This morning we all picked up our Japan Rail passes. The national pass covers all JR trains and is only available in 7 or 14 day segments. The local franchises (Kyoto is in JR West) have regional passes which cover a selection of smaller areas and are available for shorter time frames. We (including The Navbour) have bought a five day pass which covers from Kyoto to beyond Hiroshima.
The Navbour headed to Nara for the day. We had been to Nara on our last trip to Japan, so instead headed for the town of Himeji and the mighty castle. Our pass required a change at Shin-Osaka but we travelled the 130km to Himeji on the Shinkansen in about 90 minutes.
Those of you who have seen the James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice' might recognise the castle. This is where Bond goes for ninja training after being surgically altered to look Japanese.
The castle presents itself as soon as one exits the station and is about 15 minutes walk along the main road. After our big day of walking yesterday, the 100 yen bus ride from the station to the castle was a bargain.
The castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture, comprising a network of 83 rooms with advanced defensive systems. The castle is frequently known as White Heron Castle because of its brilliant white exterior and resemblance to a bird taking flight. Himeji Castle dates to 1333 and for the past 400 years has remained intact, even throughout the extensive bombing of Himeji in World War II and natural disasters. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site (the first in Japan) and a Japanese National Treasure.
We climbed to the top of the main keep without our shoes which must be taken off and felt the cool smooth wooden floor. The castle is seven storeys high and 45m above ground level. The steps were steep like attic ladders and fortunately one could rest on each level taking in the magnificent views before taking on the next part of the climb. The warrior stereotype is true - each floor had hiding areas for the ninjas to wait in ambush. Himeji Castle was never attacked, so the ambush holes and the complex system of winding paths designed to confuse intruders was never tested.
It has been a warm autumn in Japan. The typhoon which came through in September stripped many trees of their leaves. The still warm weather in October has confused the cherry blossom trees into thinking it is spring and so the flowers are blooming. Many Japanese visitors pointed at the blossoms. "Sakura! Sakura!" they exclaimed with puzzled looks on their faces.
The inner and central moats of the castle still survive and one can ride a flat bottomed boat around the inner moat. The boat is paddled much like a gondola, except the paddle has a hinged elbow rather than a solid oar as in Venice. We get reed hats to protect us from the sun and the very low bridge over the moat. We chatted to our boatman who in his limited English told us his daughter was in Sydney but could not explain where. His daughter has a new baby, so his wife was in Sydney to visit. Like yesterday, the commentary was all in Japanese but it was no issue as the view was spectacular. To help overcome this, we were given a sheet in English to guide us.
After the boat ride we visited the Koko-en Garden, which is right next door to the castle and entry can be bought on the same ticket. This garden has 13 different walled rooms from bamboo, to flat landscape, to ponds and also a tea house garden.
We have always wanted to participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and whilst this was not the full experience for 500 yen it was well worth it. Wearing a traditional kimono our server brings the tea and sweet and then bows graciously. One must say "thank for you the tea" which prompts a huge smile from the server. The sweet must be eaten first and is a bean curd paste wrapped in Mochi - a soft and sticky rice that is pounded into a paste. Then the tea bowl must be picked up with the left hand and rotated clockwise so the front is turned away. The guest then drinks the bitter green Matcha tea and once finished, rotates the bowl counter clockwise so it faces the front. The whole process is not about drinking tea but is about aesthetics and preparing a bowl of tea from one's heart, whilst enjoying the various different vistas from the tea house of the garden. A time to sit and reflect quietly.
The gardens were spectacular and due to the hot autumn are just starting to show the signs of colour. As we were about to exit we spotted a hummingbird moth flitting between the flowers. We had seen one the previous evening at Fushimi Inari and had mistaken it for a hummingbird. Of course there are no hummingbirds in Japan but these moths act just like a hummingbird, hovering before an open flower and using its proboscis to extract the nectar. The display captivated us for nearly 15 minutes.
On our way back to the station we stopped at a kimono shop The Navigatrix had seen on the way to the castle. She picked up a bright red obi.
"This looks nice," she said.
On closer inspection, the obi was printed with erotic Japanese images.
"Not something we should have in the lounge room then," she mused.
Himeji Castle is an amazing place and well deserving of its National Treasure status. Even The Navigatrix really enjoyed herself, despite the staircase-of-death climb. The other activities and areas of the castle (we did not do it all) easily make this a full day out.