Got a late start again. The roosters (I kid you not) started crowing around 4:30 and repeated a couple more times by the time I was up for good around 8:30. I think they got it wrong the first time, but I can’t be sure. Stopped at 7 Eleven for some more salmon onigiri and green tea. I’m going to write a piece about how much I adore the convenience stores here, but another day.
We drove an hour and a half through rolling hills and farmland and some small rural towns to Takachiho, where we found a delicious, homey soba place for lunch. I had a set menu for ¥2500 that included barley tea, I konnyaku (a spongy plant kind of thing that’s somewhat similar to a yam), vegetable tempura, deep fried soba tofu, inari sushi, roast beef (local Takachiho beef), a dessert that was gelatinous made from seaweed that kind of tasted like sugar water and was very difficult to pick up with chopsticks, and a choice between kake (hot) or zaru (cold) soba. I went with kake and was glad I did. Everything was delicious and the plates and bowls, once again, were gorgeous. The soba comes with just the noodles in a simple broth and some scallions and green onions and stringy things to add as you prefer. The noodles were thinner than usual and reminded me of instant ramen noodles, but they were quite good. I also really enjoyed the place: it was filled with locals and there were a bunch of signed pictures of Nori Aoki, a Japanese baseball player who played in MLB for the past 6 years, on the wall. The care they put into the food was also apparent.
I think I like to savor my food more than the Japanese appear to, although I don’t want to assume. Especially with ramen and soba and udon (noodles, generally), the point seems to be to come in, slurp your bowl as quickly and efficiently as possible, and get on with your day. I like to eat while my food is hot, but I also like to savor what I’m intaking.
After lunch, we drove to Takachiho Gorge, which everyone I had spoken to had raved about. It turned out to be as gorgeous (sorry) as everyone had described. We walked down from the parking lot to an opening right by the gorge and rented a boat for 30 minutes (for 2000 yen). We waited and then got in, Emma rowing, as she had rowed crew for 2 years and neither Jake nor I felt like exerting ourselves. We rowed through traffic into the gorge and past Manai Falls, which reminded me of a miniature version of Svartisfoss in Iceland. The falls and rock formations through the gorge were really great, and I’m glad I agreed to take the boat, as it offered a view of the gorge we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. We also got to spend some time on the water, by some falls, which is one of my favorite things. We sat for a few minutes and felt the spray of the falls wash over us. The air felt so crisp, and I even saw a rainbow.
After we disembarked, we walked back up to the top and across a bridge to the path along the gorge, where we viewed the waterfall and the gorge from above. You really got a sense of how deep and powerful the gorge is, and we walked down the path to the end and back, crossing the gorge a couple of times. There were a bunch of tour groups, so I felt pretty good about getting out of there.
We were starting to lose daylight, but I wanted to get to Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest in the world, so we made a beeline for it. We arrived with just a few minutes to spare before the viewpoints closed for the day, but we drove to the top and walked to Nakadake Crater, a huge, sulfuric crater that emits what I take to be toxic gas. The bottom of the crater is filled with aquamarine water and gas was rising up, making for a beautiful landscape, especially set against the volcanic rock. Aso exploded in 2016, so parts of it are still closed off to the public. I saw some more cute excavators. They all really look like Playmobil vehicles.
We were told that the gas was strong and we should move, so after I took some pictures of Jake and he tried to take some pictures of me (they weren’t very good, but we’ll work on it), we ran over the the other side to get a view and picture of the volcano, and back to the car, with the guards shouting at us to leave (really, in Japan, apologetically asking us to please get going). We drove back down and headed back towards Kumamoto.
I decided that I wanted yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) for dinner, so I found a place that looked good and we headed in that direction. We arrived and found a bit of a wait, so we killed some time in the huge arcade next door. Jake and I played a racing hame, but couldn’t figure out how to racereach other, as it was all in Japanese. The story mode was intriguing, and I decided I wanted to find another arcade at some point. We went back to the restaurant and were seated.
Jake and I both wanted to do all-you-can-eat (AYCE), and everyone at the table has to partake, so Emma reluctantly agreed. We chose the cheapest option, a 4500 yen option including a variety of meats and sides and also an all-you-can-drink option. I’m not stereotyping, but Japanese folks drink very slowly, so I would imagine that most only have one or two drinks and maybe one or two rounds of the meat the restaurant provides. They weren’t expecting a 210-pound Westerner who had 5 glasses of shochu (they were small glasses) and 5 or 6 rounds of meat, 3 bowls of rice and many plates of side vegetables. The salad bar was an added bonus, as I found cooked broccoli as well as lettuce and a bunch of other leafy greens, carrots and beans that I turned into a salad. The meat was really great quality, fresh and tasty, and we had a bunch of different cuts: sirloin, a few types of kalbi (ribs), flank, pork shoulder and belly, and even the “hormone,” or some kind of intestines, which I liked but were a little chewy. The rest of the meat was delicious, and I was eventually satisfied. The waiter, as I ordered a fifth round of meat and drinks, expressed his amazement at my capacity (and Jake’s, who more or less matched me bite for bite) for food and drink. Emma taught me how to say “I’m embarrassed, I ate too much,” which I had fun practicing. I have a feeling that’ll come in handy, although I’m never really embarrassed about my eating ability. I would have probably kept going but we were cut off from ordering after 90 minutes, and it’s probably good we were, for my arteries’ sake if nothing else.
Normally, after eating Korean or Japanese BBQ, I am absolutely stuffed and get tired. All I usually want to do is sit and drink water and watch tv. I know the meat here is really great quality because despite absolutely stuffing myself, I felt spry and energetic after. Emma was tired so even though I wanted to take a walk, we went back to the Airbnb and relaxed in our tatami room and watched a movie, the recent Ant-Man, which was pretty funny and enjoyable. I realized we’re moving around a lot—we won’t be anywhere for more than 2 nights until Kyoto on the 10th, but that’s okay. I’ve seen and experienced so much already and it hasn’t even been a week .
Kazukashii Tabesugimashita (I’m embarrassed, I ate too much),