Riverbeds, tabletop mountains, volcano rim touring—I had heard the rumors about the incredible mountain biking down in Kyushu. The really good trails, however, are often zealously guarded. The only way to find out is to ask the locals… luckily for us they were willing to share their secrets.
I immediately hopped on a plane from Tokyo and, within a mere hour and 45 minutes, I found myself standing outside Fukuoka Airport waiting for my ride to arrive. My Kyushu guides for the first half of the trip were two brothers, Tachi and Michi, renowned on the local mountain biking scene for not only their acrobatic biking skills but also their apparently superior ability to have a good time. What biking adventures did they have in store for me? Would I be able to keep up? Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by a beat-up Westfalia camper van that came screeching up to the curve. The door swung open, and a Japanese fellow donning an Australian outback hat and an old pair of flip-flops hopped out. I just about expected him to say “Good’aye,” but this was Tachi, the elder of the “crazy” mountain biking brothers. In the van, trance music blasted through the speakers as we sped down the highway.
“Are you ready for a good trip?” grinned Tachi.
“We’re going to Nametoko. We might get a bit wet since we’ll be in the river jumping off a water fall.” He seemed amused with what I believed to be a very reasonable question: “With our bikes?”
Nametoko: The River Ride
Nametoko is a river in Oita Prefecture, just two hours east of Fukuoka. The word “Nametoko” literally means “slippery floor,” for the smooth, flat granite riverbed created from volcanic lava flows thousands of years ago. In the old days, local villagers used these shallow rivers cutting through the canyons as roads. Today, the river is frequented by thrill-seeking mountain bikers looking for interesting “terrain.” We strapped on our helmets and shin protectors and entered the river. The water was shallow and the bottom was flat with a few potholes here and there. The sound of the flowing river and the lush green forest canopy surrounding the canyon were refreshing, and the novelty of actually riding down a river was exciting. Despite a few slippery mishaps along the way, I seemed to get the hang of things—until we reached the waterfalls.
Although the “drop-offs” weren’t necessarily huge, the fact there is no solid landing at the bottom of the drop can be mentally intimidating.
“Go for it!” laughed Michi, the younger brother who, at 6’3’’ (190 cm.) stood almost a foot taller than his older brother. Coming all the way from Tokyo, intimidating or not, I was going to give it a go.
“OK. Five, four, three, two…wait, wait.” I have to admit I’m a big wuss when it comes to ledges and drops. After a few false starts, I finally managed to conjure up enough courage. I valiantly pedaled forward but, as my tires neared the edge, fear took over. Arms locked, body stiff and unable to manage even a small front wheelie, I ungracefully plunged face first into the water avec bicycle. As my body and bike floated back to the surface, I could hear the hysterical laughter of my so-called new friends. Despite a few pointers from Tachi, my feeble attempts resulted in a few more face plants. Finally, Michi demonstrated his infamous “front flip bike dive” for me. “Woohoo!” Michi jumped off the waterfall, did a forward flip in the air while on his bike and plunged into the water, leaving a small tidal wave in his wake. I watched in awe and realized just why these brothers were called “crazy.”
Flander’s Field: The Tabletop
The next ride on the agenda was on a completely different type of terrain known as “table mountains.” Distinctive to Kyushu, these flat-topped mountains were created by ancient volcanic eruptions and have very steep sides. It looks as if someone lopped off the top half of the mountain with a samurai sword and left the bottom half behind.
Although there are several of these types of mountains in the area, including the popular Haneyama, our goal for the day was one of the smaller table mountains located near the town of Kusumachi in Oita Prefecture.
The starting point was at the bottom of a very non-Japanese sounding cattle ranch called “Flander’s Farm.” We pushed and carried our bikes up along the dirt foot path, stopping occasionally to catch our breath and to assess how far up we’ve climbed by looking at the shrinking size of the bovines grazing in the pastures below.
The top of the mountain is a wide, grassy plateau where you can ride along the trails or, if you prefer, freely choose whatever path you like. Perhaps it’s this feeling of total freedom or perhaps it’s the peacefulness of the idyllic countryside vistas spread out below. Whichever the case, there’s nothing more amazing then riding around the expansive top of a table mountain.
The final treat on the way back was the fast and exhilarating descent back down to the pastures. “There’s only one thing you need to watch out for when you reach the bottom,” mentioned Michi, albeit just a bit too late. “Try not to ride over the cow dung land mines.”
Mt. Aso: Volcano Rim Touring & Hot Springs
For the latter half of our Kyushu mountain bike trip, we were joined by Tetsu, a dark-skinned, Bohemian-looking guy with long hair and a mustache to match. He, too, is a local that knows the area like the back of his hand and, while Tachi and Michi are “impromptu” weekend guides, Tetsu is one the only full-time pro MTB guides in northern Kyushu. After the numerous face plants and “land mines,” I was ready for something a bit more mellow, so Tetsu suggested that we head to Kumamoto Prefecture for some back road touring.
Kyushu’s countryside is picturesque and peaceful. The area is also home to Mt. Aso, the famous active volcano located in the center of Kyushu. Its caldera ranks among one of the world’s largest, with a diameter of almost 25 km. and a circumference of more than 100 km. The panoramic views to which you’re treated as you ride along the rim of the crater are absolutely jaw-dropping. Beautiful cliffs lead down to the valley and the rice paddies checkering the valley floor. The scenery on this ride is simply stunning and unforgettable.
Finally, a bike trip in Kyushu wouldn’t be complete without visiting one of the well-known hot springs. Kurokawa Onsen is a famous hot spring area where you can purchase a “hot spring passport,” throw on a Japanese style yukata (light kimono) and stroll around the small village while sampling the various baths.
The local boys, however, seemed to prefer another option. We headed to a tiny village tucked away at the foot of the Waita Mountains. As we entered the rustic village, we saw steam rising everywhere. Pipes attached to houses, cracks between the concrete, roads and even the grass fields blew steam. The hot springs are apparently so abundant in this area that each home not only has its own hot spring bath, but also uses the steam to heat the houses as well. Steamy Takenoyu Onsen here was an appropriate way to end a memorable volcano rim ride.
Spinning at Kenji-ya
My final Kyushu cycling experience was not on dirt trails, in rivers or across mountains, but rather on a stationary “spinning bike” in a local Japanese pub called Kenji-ya. Located in the center of Fukuoka, this “New York style” pub is a popular hangout for local mountain bikers. Kenji, the owner, is a colorful character full of energy and charm and, on top of being a chef extraordinaire, he’s also a national arm-wrestling champion, hardcore mountain biker, and an avid “spinner.” Several times a year, he hosts a “Spinning Event” at his pub where they clear away all the tables and chairs and roll in 10 “spinning” bicycles for a four-hour spinning extravaganza.
Tachi, whose “real job” is a spinning instructor, leads the high-energy event by cranking up the volume and the pace. Deep bass beats and high-speed techno music fills the room, pushing the riders to go faster and faster.
“Come on, let’s go!” shouts Tachi, beads of sweat dripping down his face. The music, the speed and, most of all, the participants themselves are intense as they get into the rhythm and pedal like maniacs on this crazy Kyushu pub ride. Finally Kenji, the most enthusiastic of the bunch, breaks away (in his own mind) and starts hootin’ and hollerin’. “Bookie,” a usually shy and quiet girl, lets out a whoop and “chases” after him. This magic ride has the power to transform people, and this is why the Kenji-ya spinning events have become so wildly popular.
So now I know, first hand, why so many people have been raving about the mountain biking in Kyushu. The place is full of interesting and exciting riding, whether it be through rivers, mountains, volcanoes…or in a city pub. The people are down-to-earth, intense but extremely fun-loving and—fortunately for the rest of us—willing to share their secrets so we too can see what it truly means to have one helluva good time in Kyushu.
Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu and is just an hour-and-45-minute plane ride from Tokyo or about a six-hour ride by bullet train. JAL, ANA and Skymark all have direct flights to Fukuoka from Haneda Airport.
An Insider’s Guide to Kyushu
Go where the locals eat, ride & play
Southern Works ・サザンワークス
Tetsu Matsumoto is the owner of one of the few MTB & kayak guide companies in northern Kyushu that can arrange river rides, table mountain rides and volcano rim and hot spring touring. High quality rental mountain bikes are available.
This well-known bike shop serves the local mountain biking crowd. Masa, the owner of the shop, is also a mechanic for Team Trek’s MTB team and will make sure that your bike is ready for some good riding in Kyushu. Upstairs there’s also a bike courier service run by Masa’s wife who is the dispatcher. Serving the Fukuoka-Hakata areas, the courier boys and girls not only deliver documents but also “Canezees Donuts” from Kenji-ya.
Food & Drinks:
This popular pub and hangout for local riders is a must while in Fukuoka. The maple syrup French toast is outstanding, and you won’t want to miss the donuts from Kenji’s new donut company ”Canezees Doughnuts.”
“Pyonkichi” Yatai ・屋台「ぴょん吉」
Fukuoka is famous for its open-air food stalls called yatai. There are about180 of these across the city each night, but the yatai popular with the MTB crowd is called “Pyonkichi,” located between Hakata train station and Canal City. Pyonkichi is run by Mino-san, a MTB-loving cook wearing a bike mechanic’s apron as he serves a variety of delicious food. Open Mon. – Sat., 7 p.m. – 2:30 a.m. (closed Sundays and holidays).
While touring around Mt. Aso and the Kumamoto countryside, treat yourself at this tiny Kyushu pizzeria located in a small house, near the town of Oguni-cho (小国町). The menu is also tiny, with only four items: a margarita pizza, sausage pizza, ham-and-salad pizza and an apple dessert pizza. Each pizza is cooked in a homemade wood-burning oven, and is mouth-wateringly delicious. The hours are limited, so you may want to call ahead of time.
Open Sat., Sun. & Holidays from noon – 3 p.m.
Kurokawa Onsen ・黒川温泉
Famous hot springs destination in Kumamoto.
Yukemuri Chaya ・ゆけむり茶屋
A hot springs located in a small, steaming village near the foot of the Waita Mountains.