour, TDA however found a way for riders to still hit this sight without planning for a full rest day. A shorter riding day was the perfect solution to give the Japanese Edo period fanatics among our riders ample time to explore this hilltop gem. And a bit of a later start than usual to coincide with the castle’s opening hours was a most welcome bonus for many.

After an hour or two at the castle, at around 10.30 am all riders had set off with only 50km separating them from their next inn for the night, a traditional Onsen and Ryokan hotel in Aso. But there’s a catch: Aso lies in the mouth of a volcano. Well, kinda. Aso is a very unique place in the world because it is one of the few built up places inside an ancient caldera, the Aso Caldera. A caldera is a large cauldron-like hollow that forms shortly after the emptying of a magma chamber in a volcano eruption.

To get to the hotel, riders had to actually climb over the rim to then descend down into the cauldron of this ancient volcano. You’ve guessed it, that means some spicy climbing. And although the spicy taste is mainly a thing in South Korea and less so in Japan, spicy climbs are a theme for almost the entire Journey to the East tour.

But it’s worth it. The volcanic activity has made Aso and the Aso-Kuju National Park into a true marvel of nature. Green grasslands, dense forests and an impressive mountain range around Japan’s largest active volcano, Mount Aso, from which smoke is visible in the distance from our hotel. “Nothing to worry about, just water that seeps deeper into the ground and evaporates,” Kazu our Japanese local support assures me, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Another side effect of the volcanic activity are the hot springs, the onsens for which the whole of Japan is so famous. Yet Aso onsens have a special stature even for to the Japanese. After a traditional Japanese feast on tatami mats, our riders finished off their jam-packed day in the rooftop onsen overlooking the Aso mountains and the starry night, tired but eager to do it all again tomorrow.

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