Himeji Castle

Another place that appeared on the list of places I most wanted to see on this trip was Himeji Castle. Unlike other Japanese castles which have been rebuilt using concrete, Himeji Castle is still pretty much the same as when Toyotomi Hideyoshi built it in 1580. The original wooden walls covered with white plaster (which acts as a fire retardant) still stand. The castle even survived 2 bombings in 1945 at the end of World War II when most of the surrounding area was destroyed.

We had arranged to meet Taeko and Izumi on the train platform in Osaka. Taeko's childhood friend, Masaya, also joined us for this adventure. After a pleasant train ride, we pulled into the town of Himeji. As we arrived, we could see the castle in the distance rising above the city.

The walk from the train station to the castle takes about 20 minutes. Our friends suggested that we buy bentos and enjoy a picnic lunch when we reached the top. Unfortunately, when we tried to enter the gate just past the ticket booth, we were told that no food is allowed past that point so we had to eat our lunch a bit earlier than expected in the park at the base of the castle. Curiously, you are also not allowed to consume beverages once you pass the entrance gate although there are signs everywhere issuing dire warnings about the dangers of dehydration. I think Himeji Castle is just about the only place I have been in Japan that doesn't have any drink vending machines.

Here are some pictures of the moat, bridge, and park.

One of the defensive features of the castle is the confusing maze of paths that lead to the main keep. As you proceed upward, you often feel like you are near the top, but then you discover there is further to go. There are several low gates along the way where it is necessary to duck or bump your head. We came upon the blossoming cherry tree in the picture on the second row which seemed confused by the unseasonable warm weather. In the spirit of the U.S. election which would soon be held, we blamed this apparent example of global climate change on George Bush. The tiles in the center picture of the third row represent the family crests of the lords who occupied the castle over the years.

We finally arrived at the castle keep. Here is a picure of the castle taken from there.

We first went inside the section of the castle on the lower right side of the picture above. The procedure is to remove your shoes and place them in a plastic bag. Then you carry your shoes in the bag until you leave the exhibit. When you put your shoes back on, you return the bag to an attendant. The bag is then re-used by other people entering the exhibit.

Inside it was rather dark. The rooms were empty except for the occasional sign explaining points of interest. A steep ladder-like stairway led to the second floor, but because of the angle, you had to contort your body to climb it without hitting your head. The difficulty of this maneuver is enhanced because you are climbing the slippery steps in your socks.

After this somewhat claustrophobic flirtation with danger, Walt decided to wait on a bench in the keep rather than climb to the top of the main castle. As usual, the crowds were heavy and he feared he would cause an international incident if he slipped on the steps and took several people out with him on the way down.

Here are some pictures taken inside the castle. The first picture is a sort of shelf built along the wall. The second is of a hidden room where Samurai could conceal themselves and emerge unexpectedly if enemy forces made it inside the castle. The third is an ornate nail covering.

There are 6 floors inside the castle, and the stairways become progressively more narrow. There is a small room on the top floor which houses the Osakabe Shinto Shrine. The shrine was originally built on the top of the hill about 1150 years ago. It was moved when the castle was built, but people felt that this move caused a curse to fall upon them so the shrine was returned to its original spot which was now inside the castle.

Here are some pictures taken from the small windows on the top floor.

I managed to make it up and down the treacherous stairs without incident. I was feeling rather pleased with myself, but then I managed to trip rather dramatically near the exit. I always forget that doorways in such places often have a raised strip of wood at floor level. Fortunately, the only thing injured was my pride.

Here are some more pictures of the castle moat.

Our next stop was Koko-en - a garden adjacent to the castle. It was constructed in 1992 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Heimeji municipality. Actually, Koko-en is made of of 9 separate gardens, each highlighting a different type of greenery. The site was formerly where the homes of the samurai attached to the castle existed.

Our first stop at Koko-en was the Kassui-ken restaurant where we indulged in small fancy cups of that ever expensive coffee. We were developing a new appreciation of these coffee breaks because they gave us an opportunity to rest our aching feet. The restaurant looks out onto the area known as the garden of the lord's house and includes a scenic fish pond with a waterfall. You can see a bit of the top of the castle in the picture on the left.

Unfortunately, the much touted autumn foliage was as elusive as it had been in other places we visited, but here are a few pictures of some trees and bushes that were trying.

Night was falling as we began the walk back to the train station, but there were still several adventures ahead of us. Our next stop was a night view of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. The bridge connects Kobe with Awaji Island and is the longest suspension bridge in the world. When we initially approached the viewing site, the lights presented a rainbow effect, but they soon changed to white. We waited expectantly for them to turn back, but our friends informed us that wouldn't happen for at least an hour. The temperature was quickly dropping so we settled for pictures without the rainbow effect.

Just below the viewing site was the catamaran known as Malt's Mermaid II made of 528 beer kegs welded together in 5 rows. Kenichi Horie sailed this boat from San Francisco to Japan in 1999. The sails for the catamaran were made of recycled plastic bottles. Kenichi has sailed several boats made of recycled materials across the Pacific. Walt met him in Hawaii in 1993 when he was heading for Okinawa in a pedal powered boat. Stumbling upon this display was an unexpected treat.

Our next stop was Kobe where we enjoyed a meal in a Chinese restaurant. Actually, I wouldn't have guessed from the outside of the restaurant that Chinese food was served inside, and the food was somewhat different than Chinese food you would find in the U.S. It was delicious, of course, and we had a lot of fun talking with Izumi and Masaya and joking with Taeko about her days as a student in Hawaii.

As the meal drew to a close, Taeko asked if we would like to go to eat cake. We had thought that Kobe was best known for its beef, but it turns out that it is also known for its cake. I had developed a fondness for the many small bakeries that abound in Japan during our 2005 stay. The pasteries are European style, and although I have never been to Europe, I have no doubt that they are as delicious as anything made there.

A popular eating option in Japan is the "set". Restaurants frequently offer sets that include various dishes making up a complete meal. Sets are a less expensive option than ordering ala carte. Now we discovered that Kobe has shops that offer cake sets which include small slices of several of the cakes that are being offered in the shop that day along with a cup of green tea.

A perfect ending to a perfect day.