We woke up and checked out. I was hungry so we walked down the street until we found a cute looking cafe, IENA Coffee. I had a chocolate chip cookie and an iced coffee that was balanced, with just a hint of the normal bitterness of iced coffee. I really like that everything here is served in nice, often ceramic holders (cups, tumblers, etc). I really get a lot of satisfaction out of not just the drink itself (whether coffee or beer or something else) but its vessel. The way it feels in your hand, the colors, the shape, the weight. It really enhances the experience of consumption.
Then we got in the car and took the highway (toll roads, the tolls are pretty steep) towards Kumamoto. We soon were in the countryside where we passed rolling hills and farms, but when we got off the highway to take a local main road the last stretch, the hills gave way to an ugly, suburban strip mall feel. The strip mall vibe also brought traffic. We stopped at a 7-Eleven (which will never cease to amaze me here) for a pit stop (the bathrooms are also nice and clean) and I bought a salmon onigiri (a triangle of rice wrapped in nori with some filling) and a green tea.
I was curious as to why the Japanese drive on the left, because unlike most countries that do, there wasn’t the same colonial history. I discovered after a quick search that in 1872, the British beat out France and America in a competition to help build the first train system in Japan, and so the tracks were laid according to British custom, on the left. When the Japanese were building roads, they followed the structure of their train system, and thus, they drive on the left today.
We got into the center of Kumamoto and looked for parking. The streets in these cities are impossibly tight and often two-way, but we finally found a lot. We walked to And Coffee Roasters, where I had a nice drip coffee from Nicaragua in a pleasant space. We wandered around the trendy center for a few minutes before heading to Kumamoto Castle, the main attraction here.
The castle, unfortunately, was under heavy construction. It was badly damaged in the 2016 earthquake that hit Kyushu hard, and is currently closed off to the public. You can still walk around the outer parts and see the walls and castle itself from a distance, but the main castle was mostly covered with scaffolding.
I find the parallels, once again, to be really interesting. The castles here developed similarly to those in Europe, even though fighting styles were distinct and there wasn’t a ton of European influence. The architectural styles, obviously, are different, but the castles are functionally similar, and they evolved naturally in both places.
We wandered around the outer castle grounds and saw parts of the collapsed wall. The city (or whatever administrative body) is undertaking the huge task of gathering the collapsed rocks from the wall, tagging them and replacing them, thus rebuilding the walls. It seems to me like a challenge, especially when another earthquake could collapse it again at any time. Anyway, I imagine the castle would be really magnificent without the scaffolding and cranes, and I look forward to seeing some other major remaining castles when we head north.
We walked from the castle back into the center. There’s a long stretch of covered mall with all kinds of shops and lots of people. Kumamoto is surprisingly trendy, I thought. We saw groups of schoolchildren walking around (all wearing uniforms, which denote their years based on colors and hats, very interesting). We strolled and browsed the shops and Jake and Emma bought taiyaki (fish-shaped waffles filled with cream and chocolate and different things). I was getting hungry, but we searched in vain for a nail salon where we could get manicures.
Finally, we gave up and went to a restaurant specializing in unagi, eel, which seems to be popular in Kyushu. The eel comes either on top of rice or separately (guess what I chose), with a side of soup and pickled veggies. I also had a small plate of edamame. I don’t love the texture of eel. It feels sort of unnatural to me, and it’s not pleasant to bite or chew it, but I like the flavor, so I was happy enough to try. The rice and soup were really good, and the place was really cool, with an old-fashioned interior.
I was still hungry after, and I wanted to try some local delicacies, so I found another restaurant, Mutsugoro, which specializes in basashi, or horse sashimi, which is a local dish that I felt I should try while here. I normally don’t enjoy raw meat, but the basashi was delicious—light and soft and flavorful, nicely marbled. I ate it with a little ginger and garlic and soy sauce as instructed. I had shochu, this time made from rice, which I liked and definitely had a slightly different flavor. We also tried karashi renkon, which is lotus root stuffed with mustard. It’s really spicy and feels sort of like eating too much wasabi, and it wasn’t my favorite, but I’m glad to have tried.
Having sampled the local cuisine, we walked back to the car along the pretty lively mall and drove to our Airbnb, which turned out to be in a semi-rural area by the highway. It had a nice handmade wooden sign directing us to the house, which was big, with a nice garden. We found the key and entered, and we found a delightful, charming, quirky interior. Our room was tatami (woven floor with bedding) and quite spacious, with a nice sitting area and couch and sliding doors. We settled in and I caught up on some writing and we watched a movie and went to bed on the early side, to prepare for our big day of sightseeing tomorrow.
Sleeping on the floor,