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Himeji

Rest assured panicked readers (hello Mum) I am not going to let my parent’s trip turn into another Tokyo, I do intend to eventually talk about all of it.

So let’s knock off a couple of quick ones now before we get into the real meat of the trip.

Eww, that didn’t sound nearly so dirty until I wrote it down.

Himeji Castle.

Hey look everybody its Himeji castle, a place I have written about several times before. Taking my family was fun but not as much fun as the first time I went. This is mostly because nothing about it had changed. Himeji castle was cool the first time and it is still a really amazing building offering a simply wonderful view but, well I’ve seen it now.

Also contributing to the slightly less fun-ness was the conflict between my Dad, who like me enjoys reading everything in a museum and my brother and mother who apparently like to whizz through it.

There was also the slight problem that it was absolutely packed to bursting with people! We went during what we thought was a regular day but Himeji-jo was absolutely rammed. The queue to get into the main keep was nearly 40 minutes! Every other time I have visited I practically walked straight in.

Even more strange but when we got to the top (having slowly trudged round for hours) no sooner were we at the top of the tower than a man made some kind of announcement in Japanese and everyone started to go downstairs again. My Japanese is improving but I had absolutely no idea what he had said, I just knew that there was simply no way I was going to go back down and leave the tower after spending such a long time waiting patiently to get to the top. So I did the only sensible thing in such a situation. I studiously avoided the man and feigned all ignorance of Japanese. Then when nearly everybody had left the tower he suddenly stopped directing people to leave. My initial thought had been that there was some kind of safety issue and a certain number of people had to leave for the floor to be safe. However, now he was no longer instructing me to go downstairs I was suddenly very curious about what the commotion was all about. In broken Japanese I discerned that we had elected to go Himeji on a very special day. For a limited period a room in the keep that is not normally open to the public was going to go on display.

And he had told everyone to go see it.

And we couldn’t go see it again for an hour.

Arse.

I can’t tell you what was in that room or if it is worth seeing because I never saw it. My family not wanting to wait an hour (rather sensibly I thought) we dithered at the top for a bit and then made tracks to the nearby Japanese garden.

Probably the highlight of that particular trip for me personally was introducing my brother to ramune. Ramune is a Japanese soft drink that is kind of lemon-lime flavoured but also has its own distinctive taste. The best thing about it though is the very strange bottle. Ramune is sealed with a marble and comes with a kind of plastic bottle stopper. To open the bottle you have to strike the bottle stopper very hard to dislodge the marble. The neck of the bottle is really thin so the marble rests just above the neck and rolls around making a noise when you drink it. It is entirely pointless. It obviously takes a lot of effort to make such a weird bottle and it is difficult to use and drink from. It has no benefits whatsoever except that…well, weird things are fun, aren’t they.

Actually it does have one cool use. With practise one can get the marble to sit into the seal again using your tongue. You can then carry the bottle around without it spilling or losing its fizz. My brother was fascinated by it, and brought a load home.

The main reason I wanted to talk about this trip to Himeji though was as an excuse to post a load of photos of Himeji castle when the cherry blossom is out.

I am totally and utterly infatuated with Himeji castle. I think it is the most handsome building in the whole of Japan, possibly one of the most handsome every constructed. It may not be the most ornate or striking; the architecture may not be the most original or unique but it is just striking enough, the architecture is composed just perfectly. Himeji castle harmonises its own aesthetics with the surrounding area like no other building I know of.

It is bloody gorgeous!

As such I will not pass up any opportunity to post photos of it. Enjoy!

Osaka Operations

I’ll spare you most of the description of my parent’s trip to Osaka because, well because I wasn’t there. I had to work that day and I showed up, very late, very frustrated with a phone charger I had bought, very tired and very wet at Osaka castle just in time for everybody to leave and meet me outside. I soon cheered up though.

I avoided some of the places in Osaka I usually frequent and instead directed everyone to head straight to the Umeda Sky Building for some fine dining and finer views. The Umeda Sky Building, as the name might imply, is in Umeda. Sadly this means that to get to it one has to walk through a long tunnel that goes under the river.

What’s so sad about that, you may very well ask. It is the smell. The foul stench of rotting eggs, presumably coming from the river, that hits you like an odorous brick the second you step into the tunnel and doesn’t let up until you well out the other side.

In fact it is worse than a brick. It isn’t just the initial shock but the persistent encroaching growth of the smell. It seems to enter into you and crawl all over you. Essentially it is a very smelly tunnel.

The destination is worth the discomfort though. The Umeda Sky Building is one of the many sightseeing towers that seem to spring up in every major Japanese city. Kobe has Port Tower seen in the above picture and Tokyo has Tokyo Tower and Tokyo View and is also in the process of building a new one, Tokyo Sky Tree. Apparently the thing to do in Japan is to go to a very high spot and look at it as these viewing towers are a major attraction in every big city.

Osaka has a few towers but the one offering the best view is the Umeda Sky Building. I mean, just see for yourselves.

The southern coast of Japan is basically one big metropolis, running all the way from Hiroshima on the Western tip to the North-eastern prefectures. It is the biggest single metropolis in the world. It is effectively the Mega City from Blade Runner in all but name (and flying cars dammit!). During the day and at ground level Japan seems very urban, complicated and built up but at night and from a high perspective it seems positively alien. Gazing out over the endless city is less like sight seeing and more like star gazing. The sky inverts so that the world you look upon seems to encompass a whole universe. It is astonishingly, unbelievably, uniquely beautiful. Romantic poets would be horrified at the lack of nature in all this but the metropolis possesses its own strange beauty all to itself.

My family and I wandered around for more than an hour just drinking this all in. It really is, in the real sense of the word, awesome.

And after the shock of the view had worn off there was still plenty of cool things at the top of the tower. There was this seat for example. Although we didn’t know it at the time this is actually a kind of love tester. Couples sit on the bench; hold each other’s hands and a metal pole. The harder you squeeze the bigger the heart gets. Sadly Fran and I didn’t work this out until after we saw the photo and so didn’t really try the game.

There was also a small dark room with couches and a screen on the floor. The screen made visualisations that reacted to how people moved on the couches. It is all too easy to imagine what three men got up to when presented with a toy that made colours and shapes in relation to how you bounced on a couch. Although the young Japanese couple in the room with us seemed positively embarrassed to play we were bouncing up and down like coke fuelled six year olds on a hotel bed. Joyous fun.

The building itself is an amazing piece of architecture too. It consists of two towers, joined at the top to create a kind of arch shape, but with a circular hole in the top section that makes the building look a little bit like a UFO. Going across the hole are two walkways which one has to cross to get to the viewing platform. This is great fun, even for someone with a minor fear of heights like me, as you can look through the glass bottom of the walkway to see the dizzying heights. Fran was less keen on it than I though.

This design, whilst cool, is hugely impractical. The building has a hug foot print consisting of both the towers and the viewing section at the top. But underneath the viewing section there is no more building. So the Umeda Sky Building wastes almost a good third of the potential space it could occupy. A third of the space wasted is simply atrociously bad architecture from a practical perspective. However, it does look cool. So sod the impracticality, I’m not paying for it.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that underneath the Sky Building is a faux pre-war Japanese street complete with fake shop fronts, fake posters, fake lanterns, etc, etc all trying to evoke that “Suki Wong” 1920’s eastern glamour. These are surprisingly popular in Japan and crop up in a fair few places but particularly in Osaka. The specimen beneath the Sky Building is nothing special but it did have a nice Okonomiyaki restaurant where my family got to try their first taste of this Osakan speciality. Verdict? They liked it but struggled quite a bit to actually eat it.

Bleh, sorry for the no-post on Tuesday. Blame the combination of Fran and the national holiday. We went to Osaka Castle for the day (and it was lovely, thanks for asking) and got home pretty late so I wasn’t in any position to blog. I meant to have this updated yesterday but work put the kibosh on that.

This weekend starting from early on Sunday I will be headed to Hiroshima with a backpack and a guidebook and the hope that I will be okay. Tuesday or late Monday I get back and there might be some site-fiddling accomplished then.

Until then please enjoy some more poctures of the confectionary conference.

So when last we spoke I had gone into the tent to look at the aesthetically magnificent world of Japan’s sweets.

Well I still have some more pics of sweets to show you, lucky you!

These are what the Japanese people call “wagashi”. Sweets to be eaten with tea as part of a tea ceremony. I particularly like the multi-coloured one in the middle.

More wagashi.

You have to love the chicken wagashi here don’t you.

Later on there were some amazing cakes.

These I included because I really love the artwork on Japanese sweets.

Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro.

Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro dori-yaki.

Hyoku-manju. Awww aren’t they cute!?

We finished up but were unfortunately too late to get into the other major display in the convention. This was a shame as someone had told me about a chocolate replica of Himeji castle and I had not seen it. Disappointed I decided to fortify myself with another ice-cream, sort of.

What I actually had was dondurma, or Turkish ice-cream. This is like ice-cream in many respects but is enormously stretchy and almost had a rubbery quality to it. It’s quite nice and makes a better ice cream cornet since it doesn’t melt. The guy who served it to us was a real comedian too. We asked for two and he handed Fran one then used his ladle to quickly snatch the cone out of Fran’s hands, revealing a second, empty cone in her hand and with the dondurma and cone sticking to his ladle. He gave me the finished cone and then proceeded to arse about showing off to Fran with the dondurma demonstrating how sticky and stretchy it was. He got seriously on my nerves but Fran seemed pretty pleased with it all.

So overall not the best day out I’ve ever had in Japan but not horrible. I bought some unusual sweets and got a load of freebies and I met the Mayor of Osaka. I’ve had worse weekends.

I have recovered sufficiently to do a proper post again. So let’s get to it.

The 25th Annual National Confectionary Convention was held in Himeji in the grounds of the castle this year. It promised sweets to eat, beautiful sweets to look at, rare sweets to buy and generally an extravaganza of sweets. Fran being Fran this appealed to her greatly and off we set to candy land.

What it actually delivered was sweets to eat, beautiful sweets to look at, rare sweets to buy, and insanely hot day and enormous crowds. So it wasn’t quite the brilliant day I had envisaged.

It all started when we got to the castle and negotiated the signage to get into the convention grounds. Neither of us can really read Japanese and the English signage was infrequent so we could only hazard a guess at what each tent contained. We opted to try our hand at something we think was called “Glico land.” Glico is the company that makes pocky and any regular readers will know that I am a big big fan of the pocky. Anticipating free pocky I eagerly got in line.

The better part of an hour later I got into the tent and was sorely disappointed. The thing was absolutely crawling with kids and had exhibits up for all the major confectionary brands in Japan, Meiji, Glico, Calbee, Fujiya and a few others. The problem was whilst there was a lot to do in there; there was nothing for adults to do. We got some free poifull (a kind of jellybean) and a free donut and had exhausted the possibilities of the tent for adults. Having queued for the better part of an hour I was really quite annoyed.

Still I endeavoured to cheer myself by buying an ice cream. It being exceedingly hot this had the added bonus of cooling me down too. My ice cream was excitingly bright blue but it had a flavour that was quite vanilla like but yet a little bit off. Fran claimed to recognise it but neither of us could identify it. Nice though.

Finding an English sign we set off for the main exhibit in the convention, the collection of sweets from all over Japan. This was a tent divided into sections for the different prefectures of Japan and inside each section were traditional sweets unique to the region. Japan is very keen on its regional distinctions and regional varieties abound in everything from sake and sweets to rice crackers, snacks, savoury food and even just rice. Other than the rice (although Japanese people will strongly disagree with me) you really can tell the difference a lot of the time. This is not a homogenised country like Britain where food is much the same from one end to the other. For example the Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) in Osaka, a city significantly closer to Kobe than Leeds is to Manchester say, are phenomenally different (and much better). In fact in Kobe’s neighbouring city Akashi they serve Akashi-yaki which is octopus dumplings floating in a soup.

However I am no expert of the regional foods in Japan and English signs were non-existent so I contented myself with staring open mouthed at some of the phenomenal creations that the chefs had made for this exhibition.

Before I did that though, I had to get into the tent. The queue for this was much shorter (it was a bigger tent) but just as we got to the front we were suddenly stopped by some commotion. A load of photographers and television cameras started to gather in front of me; obviously some VIP was going to emerge shortly to have their photo taken. Eventually a kindly silver haired man and assorted hangers on started to arrive from inside the tent and set up a table in front of the entry. Japanese people started cheering and some people took photos of him. I asked someone in the queue who he was and in broken English he told me that he was the “Osaka number one boss. President.” I take this to mean that I met the Mayor of Osaka. Better than that though, shortly after he arrived they started the queue again and the mayor started handing out free sweets to people going into the tent. Not only did I meet the mayor of Osaka but he gave me some doriyaki too!

It was good doriyaki as well.

Anyway we eventually got into the tent and started gazing at the fabulous creations.

Creations such as:

This married couple that I think was some kind of cake.

“bye bye Miss American pie”

This temple constructed of sheets of mochi (rice cakes).

The blackest most evil looking Youkan I have ever seen.

Taiyaki!!!

This unbelievably nice looking mochi.

More fish.

Little sakura flowers.

Purple crisps.

This baked castle.

These amazing sea anemone style things made from sugar I assume.

And bunnies! For some reason Fran attracts rabbits wherever she goes.

We also saw:

This recreation of a famous Japanese artwork in mochi.

Another Japanese painting re-created. I particularly liked the jelly river with the koi carp swimming in it.

This quite disturbing boar’s head cake.

This AMAZING sakura tree.

These are a traditional sweet that is usually eaten in summer festivals.

And now I am going to sign off because blogger is playing up and being annoying. More pictures soon along with a site re-design hopefully.

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’s Well

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.

Spooky huh?

Gun Racks

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.

Bugger.

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.

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