Aso to Kagoshima

Due to the fact that I didn’t have a rack on my bike, and my dad already had a front and rear rack fitted, he offered to carry all the luggage, and I, unsurprisingly, accepted. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. My dad may have cycled the length of Britain in 9 days, but he is not superman, and the 20 kilograms plus of essential bike equipment and not so essential clothes, weighed him down on the inclines. And of course, I had to deal with the burden of guilt when people we met along the way pointed out the grave equality of luggage distribution! This was no better put than a guest house owner who exclaimed “The Queen and the Slave”. Mmh. Because of that, I tried to cycle Dad’s loaded bike and got 100m before needing a rest. I decided to buy Dad a box of chocolates for his kindness, or some might say stupidity, in carrying all the luggage. But he shared the chocolates with me, too. Maybe it comes down to a father-daughter thing.

The extra weight was because we both had over packed. When we left Fukui it was snowing, so we took thermal leggings, waterproof trousers and puffer jackets. Yet in Kyushu we didn’t need much more than a T-shirt and shorts. To ease the weight of the panniers we decided to send some unnecessary belongings back to my apartment. How, you ask? By Yamato Transport. It’s a nation-wide company that has outlets everywhere, you’ll see the sign of the cat in people’s houses, and you can send anything you want and it’ll arrive safety at the time and destination of your choice. We sent about 2 kilo grams of stuff, to arrive at my apartment when we returned, and sure enough on the hour a delivery man arrived with our boxed luggage in his hand! This unbelievably convenient service cost about 1500 yen, not much at all considering the distance it had to travel!

Dad happy to have lost a couple of kilos of luggage!

Feeling a little lighter, well I assume Dad did, we cycled down from Aso’s caldera to Kumamoto; the city historically famous for its castle and nowadays famous for the prefecture’s character, Kumamon. The first twenty kilometres cycling were downhill all the way and the road wasn’t too busy. Yet after a couple of hours we were soon caught up in traffic and I nearly got knocked off my bike.

They say in accidents that everything happens in slow motion, but this really did happen in slow motion! I was crossing a side road and I had right of way, yet the driver on the main road didn’t see me and turned towards me. I could see this happening, but my legs didn’t peddle any faster, perhaps I was already anticipating the impact. Yet it never came. The car missed my rear tyre by an inch. Phew. Once across the road, I breathed a sigh of relief, tightened up my helmet and decided to be more wary of dreamy drivers.

When we arrived at Kumamoto we were ready for lunch and a rest, but first we had to fight our way through the traffic and climb the ramparts into the castle grounds. We had hit Kumamoto at lunch hour, on a prime hanami-party day and the streets were filled with salary men and women enjoying the sakura (cherry blossom). We filled our panniers with the best combini picnic food we could find, and headed to the castle park where hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties were in full flow. Groups of friends, colleagues and families sat in circles on blue tarpaulins sharing platters of food and drinking beer and oolong tea. Children chased pigeons, students played frisbee and old men photographed the sakura, like they have done for decades. 

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Sharing the coming of spring through hanami parties is special to Japanese people. Japanese culture is so tied into the seasons that they have festivals to celebrate the changing of each season. The whitish-pink sakura is a beautiful blessing that marks the end of winter and the harbinger of spring. And it sure felt like spring.

After our picnic of edamame beans, sushi rolls and onigiri, we took a look at Kumamoto Castle from the outside. We met some retired men who were professionals at spinning tops, and it looked so much fun we had a go. We also saw many couples posing for wedding photos, they didn’t look like they were having much fun.

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Just as were leaving I noticed I had a flat tyre. Well, there’s no prettier place to change a tyre. (And really, I did help before and after I took this picture!)

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After we’d changed my inner tube, we headed to the station to catch a bullet train that would take us to Kagoshima. Yet taking a train meant dismantling the bikes, something I was coming to loathe because we usually had to carry the bikes in the bags which were heavy and cumbersome. Yet trying to avoid this trouble, and the leg bruises I was getting from it, I asked to wheel the bikes through the ticket gate and we were allowed to dismantle them on the platform. Win!

But, there was another problem, Dad couldn’t find his rail pass! We emptied all four panniers worth of belongings on the pavement, something a Japanese person would never do, and after a lot of huffing and puffing, we found the card that Dad paid £350 for. Another sigh of relief.

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Once on the Shinkansen, we relaxed, enjoying the feeling of not doing anything. Ahh. That was a nice feeling. Yet it was only an hour’s journey until we reached Kagoshima, the most southern city in Kyushu, and it was time to move again. Heave ho…

After putting our bikes together, and finding our not-so-pleasant ‘Little Asian’ hostel, we went out in search of food. We were recommended the yataimura, a collection of tiny restaurants that seat only a handful of people. In the yatai stall we choose, we ate shabu shabu (thin slices of meat which you cook in a boiling pan of water) and grilled kurobuda (black pork) (that is actually from Berkshire black pigs). We sat around the grill with four other guests and two yatai staff. My Japanese conversational skills were put to the test as they asked us many questions about our journey, but I seemed to pass ok. We kanpai-ed together and enjoyed an extra beer and a dessert after our exciting, but exhausting day.

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Best places to see cherry blossom

It has been said that Japan has six seasons; spring, summer, autumn, winter, as well as the rainy season tsuyu (from June to July) and the typhoon season (from September to October). Yet I would say there is one more to be added to that list, sakura season. From January the pink flowers open in Okinawa and sweep their way up the country, reaching Hokkaido five months later in May. During sakura season weather forecasts include the predicted opening times of the cherry blossom and people talk about how early or late they will open in offices, cafes and on TV chat shows. It’s a big deal, and it’s infectious. So excuse me, while I reminisce about my first sakura season, and the best places I saw it.

Sakura-dori, Nagoya

IMG_0784I will never forget the first time I saw a blooming cherry tree in Japan. It looked magical. Like a weeping willow hangs in a way which evokes both sadness and romance, this tree was weeping with the most beautiful pink stars of flowers I’ve seen. What made it all the more special was that I’d just met my Mum and could share this moment with her.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto

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In the gardens of the palace are orchards of sakura trees that have been enjoyed by people for centuries. Hanami is the term for ‘cherry blossom viewing’ and is when families, office workers or friends picnic, BBQ and drink under the pink petals of the cherry blossom. It is the celebration of spring, the moment winter ends and the warm weather returns. People take afternoons off work to enjoy the petals at their peak, as they know they won’t be there the next week.

Fukuoka, Kyushu

P1040240Cherry blossoms can be enjoyed anywhere, not just at the famous viewing spots and it is made special by the people you are with. In a small park, next to a baseball field in Fukuoka, my companions and I ate bento boxed lunches and drank Brazilian tea under the falling petals. It is in this state, when the petals fall to the ground like snowflakes, that Japanese people find them most attractive. It is a lesson from nature as to how to enjoy the moment, before it is blown away.

The Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

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From Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) to the Nanzenji neighbourhood a line of cherry trees line a canal which a Zen philosopher used to walk and mediate along.  For three kilometres you can enjoy the blooming trees, but unless you go early in the morning you’ll be sharing the experience with half of Kyoto!

Tenryuji Temple Gardens, Arashiyama, Kyoto

Three weeks after I first seen sakura in Nagoya, I was still being blown away by the vivid pinks and reds of cherry blossom. My mum however, thought I’d gone a little mad, with the rest of the country, in exclaiming, “Wow, isn’t it beautiful” at every tree! But in the gardens surrounding the Zen temple of Tenryuji, I couldn’t help but admire the trees. It is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve been to and would definitely recommend it in sakura season or in the fall.

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Maruyama Park, Kyoto

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This is one of the most popular parks for cherry blossom viewing in Japan. It comes alive at night with young and old people alike drinking and eating under the festival lights. Japanese people work so hard, it’s great to see them in such a relaxed, public setting just chatting together and enjoying the setting. That is one thing we can learn from this sakura loving nation – stop and enjoy nature, plant trees which people love and cultivate them with parental care, line the streets with avenues of trees, the parks with flowers and the buildings with bright bushes, because seeing flowers brightens people day. This nation knows how to appreciate nature like no other I’ve been to.

Kodaji temple, Kyoto

P1040203My Mum and I did a full day of hanami in Kyoto and this was one of the last stops. Whilst looking around this old temple complex, with its lit up bamboo forests, moon-viewing platforms and manicured gardens, we decided to join a long queue of people. After waiting for about 15 minutes on our weary feet, we finally saw what the queue was for and there was no way back. It was an illuminated weeping cherry tree which turned blue, green and white every few minutes and the packed in crowd took photos of it like it was a national celebrity. It was at that point my Mum and I looked at each other and laughed, ok, there is a line for appreciating nature, and then going crazy for it!

I think this country has gone a little too mad for cherry trees, but perhaps I have been infected with it, as I am already looking forward to next year’s sakura season!