Travel: Islands - Footloose and fancy free-wheeling

Today marks the start of National Cycling Week. For her latest book, Josie Dew pedalled nearly 3,000 miles around Japan
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The Independent Culture
A grandmother wearing a Walkman and a girl in a "We Love Sunny Day" T-shirt were my immediate neighbours in the "Lady's Room" - a long rectangular compartment which held at least 30 other women. This cheapest of accommodations contained no bunks or sheets or chairs but consisted merely of a raised expanse of carpeted floor (strictly no shoes) upon which lay rows of orange-brown blankets and plastic brown block-pillows shaped like bricks.

The windows were sealed and the air was conditioned. A television gabbled away inanely from a corner of the ceiling. It didn't look like a recipe for a good night's slumber so, using the "Lady's Room" as base camp, I extracted my ground sheet, Karrimat and sleeping bag and laid myself to rest in a leeward nook on deck beneath the stars. The next thing I knew it was early morning and I was being rudely jolted from my dreams by a head-splitting rendition of `I could have danced all night' blaring forth from the onboard PA system. This was followed by a kinder-on-the-ear-drums but totally out-of-place recording of the dawn chorus trilling and tweeting away. I half expected a blackbird's dropping to splat on me at any moment. This was the Marix Line's method of saying, `Wakey-wakey, land is nigh!'

The land in question was the 40-mile-long volcanic island of Amami-Oshima. As the first spokes of an early morning sun lit up a splintered pink sky, I scooted off the ship's ramp, weaving around a buzzing army of cargo wielding forklifts, and entered the island's principal city of Naze. All was shut and all was quiet. I had the streets to myself. Had this been mainland Japan, the city would have been a cacophonic blur of activity even at this sun-rising hour. I felt as if I'd left frenetic Japan behind and entered a laid-back land. Palm trees rustled above my head and the warm air smelt exotically tropical.

When it comes to islands and countries where people drive on the left, unless I have a very good reason not to do so, I will always cycle clockwise around their shores for no other reason than that it means I'm riding right on the sea-side. To miss out on cycling inches away from precipitous cliffside drops that plummet into a raging and foaming ocean just because you're tucked to the inside of the road across two lanes of asphalt is not my idea of fun. In my view, if you're on the sea, you might as well be on top of it.

I rode along the wharf, past a petrol station offering Car Foot Surgery - presumably for calloused and bunioned tyres. I turned off on to an empty road that looped its way over the mountains. Despite being only 7am, it was so hot and so humid that I felt dead. The severe gradient didn't help matters either: hauling my bike was like trying to drag a tank up the mountainside.

But, as we all know, mountains have their upsides as well as their downsides and for most cyclists, the downside is the going up; the upside the going down. The upside of the mountain to Ata was the truly thrilling down that spiralled to a small fishing village full of bright blue tin-topped houses. With brilliant cobalt seas, coral reefs, palms, and crops of sago, papaya, bananas and sugar cane, it was easy to see why this subtropical archipelago was one of several self-styled Japanese Hawaiis. The place felt and smelt as if it belonged more to the easy going ways of Polynesia rather than the robotic arm of Japan.

Just after passing a small rural factory that smelt of molasses, I came across a brand new tunnel, boring its elaborate way through the mountainside. Now, tunnels come neither cheap nor easy to make. The obvious expense and effort put into the construction of this one would perhaps have been understandable had the road been a frenzied two-laned highway. Instead, it was a sleepy backwater - a single-track lane where the only traffic I'd seen in two hours was an old man bumping along at about 10 miles per hour on a time-worn tractor, another old man on a back-firing moped with a front basket full of fish, and an obaasan wearing on her back a basket loaded with brittle shrubbery and pushing a wheelbarrow piled with what looked like desiccated pineapple stalks. The narrow road hugging the rocky coast around the mountain was more than adequate to handle this scanty supply of road-users, so just what was the tunnel for? Maybe the locals just want to peer through from one side of the mountain to the other - which I suppose is as good a reason as any.

I was enjoying a peaceful pedal beside the shore, the only sounds being the gentle wash of the waves and the rustling of the palm fronds, when four boys on 50cc mopeds, with engines sounding like cans of nails, shattered the dreamy scene by haring up and down the road, zigzagging back and forth and shrieking insanely at the tops of their voices. I smiled meekly, thinking: if I lived on a small sleepy island on the edge of the world I too would burn rubber at the sight of a bicycle-riding foreign barbarian.

That night a sago farmer let me camp beside his taka kura (a traditional Amami thatched-roof wooden store-house set on stilts to keep rodents and vermin from eating the harvested grain). The farmer said I was more than welcome to sleep inside the taka kura.

"Look," he said, sliding open the heavy wooden door and flicking a switch, "there is denki (light) and also no danger from habu."

"Habu?" I asked. "What on earth are habu?"

"Abunai! Abunai! (Danger! Danger!") he replied, rather dramatically. "Habu are dangerous poisonous snakes!" And sweeping his arms in an elaborate arc to illustrate his point he added, "Take care, habu are everywhere!"

Had I known then what I know now about habu I would not only have jumped at the chance of sleeping in the snake-free storehouse but most likely have hot-footed it to the port for the first boat out. I later gleaned some local information about habu which told me that, if I was bitten, I would have between one to four hours (depending on the location of the bite) before death became a possibility. Bad places to be bitten would be above the jugular and elsewhere above the waist - or anywhere if jogging or cycling, as a fast-beating heart would spread the venom more rapidly. But knowing little of the horrors of the habu at the time, I politely refused Farmer Sago's generous offer of sleeping in a snake-free zone and merrily pitched my tent in the sandy dust across the path from the taka kura store-house. However, I did take the half-hearted precaution of performing a rapid 10-second war dance, stamping heavily on the ground in the hope that the vibrations would be sufficient to scare any deaf, vibration-sensitive snakes well away from my sleeping body.

I then went to sleep with my outer tent door open as usual and peered up at the wonder of a clear, star-spangled subtropical sky. Soon the glory of a gibbous moon slid into view, working its way slowly through the gently whispering fronds of a palm until it hung suspended above my head.

This extract is from `A Ride in the Neon Sun', published by Little, Brown, price pounds 18.99. Josie Dew is speaking at a National Cycling Week event in Millennium Hall, Liphook, Hants, on Tuesday 15 June, at 7.30pm; call 01730 269 274. She is also speaking at the Ways With Words Literature Festival at Dartington Hall in Devon on 12 July; 01803 867 311 for more details

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