Travel report Himeji/Osaka (Part 1)
Japan for cherry blossom season – I think everybody has seen these magnificent pictures of heavenly landscapes or stunning buildings, framed into a mesmerizing dream of pink and white. Luckily, the Chinese lunar calendar offers the holiday of Ching Ming Festival during that period which allowed me to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun once again over a long weekend this April.
Having visited Tokyo and Kyoto already in the year before, this year I decided to have a look at two of the most beautiful traditional buildings in Japan, ideally nestled in splendid cherry blossom scenery: the castles of Himeji (Himeji-jo) and Osaka (Osaka-jo).
Meticulous Japanese immigration processes
The experience after my arrival at KIX Osaka Kansai International Airport is as bureaucratic as usual. Firstly, fingerprints are taken at four blocks consisting of eight computer terminals each, where also my passport is checked by a Japanese official. Whereas this seemed quite efficient so far, the same procedure would be repeated at the traditional counter a few minutes later. As if that weren’t enough, the customs control procedure should cap it all off: in spite of hundreds of other passengers waiting behind me, the official took all the time in the world to question me about my travel history. Do I have drugs with me? No! What about narcotics? No! Gold, maybe? No, no, no! Gosh, why did I fill out this darned leaflet before where all these questions had already been answered!? Okay, better safe than sorry, that’s the Japanese way, after all. Everything culminated eventually in him scrutinizing my hand luggage. How he enjoyed to rifle through my stuff which I had so neatly folded that my mother would have been proud of me. At last, I was released.
In the arrival area of the airport the first thing I see is a colossal Pikachu. No doubt: I’m in Japan. Next thing which attracts my attention: a booth promoting the “Japan WiFi-App” which shall give fast and free access to the internet at more than 200,000 hotspots all over Japan. Technology leader Japan, this is also still true. As I arrived at Kansai airport in the evening, I booked a room in the airport hotel and decided to take the first bus on the following morning to Himeji. Unfortunately, the bus ticket counter had already closed for the evening and the telephone hotline was not available in English language, so I decided to be the first person to come back to the counter on the next morning.
Transfer per bus and arrival in Himeji
This plan worked out well. At bus stop bay no. 5 in front of Terminal 1 I bought my ticket to Himeji for 3,300 Yen, departure scheduled for 08:55am. Surely, this promise was kept, Japanese clockwork can be trusted. Reliable as always the bus was set into motion and left the airport island of KIX to embark on a 2:20 hours journey to Himeji, where again it arrives more than on time. First task in Himeji: find orientation! An „i“, indicating an information counter, offers a free guide map. After quickly locating the street of my airbnb overnight stay I am good to go.
My first discoveries in Himeji: it’s pleasantly calm here. No honking, no noise. There are people on the streets, however, they are rather silent. Many people ride bicycles along the comfortably spacious sidewalks on both sides of the street which had apparently been designed as strolling promenade for the way from Himeji station towards Himeji castle. To the left and right of this main street, there are a lot of shopping passages, one of which is shall contain my target destination. I booked a room in an apartment attached to a Kimono shop. Its owner, Hikaru, a small Japanese woman in her early 50s, welcomes me there. Dressed in a Kimono, of course.
After check-in Hikaru recommends the small café on the opposite side of the alley for a lunch snack. The waiters don’t seem too happy about their Western customer as their English skills are very limited. With a lot of pointing and gestures I order the lunch set and shortly after I am served salmon tempura with rice, salad, mayonnaise and miso soup. Milk Tea for dessert, for 800 Yen altogether, which is quite okay. After this refreshment I am now finally ready to explore what I came for: Himeji-jo, here I come!
On the way to the castle I stop shortly to have a look at a map also displaying the main attractions of Himeji. I come to the conclusion that beyond Himeji-jo there isn’t much more worth seeing than the castle and the gardens next to it. There might well be a stupa, a zoo, and a few museums (for literature, toys and arts). However, a real „must-see“ can’t be detected. But that’s fine, then I’ll just focus on the castle, I think by myself as I pass some obligatory souvenir shops, kimono rental shops and restaurants.
Lazy cherries can't stop Japanese from hanami
Then something took hold of me and I slowly realized what it was: in spite of the usually very reliable prognoses by japan-guide.com, which offer a highly recommendable cherry blossom forecast, there weren’t many buds open yet. Oh no! Frustrated by this discovery, I immediately buy myself an ice cream. Flavour: Cherry blossom 😊 While I enjoy this, I hope that the buds would come out in the meantime, which doesn’t really work. A pity, but tasty, anyway.
The park in front of Himeji castle is filled with masses of people, among them a lot of travel groups. That could have been expected on an early Sunday afternoon. Some locals have spread blue plastic blankets on the grass below the cherry trees and celebrate hanami, even though the cherry buds still seem to be a bit reluctant to come out. Likable!
At the entrance gate to the castle I get to know that after more than five years of comprehensive renovation works the main tower of Himeji castle was only opened again to the public in 2015 and that the number of visitors is limited to 15,000 per day. Good to know, and lucky for me that this threshold wasn’t yet reached when I arrived there. With my “entrance pass” to the main gate I still have to buy a ticket to enter the castle grounds. I decide to go for the combo which allows me access to Himeji castle as well as the surrounding Koko-en gardens for 1,040 Yen.
Inside the castle walls, I am thrilled to see a few early blooming cherry trees. Nice, but still not a patch on how this place would look like one or two weeks later. I decided that it’s no use complaining about the situation and just to accept it. The window of opportunity to see cherry blossoms is short, so you have to be lucky if you have to plan ahead and rely on weekends and holidays. In the end there’s no guarantee, that’s nature. And the castle is worth seeing at any time of the year, after all!
In order to kill the approximately one hour of waiting time for the ascent to the main tower, I start reading the information leaflet that was given out for free at the entrance gate in the warm spring sun. I learn that the construction of Himeji-jo started as early as in the 14th century and that today’s main tower daitenshu was completed in the early 16th century, the period in which the Japanese art of castle construction reached its climax. Already in 1993, Himeji-jo was the first Japanese monument to be awarded the UNESCO world heritage title. Interesting and understandable at the same time, when you look at this elegant and noble snow-white castle enthroned on the himeyama hill up to 92 metres above the city. For its resemblance to the bird it is also dubbed “White Heron Castle” (shirasagi-jo). However, it is actually surprising that the castle has survived in this place throughout all the centuries of its history. Especially that it survived unscathed during World War II represents a wonder, as the rest of the city of Himeji was literally flattened by bomb attacks. Luckily there must have been some aesthetes among the American bomber pilots who were also good aimers…
An interesting offer inside the castle is the option to simulate what certain places have looked like in the past via using the app and augmented reality. By this way, you can for instance observe how and where archers and cannon shooters aimed through some of the 997 holes in the castle wall at their enemies. Nice feature, very modern. As I said: Japan is still leading in technology.
I enter the castle which from the outside seems to have five levels whereas inside you will recognize that due to its ingenious architecture there are actually six levels plus basement. Taking off your shoes before entering is obligatory. After that the routing leads on narrow and steep wooden stairways up. The first levels display miniature models of the castle or an exhibition on the recent renovation. The remarkable structure of the castle consists of wood only. Even though the queue moves only slowly on in an upward direction, masses are still cleverly managed here. Unfortunately, the view from the very top is a little bit blocked by palings. Nevertheless, you may still enjoy a nice overview of the city and the surroundings from up here.
After climbing down all levels again I realize that there are still some people waiting for entrance to the main tower. So, I guess that 15,000 visitors per day should be sufficient on most days of the year to accommodate everyone. On the way further down through the castle grounds towards the exit the castle walls are ever getting steeper and you’ll pass an old and nowadays defunct well in which many people throw coins for good luck.
Due to the fact that I had purchased the combo ticket, I continue from the castle exit directly to the Koko-en gardens, passing the hanami society again. I notice that by now it smells a lot stronger like alcohol, moreover they have organized a guitar and started to sing some Japanese hit songs at the top of their voices. Even more likeable!
Koko-en gardens (entrance fee without combo ticket: 300 Yen) are a few minutes of walking to the west from Himeji-jo. They were opened in 1992 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the city of Himeji. The gardens represent the gardening style of the Edo period (ca. 1600-1860) and I immediately start to like the beautiful arrangement: nine different Japanese gardens full of carp ponds, bridges, small streams, bonsai trees and rocks – a really romantic place!
There is also a tea house within the gardens which offers tea ceremonies until 4pm. Without any exception. I arrive at 4:03pm and only find a „CLOSED“ sign, even though I can see from outside that the ceremony has not yet started. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m in Japan, people here are principled to the max. But I will give them hell! I’ve still got some DIY-Matcha from last night’s hotel minibar (which was free, by the way) and position myself with this PET green tea directly in front of the tea house’s window front. By doing so, I’m still kind of participating in the tea ceremony. Take that, you Japanese pedants, ha!
After this emotional success I leave Koko-en gardens and return to Hikaru’s Kimono shop. Meanwhile the disappointment about the delay of the cherry blossom opening has vanished and I remind me of the fact that there are still two days in Japan left. Besides, I did not expect what highlight would still wait for me that night…
(Travel Period: March 2017)