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Sat Apr 08 2017: Photobombing Samurais

We are taking another rest day. Two in fact.

The pace over the last couple of weeks since we left Tokyo has been relentless. We're just not used to this constant movement, especially in our fatigued state. But because we're on rental bikes, we keep pushing ourselves to make the most of it. Although we're enjoying Japan immensely, there's a lot of pressure to press forward and that's not very fun.

I wished we owned these bikes right out instead of renting them. That way we wouldn't feel so rushed.

Our guest house in Aso

Thankfully, when we awake this morning, it's pouring rain. Yes, you heard right. We're actually thankful it's raining! Because now this justifies our decision to stay put for a little bit. During our stay, we meet other tourists who check in and out of the guest house. Many of them are hikers, who are planning to climb nearby Mount Aso.

Rainy days means I get to stay in and work on the blog

Since we've been on the move, there's been no time to edit pictures and write. So now I take the opportunity to type up some entries. Sometimes I get a bit discouraged that the blog is so far behind. Oh well, it'll get done when it gets done.

It's cold up here in the mountains! I sit myself beside a space heater, crank it up and start to type.

Taking a break to go out and grab some lunch. Neda takes some pix of the flowers around our neighbourhood

This is where we're staying for the next couple of days. Nice view of the mountains in the background

We found a great restaurant just around the corner, funky decorations hang from the ceiling

My little feast in front of me. Neda tries some "yama-imo" or mountain potato

Yama-imo is finely grated raw yam. It becomes very gooey and then you can serve it over salad, soup or noodles, since it doesn't have a very strong taste. The Japanese love it because of it's slimy texture. Just like natto!

In fact, there's a name for the Japanese love of slimey food. It's called: "Neba Neba". Other examples of neba neba are raw egg yolks served over rice or in a soup, slimy seaweed, okra, gelatinous mushroom caps. If you want to eat like a Japanese person, you have to embrace neba neba!

Also, I've also noticed that the Japanese like to compartmentalize their food. They don't like different flavours touching each other, so they must each be served in individual plates or bowls. I'd hate to be a dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant!

Another day, we venture further out to find somewhere else to eat. Still so cloudy outside, you can't even see the mountains around us.

Our host at the guest house tells us that there is a market in town where we could get some food. Over the last couple of days, we've gotten to know her a little bit. Every day during lunch, she walks into town to take an onsen break, soaking in the hot mineral waters and then she returns back in the afternoon to check in guests.

The little market in town, right beside the onsen. The triangle-shaped rice balls are called Onigiri and are very popular in Japan

It was good to take a small break from riding and touring. When we finally do check out of the guest house, it's still a little damp outside and the air is cold. Perhaps not the best weather to ride up Mount Aso, but this is the only opportunity to do it. We can't wait around forever waiting for sunshine.

Neda wants to bypass Mount Aso, since we can't even see the top because of the thick cloud cover. I've got a case of FOMO, so I try to convince her, "It's kind of on the way, just a small detour. Maybe the weather will clear up when we get there..."

We negotiate the long, windy road up the mountain. The summit is less than 30 minutes drive, but as we climb higher, the haze in the air turns to fog. It gets thicker and large water droplets form on our visors. Cold too!!!

At the summit, there's a little parking lot and a lookout. Unfortunately, not much to see... :(

This is a bit disappointing. There's supposed to be amazing views into the caldera of Mount Aso, but alas, it was not meant to be.

Neda gives me the "I told you so" look.

I hate that look.

We descend the mountain and head further west, back towards Kumamoto.

Some kind of roadblock on our route. The sign is in Japanese and we don't know if the road is closed or not. There are hours listed...

Neda pulls out her Google Translate app and aims the camera at the kanji characters, hoping for a good translation. All that comes out is gibberish.

There's a long-ass detour that by-passes this road but it adds quite a bit of time and I'd hate to do that if it's not absolutely necessary. I wish I could read Japanese. What do those hours mean? I postulate that maybe the road becomes a single-lane and the hours dictate which direction you can travel in.

Since we're on motorcycles, we can perhaps slip past oncoming traffic if we get the direction wrong. Feign ignorance if the police stop us...

So we decide to ride past the road block and try our luck.

15 kms later, we run into construction. The entire road is closed and that same sign we saw earlier is posted here as well. There's a ski resort and a hotel where we've stopped, so we ask someone if the road will open. They tell us that the hours in red are closures and the hours in blue are when it's open. *DUH* Of course... We just missed the lunch-time window for crossing and it would be several more hours until the road re-opened again.

DAMMIT! If only Google Translate worked properly!

We double back and take the detour.

Ran into a bunch of motorcyclists out for a group ride in the mountain roads. We join their gang for a little bit until they turn off towards Mount Aso.

The detour wasn't that bad, nice and scenic with a few entertaining curves to keep our sporty-bikes happy.

A few kms after the detour re-joins the main road, we approach a larger town called Kikuchi. Cherry blossoms greet our arrival.

The main road takes us past a very pretty park, and it's full of cherry blossom trees. We have to stop here!

More hanami scenes

When Neda first told me about this "Cherry Blossom Festival" held in Japan, we thought that it was held at a specific time and place. It was only when we arrived here we found out this "festival" was held all over the country as the blooming season moved from south to north. The festival is wherever you can find a cherry blossom tree!

Cherry blossoms are called "Sakura" in Japanese, and sakura season is a huge deal here, despite being so short. It takes one week for the flowers to reach full bloom, and a week later, the petals are already falling off. Our plan is to catch the beginning of the sakura in the south and basically travel with the blooming season as it moves upwards, so we're surrounded by cherry blossoms for much longer than a couple of weeks!

There are ads and signs everywhere celebrating sakura. In every grocery and convenience store, it looks like someone popped a gigantic bubble gum balloon inside and got pink colouring on all the shelves and merchandise. Almost every product in the stores during sakura season is clad in pale pink packaging!

Pink Sakura Pocky sticks! Even the non-Japanese brands get into Sakura season! You go, Makudonarudo!

The origins of the Cherry Blossom tree are quite contentious. Most people agree that they originally came from South Korea. But lately, China has also laid claim to the birth place of cherry blossoms. But the reality is that it was the Japanese that cultivated this historically unloved tree which bore a sour fruit eaten only by birds. This tree which flowered for only two weeks out of the year was ignored by every other country but Japan, which celebrated its ephemeral nature and made its appreciation part of the fabric of Japanese life.

A family enjoying a picnic under a sakura tree. This is Japan in a nutshell.

While cherry blossoms have gained popularity around the world in the latter 20th century, particularly after WWII, the Japanese have been planting sakura trees all over the country since the 7th century.

The recent rains have left a little present upon the sakura petals

Neda is having a hanami moment

I am day-dreaming of all the gyozas I am going to eat tonight

Leaving Kikuchi Park. This motorcyclist approaching us was getting his lean on! Nice!

You know the weather is getting warmer when you see so many bikes out. We ride to the town of Nagasu at the edge of Ariake Bay. We can catch a ferry here that will bypass the urban centres on the northern shores and take us across the bay towards Nagasaki Prefecture.

We line up for the ferry with more bikes! Here's a hotted up Honda CRF, just like the 250s we had in Thailand.
Dual exhaust, Showa forks... maybe not *exactly* like our 250s in Thailand...

These ferries are a real godsend. We'd be stuck in so much traffic if we weren't able to cross the waters. Just a scant 45 minutes later, we're in the port town of Taira in Nagasaki prefecture.

All of the bikers deep in the hold of the ferry, checking out each others ride and waiting for the ramp to come down to let us off

We haven't had lunch yet and we're starving. On all the Japan Facebook groups I'm on, I've read some good things about Mos Burger, which is Japan's largest burger chain. Of course there's one waiting for us in Taira.

Neda is not a burger fan, but I manage to convince her to try it out. Verdict: Thumbs down. You don't go to Japan for burgers.

Give me neba neba anyday over Japanese burgers.

Shimabara is less than 10 kms away and we stop once again to check out some Samurai Houses!

There's a pedestrian street in Shimabara lined with traditional Samurai dwellings from the Edo Period (1600s-1800s)

Some of the houses are open to the public as museums. Here are some pictures of Neda photobombing the nice Samurai families who live there:

The warrior class was considered the elite of Japanese society, so their houses were better quality than the rest of the population

These houses are decorated not very differently from the tatami rooms where we've been staying: rice paper sliding doors, tatami mats on the floors, and dark exposed wood beams overhead.

These houses focused less on the military aspects of the Samurai and more on how they lived at home.
So no bushido masks, lacquered armor or multiple-folded steel swords here! More tea cups and urns...

Neda sharing a meal with a Samurai family

We are feeling right at home here! Minus the creepy mannequins, of course...

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