Himeji Castle, Dotonbori

Ah, well, I had a good run. Today tsuyu finally caught up with me: it was hot and rainy, just like they’d promised me my entire stay would be. I got incredible weather until now, though, so I can’t complain! (I may still complain a bit)

Undaunted by the rain, I set on my journey to Himeji. It is 90 km west of Osaka, but it’s on the shinkansen line so the train ride takes just 29 minutes! And when a Japanese train says 29 minutes, it is not 28 or 30, it is exactly twenty-nine minutes. Once again, the JR Pass pays for itself (a one-way ticket would have cost me maybe €40 without it, so in practice I would have taken a regional train that would have taken twice as long).

When I got off at Himeji station, the castle was immediately visible at the end of the large avenue that connects the two points. The castle is also called The White Egret, which to me was puzzling: the “white” part is because the walls and the roofs are covered in plaster (by comparison, pictures of Kumamoto castle show it being almost entirely black), but to me it was weird to compare an enormous, robust fortress with a bird similar to a crane. When I saw the castle in the distance, though, I definitely saw a resemblance to a bird perched on top of a rock, as if it was coiled to take flight in any moment.

Himeji castle is the single most famous and impressive castle in Japan, mostly because it is one of the few Japanese castles that have survived to our days: most castles you can visit (like the also impressive Osaka castle) are in fact modern reproductions after the original structure burned down or collapsed during an earthquake. I guess to our eyes it doesn’t make any difference that Himeji’s white castle was built in 1609 and Osaka’s blue castle was built in the 1930s replicating its 1600s design, but there’s something special about walking its halls knowing people lived there four hundred years ago.

As with other Japanese castles, or indeed castles anywhere, to get to it you have to walk up and around a spiral of moats, defensive walls, gates and twisting paths designed to delay and expose invading forces. You buy your ticket right at the foot of the hill for JPY1000 (€8), although for just 40 more yen you can get a combined ticket that also gives you access to nearby Kokoen garden!

I’m pretty sure the walk up the hill and towards the castle would have been gorgeous on a clear day, but it was raining more and more every passing minute. I had my umbrella, as always, but wind was picking up and even with it I would get rained on at every turn. Every hope of “Maybe it will get better after a while!” was dashed; every attempt to wait under a roof for it to rain less heavily was a tactical mistake.

Even with the rain, the castle looked beautiful and majestic, so elegant with its clear lines and the shahi (the pointy ornamental fish on the corners of the roofs). Because the path spirals all around the hill, as you approach you get to see the castle from almost all sides (there was one side that had some scaffolding, but as soon as I crossed the main gate I couldn’t see it anymore).

By the time I got to the main keep, I was pretty damp from the knees down, and also sweating because rain or no rain it was still upwards of 25 degrees. At first I was a bit annoyed that they make you take off your shoes at the entrance and carry them with you on a plastic bag for the entire stay, but I quickly changed my mind because it gave my socks a chance to dry!

The inside of the keep is a bit disappointing, in that it’s almost completely empty, with no furniture or exhibits, and there is like one single explanatory panel on each floor and the information on it was always purely architectural (stuff like: the columns here support the weight of this thing, the walls there are new, the staircase was a late addition…) when I would have preferred to learn about the people who lived in the castle and the history it was witness to. That said, it was still special to walk around those halls, looking at the town below and imagining the view in the 17th century. All four sides of the keep have lattices instead of windows, and they were uncovered so every floor was swept by a pleasant breeze, the whistling sound of which reminded me eerily of the convent in Black Narcissus.

Eventually I made it to the top, the seventh floor (a neat architectural trick of Himeji is that from the outside it simulates having five floors, but in fact it has six floors and a basement, the extra floor meant as a defense mechanism to hide or store weapons to catch attackers by surprise), where there’s a small shrine and a lot of people resting their feet, and then I climbed back down again. Outside, it was still raining, even more heavily than before. I made a naive attempt to wait a few minutes, but it only got worse, so I armed myself with my umbrella and walked back down the hill.

The path down branches to the side, as you can visit the West Bailey, a smaller building next to the main keep. It fulfilled my single criterion to get on my must-visit list, which was: it is indoors, so off I went. Turns out this was something like a residential quarter for the shogun’s family, and so it’s more like a long series of adjoining rooms than a fortress. Here, finally, they had informative panels that talked about the different inhabitants of the castle and how each one added or refined different parts of the structure.

I tried to draw the visit out, but eventually I had to get back out into the open, where it was… raining more still. I joined the other tourists who were escaping back to the train station: some of them in much worse shape than me, without any umbrellas or raincoats or even a measly hood. The Kokoen garden was right next to the castle, and from reading about it I really wanted to check it out (it’s supposed to be a modern garden that has small representations of all types of Japanese gardens, like strolling garden, tea garden, zen garden…), but I couldn’t imagine going on an outdoor visit with this weather.

Back in the station I went into a St Marc’s and treated myself to a ChocoCro, this alleged invention that I discovered in my last visit to Japan and which I very begrudgingly admit is delicious. After I finished, it was still raining, so I went off to lunch inside the requisite station mall. After I finished, it was still raining as heavily as before, so I just gave up on the garden and hopped back on a shinkansen to make my way back to Osaka. It’s a pity that I had to leave the visit unfinished, but this is really supposed to be the normal weather for the season so in reality I’ve just been incredibly lucky to see and visit as many places as I have so far.

After a good afternoon’s rest at the hotel, I emerged when the sun was setting (very early, at around 19:30; back home there’s still daylight for two more hours) to go to Dotonbori, Osaka’s famous Blade-Runner-esque avenue of shops and restaurants. I visited already, the first time I came to Japan, so this time it took me less by surprise, but it’s still an assault on all the senses to walk among the crowds with all the lights and signs as if you were living your own cyberpunk adventure.

I stopped to have dinner at Chibo, the okonomiyaki place that I visited last time, and sure enough it was just where I left it! For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, okonomiyaki is Osaka’s most famous dish and it’s sort of like a pancake or an omelette with lots of different ingredients. And I don’t mean that as in “you can choose from a large selection of ingredients”, I mean it as in most okonomiyaki have all the ingredients at the same time. I was able to ask my waiter to please make mine without shrimp or squid (so I was left with “only” beef and bacon and onion and cheese and cabbage and…), and he asked me very concerned if I was okay with mayonnaise and dairy. I told him, “Honestly, I don’t have any allergies, I just don’t like them”, and this must have endeared me to him, because when another waitress served me my order in English he told her, “It’s okay, this one speaks Japanese” and totally made my day in the process! (Naturally, I said “oh not at all.”)

I didn’t need to check any of the shops around Dotonbori (all my omiyage is accounted for!), so mostly I wanted to walk along the canal, taking in the view and the reflections on the water. Miraculously, the rain had died down to a slight spray, so it was okay to walk without an umbrella and take pictures in every corner. Tomorrow I may be out all day sightseeing, so this may be my goodbye to the Osaka of the future!

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