We ARE Still Alive!

9-12/6/16. If you rely on the website for your updates on our world and do not follow Christine on Twitter (@CycleGBCoast) or Facebook then you may have noticed an absence of news. No need to panic – we’re both well. It’s just that the muse hasn’t been with Stephen!

When we woke on Thursday morning it was to the sound of pouring rain. Remembering the misery of two days earlier and being in a nice, reasonably priced hotel, neither of us needed any persuasion to stay where we were for another day. Of course, as soon as we paid for the hotel Murphy’s Law kicked in and the rain stopped!

We had an easy day pottering around the city looking at nothing much in particular. We did spend a fair amount of time in the food hall of a large department store looking at all the different food (and the many free samples were an added attraction!) Gift food looks to be a huge market in Japan with beautifully presented boxes and baskets of all sorts of provisions on display in many shops, generally at inflated prices of course. One item that made our jaws drop was this box containing two very shiny mangoes.20160609_150050

The price is ¥16,200 (¥15,000 + 8% sales tax). The exchange rate is just over ¥150 to the £ – so that is more than £100!!!!!! Just for a pair of mangoes!

We also saw some meat at £120 a kilo. We are guessing it was Kobe beef.  Other things were very reasonable. For example, various sorts of “fancy” mushrooms were ¥100 for a pack that would £3 or 4 at home.

We have also been surprised at the prices of plants. Really healthy looking pots of good sized flowers and vegetable seedlings for ¥150 or less.

Friday saw us back on the bikes. After a few kilometres of urban sprawl we left Okayama behind and were into pretty countryside. Reaching a large estuary, we could see the bridge off to our right and headed towards it. However, after 3 or 4 km we came to a junction with a “No Bikes” sign on the turning to the bridge. Deciding not to play the “Dumb Foreigners” card, we turned round and headed back up river to the next bridge about 10 km upstream. At least the views were good!

We were aiming for a free campsite just beyond the town of Ako but as we were passing through the town we saw signs with a tent symbol so decided to give it a try. The fee of ¥2,600 seemed reasonable for a site with showers and drinking water both of which the free site lacked.

We had read that Himeji Castle was one of the most beautiful in Japan and, deciding that riding 35km each way would not leave enough time to look around properly, we jumped on the train.

Walking out of the main entrance of Himeji station, gave us a lovely view of the castle about 1.5 km away up a broad boulevard. Just after entering the grounds of the castle we were approached by a volunteer who asked if we would like a (free) guided tour. How could we refuse? His English wasn’t the most understandable – he spoke much too fast – but it was infinitely better than our Japanese and we learned a lot from him.

The castle certainly is very beautiful. It is known as the White Egret Castle for obvious reasons when you see it. Above the stone around the base, the walls are entirely made of wood and plaster, painted white and the whole thing is built around two massive posts rising up through the centre of the main keep.

If you are in Osaka or Kobe it is definitely worth taking a day to visit this castle but we would suggest you aim to arrive early as the crowds really built up in late morning and, by the time we left, there was a very slow moving queue to go into the castle itself. A further piece of advice would be to buy a combined ticket for the castle and the adjacent garden, Koko-en, as it is only ¥40 (30 pence) more than the castle only and it is yet another lovely garden.

It was only established in 1992 so is a real baby compared to the others we have visited which are 300+ years old. It comprises 9 separate areas which are very different. A couple of these were only of passing interest to us but the rest were lovely – especially the 4 or 5 with water “features” (ponds, streams, fountains). The garden is almost worth the visit to Himeji on its own but, combined with the castle, you have to be very time-constrained to miss it, we would suggest.

On the train back to Ako we sat opposite this character.20160611_160204

Stephen is on the lookout for a similar hat!

We decided to stay at Ako for another night as Sunday was “pill day” and Stephen was on a bit of a downer, having discovered that he had managed to jigger the thread on the stove end of the connection with the gas canister, meaning that he is dependent on outside sources for a supply of caffeine (although the ubiquitous vending machines with cans of cold coffee – surprisingly acceptable – mean this isn’t really a problem!).

Again we “pottered”, this time around Ako itself. The castle ruins cover a large area and are quite impressive – worthy of a minor detour but not a “must see” like Himeji. We also went for a good soak in an onsen a few km up the coast in a national park. Afterwards we sat in the cafe/restaurant looking out at the view over which would have been stunning if the rain hadn’t been setting in for the night.

Our time in Japan so far has really been a trip around the Inner Sea between Honshu and Shikoku and it really is beautiful – at least when when the weather is good! The attraction for us was the set of cycling bridges beside the motorway but we get the feeling that we have happened upon an area that is special to the Japanese. Serendipity!

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