Day 10 – Himeji

Thanks to the English newspapers that are offered at breakfast – and the Yahoo Mail news, to a lesser extent – we’re somewhat keeping up-to-date with election news back home. It’s starting to disappear from the newspapers, though – we’re getting a bit old hat, I expect. It’s kind of interesting how much information we do get from the papers here – they’re still Japanese-published papers, they’re just in English. We can even get the Sydney weather report.

Today we checked our of our hotel in Osaka and caught a shinkansen towards Hiroshima, stopping in Himeji to visit the castle there. Himeji Castle is supposed to be one of the best in Japan, and it isn’t too far from the Himeji shinkansen station. Since our rail passes give us free travel on JR trains, it didn’t cost us anything to stop short. Mind you, I’m reasonably sure that even normal shinkansen tickets let you stop en route as well, so long as you finish your journey by a certain number of days, depending on the length of the journey.

Himeji Castle is basically straight up the main street from the station. Worryingly, as we drew nearer, we could see scaffolding over much of the main keep – it looked as though it was undergoing restoration. We weren’t overly concerned as Matsumoto Castle was also undergoing restoration, but we could still go in just fine. When we got to the front entrance, though, we discovered that entry to the main keep would be impossible. The whole castle was undergoing a five-year restoration project which had last been done in 1964. At this point in the timetable, we could go basically everywhere except for the main keep. I was somewhat disappointed by this, but we decided to head in to enjoy the rest of it.

Shortly inside the main gate, we discovered they offer free tours in English. We latched ourselves onto a group with two girls from America – one from Boston and one from Philadelphia – and a guide. This was probably a good idea – he showed us a bunch of areas we might otherwise not have thought to visit. The first thing he showed us was a three-hundred-metre long corridor we could enter that ran along the top of the wall of the inner bailey. Apparently it was the women’s quarters, and it was quite impressive to see. Like Matsumoto Castle, we had to take our shoes off to enter. And like every other time James had to sit down to do something, he forgot to close the valve on his Camel pack, and it leaked all over the floor. Tsk.

The tour guide showed us as much of the castle as he could. I was quite amazed by the level of defenses – to reach the main keep, invading soldiers had to breach something like nine gates, each protected by walls of arrow-slits, and passive defences like slippery slopes, and long stairs with each step different lengths and heights to make it impossible to run or march up. That said, it was apparently never put to the test – the castle was never attacked. We finished the tour, and he gave us copies of his script for the main keep and his card, so that we can find him again when we come back in five years, after the restoration is complete. We waved bye to the two American girls (though bumped into them again a few times in town), and headed back towards the station for lunch.

Lunch was at a place off a big shopping arcade about halfway back to the station. James had a katsudon set, and I had a tempura-don set. (“Set” in this case meaning it came with udon noodles and tea.) Katsudon is battered pork on rice, tempura-don is battered and deep-fried prawns and vegetables, again on rice. James forgot to close his valve again, and his Camel pack dribbled on the floor. Heading on to the station again, we spotted a shop selling taiyaki, which is sweet red-bean paste in a pastry fish-shaped casing. I’d been wanting to try it, but just like when I saw it at the Osaka Aquarium the other day, I’d had lunch not too long ago, and so wasn’t hungry. Resolving not to miss it again, I decided to buy some when we were there and eat it later. James got some too.

Arriving back at Himeji Station, we had a brief moment of worry when we realised we couldn’t recall exactly where the lockers were that we’d left our luggage. You know how you learn all sorts of things about people by being in close contact with them for a week? I’ve learnt that James has basically no sense of direction. He’s the sort who turns his maps to point in the direction he’s facing – he almost had us going south rather than north to Matsumoto Castle the other day because he had the map upside-down. In this situation, he was convinced the lockers had to be outside of the station. I was somewhat less sure of this, because we simply hadn’t gone to any of the “outside the station” bits save directly towards the castle – I thought we should simply retrace our steps back to the shinkansen platforms, as the lockers were unquestionably on the route we’d taken to get out of the station. Guess who found the lockers on the second floor, inside the station but outside the shinkansen section…

Crisis resolved, we booked onto the next leg of our trip to Hiroshima – the bit that actually went to Hiroshima. We got a type of shinkansen called a Hikari RailStar – it mainly just seems to be a half-length train (eight instead of sixteen carriages) with slightly fancier carriages (with four seats across a row rather than five) than the normal Hikari. Trouble is, we were in the car adjacent to the smoking car, and a strong smoke smell was wafting over, which got a bit tiring over the hour-long trip. We ate our taiyaki on the train (it was tasty, but is most certainly better while hot) then started dozing off until we reached Hiroshima. We checked into our hotel – it’s not far from the station, and right on a river. We’re on the thirteenth floor, so we’ve got a real nice view. We weren’t too hungry, so dinner was a few things from the hot food rack of the nearby convenience store.

We’re only here one night, though – tomorrow night we’ll be staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) on Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima. It’s one of the Three Views of Japan, Japan’s three most famous sights. Before then we’ll be visiting the Peace Memorial Park that is dedicated to the legacy of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and Hiroshima Castle nearby. I’m not certain we’ll have internet tomorrow night, but we’ll see. If not, we’ll be spending Wednesday exploring Miyajima, including Mount Misen, and then we’re off to a ryokan in Kyoto, which does have internet. According to its website, anyway.

Interesting note: as of today, we’ve saved 44,640 yen on JR trains. Just four hundred and sixty yen until we equal what we spent on our JR passes.

Today’s photo count: two hundred and eighty-eight.

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