For these posts in Japan I actually wrote the bulk of the text during downtime (train/plane/bus journeys and late evenings mostly) so I could have a nice way to properly look back on my honeymoon.
I am truly counting my lucky stars here. Himeji castle has been under restoration work for about five years and has only been fully open to the public since I first booked the plane tickets back in March of 2015. As buildings go it is absolutely stunning. It is the fourth thing I have seen on this honeymoon that has been able to take my breath away (not bad considering that this is eight days in).
Standing there and admiring it/taking photos of it on my iPhone I began to think just how much this put Hiroshima castle to shame. Then again, this wasn’t completely destroyed in a nuclear blast and was camouflaged in the war… so not really a fair point of comparison.
Now, despite it being a Wednesday in school term time I was amazed at just how busy the place was. They had already made preparations for huge queues of people and , being just before lunchtime when we made our way into the castle keep, I can imagine there were still buses full of tourists and school parties showing up.
The castle itself was actually pretty bare inside. Surprisingly so. Considering that this castle has a rather interesting history it would be prime real estate to do a bit of explaining. Then again…
With the castle being newly restored it was shoes off for everyone. Unluckily for me, and (I guess) thanks to the coin laundry, I was once again in my pink dinosaur socks in a important piece of Japanese cultural heritage. When we do another load at our Tokyo hotel I swear that I am not going to wear those when we go to see anything composed of wood.
By the time we reached the second floor do the main keep everyone was being ushered into a queue system. Since there is nothing on display in the castle I guess it makes sense that everyone is there to either say they have been inside the castle, or to take photos of some of the gorgeous views (although a lot of these are inhibited by wiring in front of windows).
If you want to learn anything about the castle and its history, then you need to head on to the west bailey buildings. In there you will find the “Long Corridor” and Cosmetic Tower. These are a lot less crowded, but a whole lot more interesting since you learn things such as the story of the well haunted by a woman who was framed for stealing an expensive plate. Also, just how close the castle was to being beyond repair if not for the rise of tourism within Japan.
It also included a video (in Japanese, obviously) that showed how they actually went about the recent restoration. It is mindboggling to consider that that actually took this castle apart as if it was some 3D jigsaw. It looks fantastic, so congratulations to everyone involved in this labour of love.
After visiting the main keep and chomping on an ice cream in the Princess Sen Peony Garden we went to the nearby Koko-en Gardens (tip: buy the combined ticket to both the castle and the gardens to save 260¥). We have see a lot of beautiful gardens in Japan already and these were definitely some of the best planned of those we have seen.
The Koko-En is divided into a number of separate smaller gardens with particular theme. All of their names were fairly literal (the “garden with a hill and pond” taking the cake somewhat) and each of them was executed with surgical precision. Almost literally. In the “flatly landscaped garden” there were four gardeners hard at work, one of whom was actually shearing the grass with a pair of oversized scissors. This really is a case of good not being good enough.
By the time we left the gardens it was 3 o’clock. Since we didn’t want to be back too early we decided to duck into the Hiroshima City Zoo. I really wished that we hadn’t. I have only seen zoos like this in documentaries. It really was a case of there being animals where it looked like they had just given up or had gone mad. The worst that we saw before I just started feeling sick and had to leave were the polar bears. Two of them just pacing back and forth on a concrete floor with little more than a bathtubs worth of water in the middle of the enclosure.
We left Himeji soon after that. I also reported the zoo to an animal charity. I may be looking at this through western eyes, but polar bears should not have to withstand a Japanese summer.
I had a major crash and fell asleep on the way back. This is why you remember to have breakfast, lunch or both. Good news though. Kyoto station is an absolute cornucopia of food. We got ourselves some takoyaki (octopus balls) and just ate them quickly because they were not, delicious and slathered with teriyaki sauce and Japanese mayonnaise.
Wills fortified, we finally went up Kyoto Tower as a way of saying goodbye to the city. It was nice up there, but I do wish that it had been open air like a lot of tall buildings in New York, or the windows were slightly taller like in the CN Tower. Still, with free binoculars and the large windows available we got a great view of Kyoto at night. Sadly, because of the reflective nature of the glass it was hard to get a picture.
After an hour back at the hotel hunger struck again. Thanks to Tripadvisor we found that there was a highly recommended ramen restaurant three blocks away. Because it was so small inside (15 seats by my count) we had to do a 20-30 minute wait. Towards the end of our wait a friendly German couple came up to us after leaving the restaurant telling us that it was worth the wait.
Well they weren’t wrong. The ramen and the gyoza that we got were gorgeous. It was also such a great atmosphere since we were all sat at the bar as this couple (probably in their early to mid 50s made all the food with such incredibly prescition. The Shichimi Togarashi comes into play because it was one of the condiments on offer alongside pepper, chilli oil and a sesame seed grinder. The Shichimi definitely gave a gentle heat to proceedings which just gave the ramen that extra oomph. I made sure to pay it forward to some other western tourists who were waiting outside by telling them that the ramen was worth it. It appeared to perk them up.
I’ve been looking for konpeito for a bit now. I wanted just wanted to taste the sweets that the soot sprites get fed in Spirited Away. They are basically just knobbly sugar balls with some flavouring. Pretty addictive though. The green ones are easily the best because of their strong melon taste. I might see if I can get some in Tokyo to bring home.