Japan 2010: 9 - Where I Wreak Havok in the Valley of Cod

Up and early from my luxury bed, it was again time to start a long journey. I would be leaving Nobeoka for a bus ride to the little town of Takachiho up in the mountains, and from there take another bus to Takamori, then on a private train line to Tateno, which finally rejoins me to the JR network once again, and get to Aso before the end of the day.

Fortunately, I had tried to learn from my past several days of attempting but failing to get up on time. The in-built clock on the headboard buzzed into life at 7am and I was up and off for eight. The bus timetable had only two entries for Takachiho, one at 8.30, and the other in mid-afternoon which was obviously out. After a walk back to the bus station in the early morning light that I could swear was longer than getting there, I got my 1800yen ticket from the booth and waited patiently. The little single-decker bus arrived shortly, and myself and a half dozen other passengers boarded.
The road to Takachiho runs through some of the greenest and most natural-looking scenery in southern Japan. I wouldn't say it was particularly 'untouched', as there are several man-made objects within view at all times, but it is one of the most pleasant places in Japan where mankind and technology have come together with nature and nature hasn't come off too badly.

One of the man-made objects that was constantly on view was the poor old Takachiho Railway. Almost from the beginning of the journey, the single track can be seen taking a straightish line through the hills and valleys while the bus route snakes under, over and beside it, often testing the springs of the bus, and consequently, my arse. I would much rather have taken the railway route, but unfortunately it was closed in 2005 after a typhoon swept through the place, damaging the track and it's foundations in several places. It wasn't the first time, and the private company that ran the service over the route decided to shut up shop, going into liquidation a few years afterwards, depriving us of what has been called one of the most picturesque routes in the country.
What remains is a sad sight. The infrastructure - the bridges and stations, and even most of the track - is still there, although they sit desolate and rusting, and are a constant reminder as you bounce along on the bus. Now and again, small bulldozers sit dozing by the side of the road, ready to rip out the rail and flatten the track bed, if they haven't already. The occasional pile of rusted tracks telling a story of a gradual dismantling of the whole track. As the route increases in altitude into the hills, spindly metal bridges grow out of the valley walls, just wide enough for a train to pass over them, the thousands of feet of thin air below would have created a giddy and slightly scary set of photos a decade ago. The bouncy bus route, tied to the hillsides although enjoyable and picturesque, is a pale alternative.
We pulled into Takachiho bus terminal an hour or so later at about 10am. Considering the distance travelled and how much was still to go, I estimated that I should really be setting off back on the 4.30pm bus to Takamori to have a reasonable chance of getting to the Aso hostel before it shut it's doors for the night.
I picked up a Japanese language guide book at the station, thrust into my hand by the lady behind the desk after I bought a bus ticket (1280yen) for the next leg, and headed out. But before I took too much notice of the sights it highlighted, there was some backtracking that I wanted to do. As we entered Takachiho, we passed over the station and it appeared to be a still-working line. Curiosity got the better of me; I had enough emotional investment into the unfortunate route to care, and I had to go look. I stowed my bags in a locker at the station and retraced the route. A five minute walk back up took me to the bridge. Below me was a pair of train tracks and a quiet, almost hibernating station. The tracks forked off to a pair of warehouses, and inside each was what looked like a functional train. The tracks disappeared down the side of the warehouses, into the mysterious darkness. Bizarrely, in all of this was a miniature children's train on one of the tracks, painted bright blue and resembling Thomas the Tank Engine. I trotted over the road to the other side and peered over. The tracks disappeared off a few hundred yards later into a single tunnel, heading back in the direction of Nobeoka.
A little way on from the bridge, beside a strangely Swedish-looking building a set of steps granted me access to a sloping road, at the end of which was the entrance to the station. Rather than being boarded up and deserted as I had expected, the front entrance was open, and music was coming from inside. Inside, the room was quite dark, a single strip light above not able to compete with the clear sunny day outside.
To the left, a monitor was playing a looping video of the old Takachiho route from inside the train, and to the right before the ticket booth was a tablecloth-covered bench containing a selection of sun-bleached and careworn souvenirs; DVDs, books, postcards and keyrings. The rest of the room was given over to the local community - childrens' pictures of the trains, community notices, and old station posters from yesteryear. Browsing through I realised I recognised the music; it was the theme from the Ghibli film Laputa, which was an odd thing to be playing in a station, even though it seemed now to be more of a community area and tourist shop than anything else.

The room opened up to the tracks and station beyond. Station etiquette naturally dictates you can't just walk out there without showing someone a ticket, and because this was such an ingrained aspect of my travel, I wasn't sure of the protocol. As I hesitated on the edge of making a break for it, there was rustling from behind the ticket booth. There was someone there.

A middle-aged woman was sat with a rather bored expression on her face, seemingly there since they closed the railway but due to some clerical error, was still paid and expected to come in each day. Despite the hopelessness of the place she was in, she produced a cheery smile and seemed genuinely pleased that some tourist had tracked the place down. I chatted with the usual hand signals for a short while, acknowledging the tourist trinkets and the posters, and trying to express dismay at the closure of the line without making it look overacted and patronising.

I asked if I could go out onto the platform. I suspected a picture or two on the tracks might look good in a blog (see I was thinking of you even then), plus I found the trains outside as seen from the bridge - large and small - to be intriguing.

Entering out into the light, a second woman was knelt at the railside, digging out some weeds. She looked up and gave a cheery wave. I waved, rather sheepishly, but secretly I was a little bothered and ashamed that my plan of trespassing down the tracks in front of her would be overstepping the rules of politeness. I restricted my movements to the station platform.
First highlight - Jewish Thomas! Ahem - that was almost certainly racist, but it was the first thought that came into my head when greeted with his big, round and now, bearded and moustached face, a disturbingly unexpected familiarity in the middle of nowhere. A flash of horse hair in the approximate form of a beard had been glued on with gay abandon, and had been arranged around a small sign on the front so as to split it into two. A pleated rope draped around his head and hanging down where his ear would be rounded off the look. It was not clear if 'Jewish' was the style they were going for (frankly it was baffling why poor Thomas had been hairified in the first place) but that was what they had got. A pair of similarly themed eyebrows gave him a sad expression, and he couldn't seem to look me in the eye. It was like he was quietly saying 'this is what it has come to', perhaps having lost his will to fight the middle-aged women some time ago and instead submitting to their every styling demand.

Resisting the urge to board Thomas, I passed on to the end of the platform near to where the engine sheds were. The outside woman was keeping an eye on me, so I resisted the urge to leave the safety of the platform. Inside the sheds, decorated tastefully with pictures of old-fashioned Japanese women with fans in their hands and smiles on their faces, were a pair of the old TR100 local trains, apparently the only survivors of a cull where the others were sold off or were the victims of a barbarous-looking demolition at the station itself. Preserved for posterity, they just sit there in the hope that some day they might be put in use again, although at the time it appeared to me that they were about to head off in the opposite direction.

See, I had my directions all screwed up, unlike back in the comfort of my own home with the advantages of Google maps to point out the obvious. It also seemed that the tunnel at the other side went beyond to a still operational section of track, and the bit of track behind the sheds went back to Nobeoka. So sure of my sense of direction that the next thing I did was go out of the station, and try to find a road or path where I could follow the tracks for a short while. Looking back, I have no idea what end I was trying to serve by this.

So I found a dusty back road and set off. Quiet farms and other houses passed by. People were tilling the dry earth and removing the overgrown vegetation. They gave a wave and a smile as I passed. After a bit of twisting and turning, the track ended looking out to a main road below, the one the bus had come up to, but no sign of any track or a straight line of trees that might have once lined one. I scrambled down the hill and joined the road, looking over the sides to the valleys below but without any luck. A few cars passed me by, but the place had a deserted feeling, as if it had once been much busier and had gone into hibernation. Defeated I circled back, passing through a pleasant valley with large flowers and bigger bees, and found myself at the station again. Before I headed on I took one final look.

The woman digging the weeds had gone, but the booth attendant was still around. I shrugged in defeat and tried to communicate my sadness about the closing of the rail. The lady thought for a moment, and produced from a pile a set of postcards. These were a souvenir pack, rarely used for their intended purpose of sending to people and often (like I do) used for memories of a place. You can get them in just about every town or attraction in Japan.
These were specifically about the train line, each card showed the twin carriages, one green and one yellow, passing over some part of the line as it was in it's heyday. The scenery was beautiful, and often showed the train passing over one of the narrow, spindly bridges I had seen on the way up, probably giving it's now fortunate passengers some of the most beautiful views in the country.

I checked the envelope for a price but there was none, so I stuck my hand in my pocket and fished out some coinage, but the lady waved me away. 'Free', she said, and I thanked her kindly before heading out.

Takachiho station had one ray of hope taped to the door. A small poster - all in Japanese but I got the gist - showed a long-range shot of a section of track, with a small, bamboo-topped vehicle travelling over it. It seemed that a group of locals were trying to reopen a small section of the track, from Takachiho to Amanoiwato - the next station along - to keep the memory of the place alive. Their website is all in Japanese, but it is pretty easy to navigate and has a number of inspiring pictures of the restoration and cleanup, and even a video of the first rattly journey on the reopened section. I would encourage anyone on their way around Kyushu to make time to visit Takachiho; it might not sound so much, but the journey up there is beautiful, and it looks like you'll be able to get a community-spirited treat when you reach the top.

And I hadn't even gone to the places on the map yet. Back at the bus station, I looked at my Japan By Rail book, and true to form had some things to say about the place. The most popular place was Takachiho Gorge, a huge gash in the ground several hundred feet in depth, carved out by the Gokase river through the porous volcanic Aso rock. It promised some fantastic views. There was a bus service there, but it would be a while yet, or so the circling taxi cabbies told me, and so not wanting to waste any more time, I got in one of them and set off.

On the way, the cabbie gestured to Takachiho Shrine, which from the road was invisible in a thick woodland of large trees. I made a mental note to head there on the way back if time permitted, as the temples in forests (as opposed to those in more urban areas) were often the most beautiful and mysterious.

The taxi swerved round some pretty tight curves in the road, and it wasn't long before it was pointing downwards at a pretty acute angle as we headed into the gorge. A narrow and slightly alarming road (especially when meeting oncoming traffic) offered a perfect introduction to the massive gaping depths below, which seemed to drop away into nothingness. Not long after, we made it to the bottom, and after paying my 720yen, I hopped out into a lush green oasis.

Tall, thin trees rose up into the skies; even though we were clearly very deep into a valley, it was still light and airy, and very popular. Suddenly, from the deserted train station I had ended up in tourist central, and the gorge had provided several attractions to accommodate. Immediately in front of me on one side of the road was a couple of large but shallow pools, liberally sprinkled with dark grey koi. These bordered a clearing, on the other side of which were some souvenir shops and a place to get some grub. A huge carved boulder sat in the middle providing a photo opportunity that was constantly being taken. On the other side of the road, a second shop overlooked another pond, which was literally swarming with fish.
Next to the pond, a man in a traditional demon mask pranced about waving a stick in the faces of a couple of dozen tourists, who had all assembled themselves with remarkable organisation on a set of flimsy benches, ready for their group photo. Beyond I could see a couple of people walking to and fro, suggesting some trail off into the gorge. The road itself crossed the river a few dozen feet below and culminated in some other popular attractions, if the number of feet on it were any measure.

I milled around the first area for a while, although the birds squawking in the treetops high above managed to capture more of my attention, so I crossed over the other side. As I would find in several other places, the locals have worked out that people like to feed fish, and there is a good margin to be made selling little pellets of food to get passers by to care for your livestock for you. Consequently, the pond had a handful of honesty boxes placed around it containing bags of feed for 100yen a shot. There was already a large crowd around the pond with bags in their hands, and a tussling, writhing mass of fish flesh animating the waters. I had to have a go myself.
Koi are a little smarter, more canny than your average fish, the finned equivalent of pigeons, and had long since learned that sticking their heads out of the water, mouthing fishy words and making faces at you was more likely to have food thrown their way, and they were ravenous. Already considerably larger than the average, these monsters were showing no signs of being full, even bringing themselves onto the rocks when space in the pond had been squeezed away from them. In among all the grey were the odd white and yellow Koi, and what I think was a catfish or perhaps a small shark, going by the fins. It was able to confidently barge the others aside and get it's share of the feed. There was something hugely enjoyable about getting close enough to them and watching them race over each other to pick up every speck they could.
Pulling myself away for the moment I headed down the gorge trail, and was confronted by two random elderly women, who smiled at me and thrust into my hand a pair of anime-themed tissue packs, for reasons I can only conclude was down to the Japanese generosity towards strangers that I was constantly being exposed to once more.
A two-way path was peppered with sightseers, and after a slightly unpolished start where some builders had got halfway through a reinforcing job, opened out into a spectacular walk. The trees dropped away and instead you could see the huge sides of the worn away rock extending upwards hundreds of feet. The trail continued through a small copse, and ended up a little while later at a trio of bridges and another shop. The trail and the valley both continued onwards for some way beyond, but mindful of the time, I took the opportunity to join the nearby road that headed backwards to the start.

'Onokara Island was the first island to be created by the Cods..' went the sign as I returned, much to my amusement. A passer by looked at me with puzzlement and faint derision. I try to point out the amusing bit but he didn't smile so we both moved on.
The bridge afforded nice views of the Gokase river below. A waterfall streamed out from nowhere into the clear waters, and the spray had the makings of a small rainbow.
Close by, several small rowing boats were being skippered by people with various rowing skills, invariably bumping into each other as they negotiated the allowed perimeter and had to turn around. A handful of ducks, long since become accustomed to the traffic, swam expertly between or just sat at the side watching. It looked like fun.

I was going to hire a boat but a building caught my attention. Not content with a few pools worth of manipulative Koi, the Takachiho tourist board had decided to include a mini freshwater aquarium as well. Unusually, it was about the only place not teaming with people, so I took a look. Through the doors, a poky room was being used as the reception area, but without a soul to receptionize me. I rang the bell and someone came through from the adjoining room - what looked to be some sort of research area out of bounds to the likes of me, and with a slightly surprised face, took my coins and gave me a ticket. She pointed to a small door, the entrance to the aquarium.

On the other side was an experiment in how to mess with someone's sense of scale. A darkened and medium sized, circular room was almost entirely engulfed by a single, enormous cylindrical tank, the lighting from which was the only thing stopping you from stumbling into it. Due to the relative size of the room and the tank, it looked enormous, more so as it left only a small amount of room around it to move around. Inside the tank were several more colourful Koi, a couple of catfish, and several large, plump specimens I can't identify. They swam around with grace and confidence and eyed me with some curiosity, often turning to face me and mouthing a few times in the hope of getting some food.
Next to the main room was a smaller one, filled with a dozen or so smaller tanks, each housing a fish or two of a particular species. A trio of multicoloured newts scrabbled over each other to see what I was doing, and a prehistoric-looking one with a hooked jaw relaxed in the jet stream of his water purifier. Most curious of all though, were the pair of fish in the corner. One, a yellow fish with a upturned lippy mouth that gave him a happy look, followed my finger as I moved it around the tank with the excitement of a new puppy, showing fishy joy at the attention he was getting with a happy swish of his tail. The other one housed in an adjoining tank was a thin, streamlined white fish, the angriest little blighter I have ever seen. Putting my finger against the side resulted in a furious moodswing, and a dash from the other side of the tank to bite it off through the glass. Banging it's head against the side, it was desperate to show me how much I was not wanted, opening its jaws in rage, hoping to taste my blood. It was at the same time scary and hilarious.

I let friendlyfish and psychofish battle it out for my attention for a little while and then left for the boats. Not only had my camera almost run out of juice, it was 3pm and I was still a long way from my final stop of the day. I gave my 1000yen to the ticket attendant at the booth and descended the steep wooden steps with a square of paper and a little blue plastic token. At the bottom was a covered area with several rows of seats. A half dozen groups of prospective sailors sat patiently waiting for the boats to come in so they could have a go. A man who looked like he had been at it all day shouted the numbers out of the next ticketholder who could get in for a row.
My sturdy vessel eventually bumped against the side and I got in. I felt a bit odd because most of the other boaters were in pairs, usually girlfriends and boyfriends having a bit of a giggle, while billy no mates carried on alone. Still, I was here for the views, not the nookie, so I headed out into the open waters.
The current in the river was negligible, but that was not the problem. I had forgotten how many decades had gone by since I found myself in charge of steering a boat. After a bit of flailing, I managed to acquire enough talent to move backwards in a straight line, getting up just enough speed to make it impossible to stop when I needed.

The boating area had a frugal perimeter, meaning you could go 200 yards or so upstream until you were at the waterfall and no further, whereupon you had to turn back. Naturally, this meant that there was a gaggle of boats, each travelling slowly as they negotiated a 3 or 4 point turn in the water, trying not to hit their neighbour with a slimy oar. Clattering my oars into the outlying boats as I tried in vain to back-pedal, I slammed right into the middle of them. It's fair to say some people were not happy, especially those who were now either wet or bruised, or both.

Sinking the oars down into the depths, and suffering from a paranoid case of anatidaephobia, I sheepishly worked my way out of the wreckage and turned back. My camera had died, so I couldn't take a picture of the man at the jetty with his hands on his hips. I don't think he would have smiled for it anyway.

Head low, I got out and left, mumbling apologies in a Boris Johnson style and quickening my pace as I reached the safety of the steps. To calm my nerves, I bought a stick of tofu in spicy sauce from the shop on the corner and headed back. The crowds had dissipated, and the guy in the demon mask was having a little sit down between photoshoots. I briefly considered walking up the road to the top, but the scarily sudden traffic combined with the narrow roads and long drops made me glad that a taxi pulled up and made the decision for me.

540yen later, I got out at Takachiho-jinja, the shrine I had passed on the way to the gorge. Past the car park in the warm afternoon light, the path to the shrine disappeared into the trees. Beautiful, old trees with flaking, smooth bark that rose out of the ground like a massive tent peg and filtered the light high above our heads. As I got further in, the trees became larger, and this is where the ancestors of the Takachiho residents had placed their sacred temple. A small film crew had cordoned off part of the area and were setting up cameras to look into the temple from it's entrance, to do a TV spot or something. I sat down on one of the provided seats in a beautiful, quiet gravelled area and daydreamed for a short while. Just in front of me were a pair of giants of the forest, who had grown up right next to each other from seed, and had been joined together with a decorative rope. The sign said that couples who wandered around the tree were blessed with good fortune and would stay together forever, and a couple were crunching gently round together testing the theory. I was just happy to sit there and take in the calmness of it all, and would have loved to get just a couple of snaps.

I eventually pulled myself out of the place and began the 10 or so minute walk back to the station. I raided a 7-eleven for drinks and a bite to eat, which I ate on the chair outside. At 3.30, I arrived back at the station, an hour to kill before the bus came. Eyeing a power outlet near the door of the station building, I cheekily asked the woman at the desk if I could plug in the charger, fully expecting to be given my marching orders, but she gave a smile and a nod, not even taking the coins I had fished out for the trouble.

During the hour I contemplated rushing back to the temple with a couple of snaps worth of juice in the batteries, but thought better of it. I sat patiently and read my travel books as the little camera glugged at the electricity until the bus came.

The scenery on the bumpy bus ride to Takamori alternated between left and right sides, so my journey, and the journey of my fellow passengers, was perpetuated with me occasionally swapping sides to poke my camera out and snap a valley or scene. In the hour or so's journey, as the bus headed upwards into the mountains and then back down as we passed into the Aso caldera, the sun began to cower behind the distant Takabata mountain range, placing the horizon in beautiful blue silhouette. Before long, the outlying buildings of Takamori began to appear.

Now, I had taken a little bit of a guess when I planned the trip. I assumed that the Takamori bus station would be near the Takamori train station. However, when the bus stopped and the driver motioned to me that it was my stop, there was no such thing in sight, and it was getting quite dark.

Heaving off my bags, I stood looking left and right as most of the other passengers disembarked. Rather than getting clues from a stream of them heading in one direction, they fanned out randomly. I glanced pleadingly up at the driver, who gave me a weary smile. 'Takamori-eki, Doko des' ka?', I managed, to which he pointed down one of the roads, then put the bus in gear.
After travelling slowly down a pleasant but overly-clean main road in the twilight, a building that looked as if it might be owned by the national trust emerged out of the twilight and into the bathing glow of the streetlamps. Only the '' symbol, which I knew to mean station gave it away as anything other than a place to buy yet more souvenirs.

But souvenirs they had. As I entered, a small group of schoolchildren, who perhaps had stayed late and were just making their way home were gathered just inside the entrance. They were milling about impatiently waiting for their train or sat on the floor exchanging trading cards. The room opened up into a central circular area, filled almost completely with closed or closing trinket shops. Only the light from the ticket booth in the corner showed signs of life. An elderly man sat behind the counter and looked up at me with a warm smile.
Not knowing at this time where my connecting JR train would be (it turned out to be Tateno station) I scribbled on his timetable with a nearby pencil about where I wanted to go. With patience that only comes from age and a lot of people flailing their arms about at him, he told me to go stand on the platform and pay on the train, like I would do on the trams or buses. Not fully sure if I had understood him correctly, I paced outside to the platform, a pleasant raised wooden affair with matured and overflowing flower beds on each side. A lone schoolchild tapped messages into his phone as he paced around in a circle. The 5.40 was due in a few minutes.
Because Takamori was the first station, the train was empty, allowing me to choose the one closest to the driver, and thus the ticket machine. Fortunately also for me, the driver was friendly and after allowing me to sort out the payment before we set off instead of hurrying looking for 470yen at my stop, promised to tell me when we arrived at my stop. During the half hour journey the last of the twilight faded and the night drew in, turning the sky from purple, to orange, to black. The lights of the train on the tracks and the distantly activated neon crossing signs were the only things to look at as the train made its way down the single track, cut deep into a valley of overgrown bushes and bramble.

I landed in Tateno sometime after six in the evening. The connecting train was at the platform across from me when I arrived, and hurrying over to the nearest open door, I nearly fell over the largest bike I had ever seen. At least I presumed it was a bike. It was in a large fabric bag, and was bike shaped. Stood next to it, was an incredibly beautiful woman. Slim and tall with shoulder length blonde hair, and noticably not of eastern descent, she smiled a smile that stopped me in my tracks.

'Hi', she said.
After a pause, I said, 'That's a bike...'.
'Yes..', she said.

I hate my brain. It ceases to function at the most important times, and reverts to the intellect of a domesticated rabbit. I made some excuse about needing to sit down, which I did need to do, but I also wanted to hide my shame at sounding such a prat. I excused myself and passed by without trying to get eye contact, and collapsed in a seat purposely some rows from the front. A little while later once the train had set off, the woman came and sat down near the carriage door.

The half hour journey to Aso was largely event-free, aside from me trying to look knowledgeable by asking the passing conductor in my best Japanese whether this was the correct train for Aso. For the rest of it my mind was tussling whether to go over to the mysterious woman and try to stoke up a conversation of sorts, now that the shock of her existence on the planet had soaked in. In the end I chickened out, but fate had other plans in store. As the train slowed for Aso station and I got up to disembark, so did she.

As the woman gathered her things, I asked if she was going to Aso too, and she said she was, but had nowhere to stay for the night. I told her of the Aso hostel I was staying at and she sounded interested. The train stopped and we got off. The large bike-shaped package and a couple of bags were heaved off commendably, and she began taking the bike (which was partially in bits) out of the bag and put it together on the platform, deserted but for the two of us.

Understandably turning down the offer of help with her bike from a complete stranger who talked like a stupidy-stupid-head at her, she said she would meet me at the hostel. At least my brain kicked in enough for us to swap names. Hers was Elizabeth. Mine at that moment, was Smitten. I showed her my map of the area, and using my watch compass, pointed her in the approximate direction.
Aso was in darkness now, but according to the map the hostel was only 5 minutes over the road. Its' strangely luminous sign was hard to miss, set back on a quiet road, with Mt Aso in the distance looming out from the moonlight. I prayed that there would be vacancies tonight, as I really wanted to see Elizabeth again, but it was time to sort myself out. I crunched over the gravel path and through the door. The purposely-designed building, only a few years old, was a vision in concrete and wood panelling, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. It was super-clean like they had just opened the doors yesterday, and had a smattering of people walking around in the large downstairs communal area.

Yoshi, the owner came out from the closed reception desk and said hello. I showed him my paperwork and he gave me a tour of the place. Set over two floors there are several individual rooms for families or groups, plus some generously sized beds in groups of four for those on a tighter budget, like myself. I put my things up onto the bed and then went back downstairs to consider the washing machine facilities (300yen for a wash and dry combo). The communal area consisted of the washers in the corner, a large bookshelf full of manga and donated books from all over the world, and a kitchen/dining room area where several people were seeing to snacks and drinks, many of them looked to be from my half of the world. I introduced myself to Dave and his partner Susan, who had come over from York and were passing through on the way to Beppu, Luke who hailed from Shropshire but was on holiday from his job in Tokyo, and Julien from france, who had just come back from a days' gruelling trip up the mountain and was heading to a nearby onsen to recover. A rather jolly Japanese guy with a loud voice sat in the corner singing to himself and all who would listen, while a middle aged man named Toshio sat quietly with a motorbike helmet on his lap, regarding everyone. It was all very welcoming and pleasant, though slightly odd as suddenly out of nowhere, everyone was speaking English.

Elizabeth had made it and was arranging a bed for the night. I said hello before heading back upstairs. I got myself a shower and changed, and then went back downstairs to throw my well-worn clothes into the washer. Elizabeth had disappeared for the moment so I scanned the shelves and read the first chapter of Hokkaido Highway Blues, a book recommended to me several times, which I need to get around to, since the author was doing something much like me.

By the time I had returned from the local 7-eleven with whatever I could find that was edible, Elizabeth was sat in the dining area sipping green tea. We sat and chatted for a while, my nervousness drifting away when I realised that not only was she gorgeous, but also very easy to talk to as well. Elizabeth was from Amsterdam on a cycling trip across Japan, camping out in the wilderness by night, no mean feat in itself and putting what I considered to be a pretty epic journey of my own into the shade. After a huge kerfuffle with the train staff trying to persuade them to allow her bike on board, plus a knee that was giving out, she found herself having to abandon the hilly parts around Aso and let the train take the strain. To my immense good fortune I had bumped into her just as she was running out of ideas where to stay, and on seeing the postcards and flyers of the Aso caldera, which she was now flipping through, had decided to stay a day or so to visit them.

I held my breath. Was this fate? Did God exist after all? Probably not, but I was willing to chance my arm. Mentioning my intention of going up to the mountain myself the next day, I asked if she would like to hook up and go together, to which she agreed. She accepted a spare lukewarm spring roll and we tried to decipher the bus routes and approximate distance from the maps on the wall and the diagrams on the flyers as my clothes spun-dried, and then we parted company for the night. I climbed into my bunk and sorted out my washing, and chatted a while to Luke, who had the bunk below.

It's fair to say I could hardly sleep that night.

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