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Mon Mar 27 2017: Motorcycle Pilgrimage To Kumano

Today marks the first day of our freedom.

Freedom from the Soul-Sucking, Yen-Gobbling ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) Expressways. I hope we don't have to take another boring, scenery-less toll road for quite a while! It emptied our wallets at such an alarming rate!

Very excited to explore the Mie Prefecture!

The Mie Prefecture is located on the eastern coast of the Kii Peninsula. It's a nature preserve of sorts, with a heavily forested interior, the Nunobiki Mountains running through its backbone, and over a thousand kilometers of squiggly coastline packed inside its 200km length. In contrast to the dense urban centers, only 6% of the Mie Prefecture land is populated. Perfect for motorcycling!

Passing through one of the few villages nestled in the mountains of the Mie Prefecture

We stop in front of a house to consult the map, and suddenly a couple of yappy dogs
come to the window to greet us with some very enthusiastic barking! Oh hush, puppies!

Getting ready to make a pass on the windy mountain roads

Road 42 is a great north-south route that takes you up into the mountains and then back down to the coast along the east side of the peninsula. At the seaside town of Owase, we decide to be a bit adventurous and explore a very tight and squiggly road that we saw on the map.

Road 425 from Owase starts out great, the narrow pavement is smooth and cuts through some dense forested areas

It's obvious this backroad is not used very often because the road quickly devolves into a rough, pot-holed mess and our average speed drops to 40 km/h as we try to dodge all the debris on the ground. To make matters worse, the thick foliage overhead hasn't allowed the rainwater to dry so the roads are still wet. In some areas, the turns in the road become so tight it's like maneuvering through a gymkana course!

This is not so enjoyable. Our sportybikes like to go fast and they're much more suited to smooth pavement.

At one point, the road runs straight into the side of a small mountain. Thankfully there was a rough-hewn tunnel to take us through. We pass by some construction machinery abandoned half-way through the tunnel. Not even sure a car could have squeezed by...

Road 425 opens up again and follows a shallow river to Shimokitayama. You can see Neda waiting for me in the far right

Along the road, we see signs for Shimokitayama Onsen (hot springs resort). These seem to be a big thing in Japan. We *must* try one of these onsens while we're here. But right now, the thought is to abandon this too-narrow road and head back down to the main road. At Shimokitayama, we take 169 which spits us back out to the coast in Kumano, one of the larger cities in the Mie Prefecture.

*whew!* We don't really have a set route through Japan, we're just winging it by looking at interesting lines on the map. But this was a good lesson in what kinds of roads to look for...

Our slow and plodding ride has eaten up much of morning, and speaking of eating, we're getting hungry!

One of the first buildings we see as we ride into Kumano looks like a restaurant

We walk inside and discover that it's a sushi restaurant! Our favorite food!!!
If you think those stacks of dishes were high, you should have seen my pile.

To our relief, this place wasn't automated at all. It didn't even have one of those snaking conveyor belts that you grab plates off of. You ordered directly from the sushi chef, and then you watched him prepare it in front of you.

Now, we don't know much Japanese, but when it comes to sushi, we know *ALL* the names of the various seafood. We were totally in our element here, requesting our favorite dishes with confidence: "Saba sashimi! Toro! Ebi nigiri! Maguro! Ikura maki!" To the untrained ear, it sounded like we were native Nipponese. Every time we ordered a dish, our sushi chef laughed in delight at these gaijin speaking fluent sushi.

The fish was so fresh! It tasted just as good as the highly-rated, fancy-pants sushi place we went to in Tokyo. Towards the end, we were just ordering dishes not because were hungry anymore, but because we were so happy speaking Japanese!

I looked at the bill. To my surprise, it was half of what we paid for in Tokyo, and we had ordered so much more as well. Wow, this place was great! We were all smiles and waves as we left and we thanked our chef on the way out: "Arigatogozaimas!"

Just outside of Kumano, we find a stretch of rock along the coast called Onigajo

There's a promenade that's roughly carved into this rocky coast. It lets you walk about a kilometer into this peninsula, made of soft volcanic rock that's been pitted and scarred over the millenia by waves and winds. Legend has it that demons (oni) live in this spooky-looking rock.

Onigajo means Demon's Castle. Very apt!

Sitting on some demon rock, looking out into the Pacific Ocean

"It's fun to stay at the Y. M.... K... um... X..." They must sing it differently in Croatia...

Love the way the mountains of the Mie Prefecture are layered, one in front of the other, in the distance

Legend has it that the demons that live in these rocks sport horns that grow out of their noses... So silly, Neda!

I'm getting good at deciphering Japanese. This sign reads, "Do not sit on the rocks"

The spring daylight hours are still very short and our whole timeline is a bit shot because of our slow morning ride. There are a few things we want to see in the area before we head to our AirBnB but it looks like we might not have enough time before nightfall.

From Kumano, we hop back on our bikes and rush back inland. 15 minutes later, we come upon a scene that could have been set in ancient Japan.

These are the Maruyuma Senmaida, a collection of hundreds of rice paddies decorating the hillside

So beautiful! Especially with the sun setting in the background. We are here at the absolute right time!

Speaking of the sun, these terraces are actually angled in such a way to catch as much sunlight as possible during the day. With over 1,340 rice paddies, Maruyama is one of the largest Senmaida (rice terraces) in Japan.

The setting sun glints off the rice paddies at Maruyama. And yes, that's a Japanese scarecrow in the bottom-left

We are here before the planting season, which begins in Mid-May, so the terraces sit empty, reflecting the sun during the day

Maruyama is a very old senmaida, dating back to the 1600s. It fell into disrepair in the 1950s, but the government has since subsidized the farmers in the area to rehabilitate the senmaida for historical and touristic purposes. Every May, the farmers get dressed up in traditional clothes from the era and perform dances and ceremonies to ensure a bumper crop. That would be so cool to see!

We would have loved to stay and watch the sun set behind the senmaida, but there are still things we want to see before the day is over, and now we're feeling very rushed!

It's another 30 minute ride further into the interior, racing against the setting sun, and we arrive at Kumano Hongu Taisha, a traditional Shinto temple.

But first, 158 steps to get to the temple. But we're in a rush! Hey, cool flags! Okay, let's go!

In addition to the flags, we also see little wooden cards affixed to the railings on the way up. These are called ema. People write their wishes on them and then the cards are burnt by monks.

Me: "Let's see the temple!" Neda: "Wait! Before you go in, you need to cleanse yourself!"

Neda's done all the research into this Shinto temple thing. We stop at a little hut called a Temizuya. We have to perform a cleansing ritual to purify the body before we can enter the temple. First you take the hishaku (dipper) and wash your left hand, then your right hand, and then take a sip to wash out your mouth, then you wash the dipper itself.

The sun is slowly disappearing behind the mountains. Despite nobody else being around, we still try to be respectful of the Shinto traditions. Also, it's pretty cool doing what the locals do.

It could be worse. This cleansing ritual is actually a shortened version of Misogi, which requires devotees to cleanse their entire body before entering the temple!

We finally make our way to the shaden, or the main Shinto shrine

The Hongu shrine is one of three Kumano shrines. This temple is the head shrine for over 3,000 other shrines in Japan! Pilgrims make the trek, called the Kumano Kodo, between all three shrines, which are scattered all around the Kii Peninsula.

The yellow lights from lanterns above cast a nice glow on these beautiful wooden temples in the evening

The shrine is host to many ceremonies and festivals throughout the year

The spring festival is associated with the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage and ensures a good rice harvest. There's another festival in late summer called the Fire Festival, where huge 100lb pine torches are carried up the steps to the shrine. Wow! We have to go to one of these festivals, they sound hardcore!

Nope, still no cherry blossoms. These are plum trees growing outside the temple. Going to have to travel further south, I think

It's already dark when we leave the temple. The GPS informs us that we are only 30 minutes away from our AirBnB which is in the town of Nachikatsuura, back on the coast. Without the sun warming us, the cold night air permeates through all of our layers on our ride back via pitch-black roads towards the Pacific Ocean. We shiver uncontrollably as there's no windscreen on our naked bikes to hide behind. :(

There are no street lights on these mountain roads, but instead, reflective discs are set on both sides of the road and median in regular intervals, which reveal the upcoming twists and turns. They are spaced so evenly that it's like playing an old driving video game from the 70s - you see nothing in the darkness but white dots rushing towards you. All you have to do to win the game is stay in the middle of the reflectors, dodge Godzilla, rescue the princess... pew pew pew... Oh wait, no guns in this game.

Reminded me of an old Atari game I used to play called "Night Driver"

As fun as playing video games on the motorcycle is, I don't want to be riding at night again. Not because it's dangerous, but because it's FREEEEZING! We go even slower than the GPS expects us to and it actually takes us over an hour to arrive at our destination because we can't find the AirBnB in the dark! We call the phone number when we get there and a Japanese lady drives up within a few minutes to let us in. This is surprising as most Japanese hosts prefer to deal with their gaijin guests through self-check-in.

Riko is our host. She's friendly and her English is very good. She actually works as an interpreter which explains why she is so comfortable with us. She's very interested in us and our motorcycles and asks us a lot of questions as we unpack and bring all our bags inside.

Riko had a map of the world pasted onto the wall and she asked us to show her where we came from

Our AirBnB has a tatami room! Not fancy or anything, just everyday Japanese living!
After our freezing ride, Neda is very much enjoying the kotatsu (electrically-heated table) and a hot cup of matcha tea!

What an action-packed day! Old 70s video games, demon rocks, temples and rice terraces! And more sushi and kotatsu tables! So very cool! We are loving riding around Japan, especially now that we're away from the crowded cities!

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