First order of business in order to educate my father.
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and now onto the exciting things.
Exciting Thing Number 3
Remember how I was so excited by the giant Buddha and said it was easily one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen.
Himeji castle tops it.
Himeji castle shatters it.
Himeji castle is simply gorgeous.
Himeji-jo (the suffix jo means castle in Japanese) is somewhere I’ve been wanting to go pretty much since I arrived in Japan. Not because I knew it was stunning and magnificent but because other people were going.
Basically my knowledge of Japan before I got here was really quite limited, particularly regarding places to go. However, as I was in no hurry and had a guidebook and other people about me I figured I’d pick up on interesting things to do soon enough. And so it was that in my first few weeks here I’d ask people “what’d you do this weekend?” and they’d reply “oh, we went to Himeji castle”.
However I didn’t actually get around to seeing it until a couple of weeks ago. At first I was waiting for a group of people to go with. Castles are not something that generally excite me, although I have seen some nice ones, and I reasoned that I’d probably want a group of people to travel with. However plans always kept falling through and by the time I got around to starting my own plans people would always answer “oh I’ve seen it”. After a while I got sick of this and decided to strike out on my own….just as soon as the leaves changed colour.
Man am I glad that I waited until the leaves changed colour.
Just….stunning isn’t it.
I hadn’t actually heard of Himeji-jo before I came to Japan and I doubt most people have but I cannot recommend it enough. This is a must see sight in Japan. For starters it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site and the oldest standing castle in Japan today but more than that it’s bloody gorgeous.
Himeji represents what Japanese architects can do when they really succeed. The traditional aim of Japanese architecture has its roots in the Zen and Shinto culture of traditional Japan. A bit like feng shui its all about constructing a building in harmony with the surrounding landscape so that the building actually adds to the quality of the landscape and vice versa. Building and nature combine together, the landscape enhancing the craftsmanship of the building and the building framing and glorifying the landscape.
Too often they get this wrong, especially nowadays, and simply plonk a gorgeous building in a crappy dark forest or ruin a subtle and glorious landscape with a hastily erected and natty looking shrine.
But when they get it right they get it right. Buildings like this are why I came to Japan. Well one of the reasons anyway.
And to top it all off it’s a castle, a real working castle (well not anymore). Not a palace or a villa but something whose main goal was being able to withstand an attack. That’s why it’s so tall. The castle is built on enormous stone walls (called bow curve walls for the curve of them that repelled attempts to climb them) at the top of a hill.
For this height it gets the nickname “the white heron”. Specifically that refers to the way the actual building seems to fly just above the tree line. This is easily my favourite feature of the castle, it looks like some kind of floating fairytale castle, not a real thing. The trees disguise the walls so well that it does seem to be hovering majestically.
And speaking of trees just look at those colours! Fiery red’s, rich browns, distinctive greens, yellows letting it all run together. You could not design a more handsome colour scheme. I like Autumn in England, its my favourite month and that’s in part because of the lovely colours in the tree line but England does not hold a candle to Japan. Here entire mountainsides look like they’ve burst into flames. And you don’t have to travel far to see a mountain here, there’s two by my house and I go up one to work.
Japanese people love red maples actually. Going to look at leaves is a bit of a national past time. It’s called momijigari literally autumn leaf viewing. That all sounds a little bit funny and odd and decidedly Japanese (“now it is Autumn so we must go to look at leaves for that is the thing that is done in Autumn” sounds very similar to an actual sentence one of my JTE’s said once “Now it is the season when Japanese people think it is a good time to read so I am reading because it is a good time for reading.”) until you come here and get swept up in the magic of it all.
Basically the Japanese love nature, and based on the nature they have in this country it isn’t hard to see why.
Anyway enough gushing about pretty colours (sooooo pretty) lets talk about castles.
Himeji castle was first built in 1333 and finished in 1346…then it was destroyed in 1580 but unlike most Japanese Castles it has not been destroyed since then, despite Himeji being bombed in World War 2. This makes it the oldest surviving castle in Japan and it was in use as an actual castle for a surprisingly long time. It was sold to a public trust in 1871 (for a staggering 23 Yen…wow!) and the last battle fought there was in 1868. This is a building that mixes gun racks with hidden rooms and devices for dropping boiling oil and rocks. There are many portraits inside of the wonderfully odd sight of men in full samurai armour loading and firing rifles.
The major building period was in 1601 where the bow curve walls were made, and therein lies an interesting story associated with this rock.
In 1601 Ikeda Teremusa embarked on the process of re-shaping the castle ruin into a habitable and useful defense again. However his major stumbling block was a lack of suitable rocks. It wasn’t that there are no rocks in Himeji but that they weren’t of a suitable kind for masonry and Teremusa had to raise funds to have rocks shipped from elsewhere. He was struggling to do this for months and as legend would have it an old woman donated her only millstone to start Teremusa off. Soon word spread of her charity and people from all over the region began donating stones to the castle and allowing for the walls to be built.
Almost certainly utter bollocks but a good story nonetheless.
About halfway through the day I got to experience the thrill of being all wise and knowledgeable because I got chatting to some Australian tourists wandering around the castle. I rarely get to exercise my annoying know it all genes in Japan as most of my friends have been here longer than me and speak much better Japanese. So it was really fun to recommend stuff and help them plan out the rest of their trip and point out interesting things in the castle.
I neglected to mention that the reason I could point out interesting things was that I had been given an English guide when I bought my ticket and they (being all of Asian descent) had been given the Japanese one by mistake.
And here are some of the interesting things.
Okiku and the 9 Plates is one of the most famous and important of all Japanese folklore stories and forms the basis for most Yurei (Japanese ghosts) myths. It’s been made into plays, stories and filmed numerous times. Most recently it served as a large part of the inspiration behind The Ring/Ringu films which are brilliant and well worth a watch.
The basics of the story are thus…
Okiku was the beautiful servant of the samurai, Aoyama Tessan. She refused his amorous advances so he tricked her into believing that she had lost one of the family’s ten precious delft plates. She counted the nine plates again and again but could never find the tenth. As a servant she could have easily been killed for such an error but Aoyama offered to overlook the matter if she became his lover. She still refused and he threw her down a well to her death.
She became a vengeful spirit who tormented her murderer by counting to nine and then making a terrible shriek to represent the missing tenth plate.
This would be the very well where okiku was apparently murdered if she actually existed.
Obviously the vengeful ghost climbing from the well bit was borrowed heavily by The Ring, as was the general appearance of her spirit as one can see in this wood print.
Such a weird contrast.
Anyway I pottered around the castle for a bit longer after that but eventually left to go try and find Koko-En.
The suffix -en means garden and Koko-En is a traditional Japanese garden. It stands in the remnants of the old Samurai quarters quite near to the castle.
But could I find it? Could I buggery.
Instead I got hopelessly lost wandering around the back of the castle next to rivers, through parks and the like and not getting anywhere near to Koko-En.
Not that I cared as the scenery was GORGEOUS!
Just look at it!
No I was serenely happy being lost.
Eventually I heard some music and wandered off to investigate it and found one of the strangest sights of my life.
On top of a hill, facing the castle was a man and a dog. Not that strange I’ll grant you but what made it odd was that he was singing, loudly and unselfconsciously in the direction of the castle.
His song was one of those weird Japanese ballads usually accompanied by the Shamisen. The aim of the singing seems to be to get your voice to go as wobbly as possible (I think the musical term is vibratto but I’m not sure and I know Fran hates it when I get things like the wrong). Rather than one note per syllable each syllable necessitates a wander up and down the scale and a weird wobbly effect that’s like…. well remember when you were a kid and you used to press the flap of your ear closed repeatedly so every other second the sound cut off? No..? Maybe that was just me. Anyway it sounds like that.
Nor normally I HATE this kind of singing. Whether its Shamisen singers warbling on like birds caught in a door frame or Christina Aquilera having some kind of stroke it is not a style of singing I like.
But this was guy was good.
And coupled with my confusion, the beautiful sight of the castle and the sheer unexpectedness of getting a free concert like this it kind of turned into something magical. A perfectly serene plateau.
Then his dog joined in so I quickly scarpered.
I did find Koko-En eventually. IT was alright. I like Japanese gardens but this wasn’t a particularly stunning one. I stopped in a place that promised I could have a cup of tea and admire the garden and was disappointed to discover it was a restaurant. I really want to sit in a Buddhist temple, on tatami and drink tea and eat wagashi but haven’t had the chance yet.
Still it was a nice temple and I had the local speciality, Unagi-obento or Eel Lunch Box. It was very tasty. Unexpectedly sweet and just what I needed after all my walking.
And then I had a walk in the garden and spotted that they actually had a proper tea room with tatami and wagashi.
Now most people and most guidebooks say that once you’ve seen the castle that’s basically it for Himeji, there’re some minor shrines and Koko-En but everyone says the town itself is pretty naff.
I disagree actually. Between the train station and the castle is a handsome very wide tree lined street and branching off from this is a veritable maze of shops. Essentially between the castle and the train station is one big shopping arcade full of really cool independently owned alternative clothing shops which I spent a merry hour just browsing around. Ooh and I bought a hat.
I also found the largest example of what I call a “hippy shop” I have ever come across. By this I mean a shop that sells a lot of beads, incense, vaguely African or Indian crafts and woodwork and some horrible Peruvian hats and tops in rainbow colours (of the type favoured by vegetarian students the world over). This place was HUGE though, it was practically a hippy supermarket and it seemed smack bang out of place in Japan but was packed, apparently there is a big demand for vaguely ethnic tat in Japan going unfulfilled.
I also know these shops by the name of Fran shops because of her peculiar attraction to them. At least she has the good sense not to buy the stupid Peruvian hats.