Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Eve in a castle

Date: Thursday 24th December 2015

Weather: Overcast in Kobe however, beautiful in Himeji city. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. It was also incredibly hot for this time of year; so-much-so, that I was almost down to my t-shirt.

MP3 track of the day: White Christmas – Bing Cosby

My alarm woke me up from a gorgeous nights sleep within my hotel's double bed. I had indeed watched 'Love actually' last night, meaning that I finally went to bed around midnight. That resulted in my alarm waking me up at the early – but not too brutal – time of 7:30am. I had a lovely hot shower, got dressed and proceeded downstairs towards the breakfast area.

I'm not sure if it was the receptionist's lack of English vocabulary however, yesterday at check-in, she had made breakfast sound like a couple of bread rolls tagged onto a small Japanese style breakfast. The image she had put into my head had made me quiet annoyed as I had actually gone over my 'hotel budget' with this place because breakfast was included.

I need not have been annoyed. It was true that most of the food was tailored towards the Japanese pallet however, there was enough orange juice, coffee and croissants to make even my sister happy. Even so, my breakfast consisted mainly of the Japanese options available; I had some fish, fried chicken and cooked vegetables with a pile of Chinese cabbage and a small helping of rice on the side (you are supposed to put your rice within a separate bowl however, due to the fact that I wanted so little, I put a small dollop on the side of my main plate). I also helped myself to a croissant and a small roll of white bread. Amazingly, I couldn't find any water to drink therefore, I just stuck to orange juice. Breakfast was delicious and was just big enough to fill me up. Once breakfast had been consumed I returned to my room to pick up my small 'travel bag' and camera. I left the hotel on the stroke of nine.

The station isn't that far from my hotel therefore, I was able to catch the 9:23am train to Himeji. Today, there must have been something up with the train lines (a power fault or accident) because the train I boarded, at 9:23am, was supposed to have arrived forty-five minutes earlier. I am sure some of you are as astounded as I; as I am sure some of you have heard that Japanese trains are never late. Well the Japanese train system is split into two. I was on board a normal 'local train' which is very similar to the trains we have back at home. There are a few different 'local trains' (rapid, special-rapid, local etc) and, depending on which one you catch, will determine how many rabbit hutches you stop at before you reach your destination. The Japanese Shinkansen train service has it's own special tracks and is probably the train service you are most familiar with. These trains are never late (and a Shinkansen train is classed as late, if it arrives at the station ten seconds or more after it's due time). Anyway, I found myself on a 'local train' which, luckily for me, stopped at every station it could find from here to Himeji city. Fortunately, after pulling out of Kobe, the train was almost empty so I managed to get a seat and stare at the continual urban sprawl which went almost all the way.

Before leaving my hotel, I had once again asked for the latest weather report. I stood there astounded as the receptionist, with an air of certainty in his voice, read out that it was currently sunny and that it would become cloudy later with a 10% chance of rain. We could both see the window to the left of us and, we could both see that the weather was anything but sunny. I asked for a weather report for tomorrow and discovered that it was the same as today's only that there was a 20% chance of rain. Now that I was on the train, I would have had to eat my hat because, as soon as we left the city of Kobe, the clouds parted and a beautiful thick blue sky could be seen. I couldn't wait to get to Himeji castle.

Finally, heroically the train made it to Himeji station. My guidebook stated that the journey should take around forty minutes however, due to getting a 'local' train it took just over an hour. Once out of the station I stood at the bottom of a long street - with tall modern buildings flanking all the way down - which flowed all the way to the castle itself. Even from the station I could see the bright white keep and it instantly beckoned me to come forth. With the weather report firmly in my head, I wasted no time at all and walked directly towards the castle. If it was only going to be sunny in the morning, I wanted to get there as soon as possible to take as many photos as possible before the clouds engulfed the wonder that was before me. The time was 10:30am.

I finally made it across the last set of traffic lights and was confronted by a wooden crescent bridge with the castles 'outer-moat' running underneath. The outer-walls were very impressive and so I took a few pictures before noticing a huge 'tour group' – commanded by a woman in a read coat with a flag – battle marching to take and hold this castle for themselves. I therefore dived across the castles outer-bridge to take full advantage of the castle's defences – and to take some more photos of castle – before the area was succumb to this advancing rabble.

Once through the outer-walls, I was confronted by a huge open space where tourists had congregated into small pools of people, strategically positioned to get the best shots of the castle. Being someone who hates people, I rejected these crowded areas in favour of venturing forth and trying to find a unique and unheard of photo spot. I climbed the outer-wall defences and pushed tree branches aside, only to finally accept that there were no 'great angles' of the castle which hadn't already got a group of people – armed with a plethora of cameras – defending it. With my elbows at the ready, I prepared to join these groups.

I finally made it to the ticket office where I was very happy to hand over 1,040 Yen (£6) for a 'combined ticket' to see the castle and some Japanese Samurai gardens nearby. Once through the ticket barrier I was literally jumped on by an 'oldish' Japanese lady who it seems had just arrived to start work. I never did catch her name, but she was a retired Junior High School English teacher who now occasionally worked at a local High School and volunteered here, at the castle, to give guided tours of the castle in English. She – and my guidebook – explained that the guided tours were free because those people who gave them were not officially approved. I didn't care; free is free and usually those who give their time willingly are the best choice of guide as they want to do it (I also thought it was a rather splendid thing to do when you retire). She was an 'energetic old bird' with large glasses and a love for History and her country. She had only been to an English Speaking foreign country once in her life – and I use the words 'English speaking' loosely as she had visited Australia – therefore her English wasn't that natural, but it was understandable and boy, she knew a lot about the castle and other sites in Japan. My guidebook states that these 'guided tours' usually take around ninety minutes however, due to her vast knowledge, the fact that I had all day, I was the only foreigner for miles and that she seemed to like talking to people, my tour took a whopping three hours. Oh and she was a little bit racist.

The two of us then moved away from the ticket office and into the first courtyard. She began to explain about the area in great detail, whereas I photographed it asking the occasional question. She seemed fine with me taking photos whilst she talked, and she was thrilled with the fact that I live in Japan and that I had lived within a 'tsunami hit' area (lot's of Japanese people have thanked me for coming).

Not long after we had left the main courtyard, an Asian looking family asked if they could join the tour. My guide wasn't too keen at first, but then warmed to them once she discovered that they were from Malaysia.

As I have mentioned above, she had a lot of knowledge about the castles life and the last restoration project (which is why I had decided to visit Kansai now. Over the last nine years the whole main tower was de-constructed, with each piece cleaned and assessed for damaged before being put back together again). The things she said, which have stuck in my mind, are as follows:

Firstly the outer-defences were very well thought through. The paths leading to the main keep were not straight and had many right-angle turns in them to block 'lines of sight'. At some points, we had to walk away from the keep to actually get to it, thus presenting our back to any 'would-be' defender with a bow or musket. Walls over-lapped each other giving the effect of a maze with possible dead ends. Once through a gate, the land would rise suddenly to prevent visibility. These were all very interesting however, my personnel favourite was close to the walls of the keep itself. We had a choice of two paths; one of which was level and another which gently slopped downwards and provided few 'lines of sight'. Now, the keep was still slightly above me meaning that, the logical side of my brain, knew that I still needed to go up and therefore, the path sloping downwards seemed like the incorrect choice. Of course it was the right choice; as soon as I had turned around another 90 degree corner, it started to climb again. Now, all of these defences were easy for me to identify and bypass however, if an army had attacked Himeji – which never happened – you can imagine that, in the heat of the battle, these traps would have cost a lot of lives.

Secondly, the inner keep itself held a lot of secrets including many holes where troops could hide and ambush the oncoming enemy. There were purpose built bottle necks and, in times of war, fake walls would have been erected to make the enemy forces travel much further, through the keep, than necessary to get to the top where the castle's lord would have been waiting. Finally, from the outside the castle looks as though it has five floors due to the way the windows had been arranged. Actually there are six floors; one had been purpose built to be concealed.

Finally, just outside of the keep there is a well called 'Okiku-ido'. Okiku was a maid within the castle in-charge of the crockery. It is unclear if she tried to steal, or if she broke a plate however, the story is that she was killed and thrown into this well because a plate had gone missing. Sometime after a ghost story had been created around this episode; people said that if you approached the well, you could hear 'Okiku' counting the plates. My guide believes that this story was created to hide an even bigger secret. Now that the well has dried up, my guide shone a light down into the well and a possible passage way could be seen. My guide believes that there was a secret emergency passage way out of the castle's keep which ended at this well and, the story of Okiku was created to stop people finding out about it.

I had a truly wonderful time around the castle. Even though it was now close to two in the afternoon – and the Malaysian family had departed – the sky was still perfect. My guide took me around the final part of the castle – the servant's quarters – before we parted company at around 2:30pm. I thanked her for her time and then she ran off to pounce on another unsuspecting foreign person. I, having not had anything to eat or drink for the last six hours, found the closest vending machine and selected a nice cool coke. The tour guide had been great because I was able to go at my own speed and I was never hurried a long – in fact, I would go as far to say that, in the end, I hurried the tour guide a long. However I was now totally shattered; what I needed was a park or some gardens where I could just relax before embarking on another possible 'fact filled' adventure. It was then that I remembered that I had bought the 'combined ticket' for the castle and some Samurai gardens. I got out my guidebook and located where the gardens were. I was hungry, but with it being almost 3pm, I knew things were going to close in another hour or so.

'Himeji-jo Koko-en' is the name given to nine connected Edo-era style gardens. Each garden is separated by a traditional Japanese wall. The gardens themselves had all the traditional features you would find in a Japanese garden of that period; winding paths, flowing water, large stones and small bridges. The water was filled with carp and whole place was just what I needed after the castle. I peacefully walked around the whole area allowing my brain to digest the information given to me about the castle. I took many pictures while slowly taking in the sights and the sounds. Throughout my travels I have seen quite a few different gardens; with that knowledge, I have come to the conclusion that the Japanese style of garden is the one for me as I find it so peaceful. I love this idea of 'borrowing scenery' from around where you live. I love the windy paths and the continual sound of running water. When I eventually grow-up - become 'sensible', join society etc - I hope to buy a house with a garden. I would very much like to change it into a traditional Japanese garden (I just hope that I have some nice scenery to 'borrow' … not like the back of a Tesco's supermarket).

I spent about thirty minutes within the gardens themselves. Once out I followed a footpath around the perimeter of the castle heading north. My fondness for Himeji city – the second largest city in the Hyogo prefecture – was growing. Not only was the castle staggering but, in a city of this size, there were still peaceful places where you could get lost and be alone.

Once at the north of the city, I walked towards Himeji's museum of history. The city also has a art museum and a museum dedicated to literature however, it was only the history museum which held any possible interest for me. As I was now full with information I wasn't really in the mood to take in more. With hindsight, I shouldn't have even bothered going, as I spent a total of '23 minutes' walking quickly around six rooms of exhibits. Still, it only cost £1.70 to enter so I won't loose any sleep over it. The museum had a room dedicated to old Japanese toys and a room with twelve beautiful models of the twelve castle keeps across Japan which have survived in their original form. I have already visited three of the twelve.

With that, I watched eight minutes of a twenty minute documentary before throwing in the towel. It was now twenty minutes before the place shut, all other museums would close at the same time therefore I walked away from the museum, and the castle area, completely satisfied but very tired. I walked back down the main road towards the station, occasionally turning to take a final glimpse at the castle – which was starting to get swamped by cloud and darkness – which had brought such a big smile to my face.

Before boarding the train, I found a ramen noodle shop and ate my fill. Luckily it was very filling though, sadly, it didn't taste that great. Once finished I therefore went to the ice cream parlour next door and ordered a large scoop of 'caramel blast' … which was divine.

Once I'd purchased my train ticket, I went up onto 'platform five' and was happy to be greeted by a 'special-rapid' service train. Instead of stopping at every ditch from here to Kobe, this would make limited stops … and I do mean limited. I arrived in Kobe after only 38 minutes (almost half the time it took to get to Himeji) and, having just eaten, I walked back to my hotel where I looked through my photos.

Once again, due to a big breakfast and a late lunch I think I'll be skipping dinner. This is good as it has hopefully saved me a bit of money which I can use tomorrow – Christmas Day – to have some 'damn good grub'. Tomorrow I plan to have a lazy day. I shall hopefully get up around 8am and have my fill of the free breakfast. I shall then visit an island called 'Rokko Island' where, I believe, there is a museum about the tragic 1995 Kobe earthquake (by the way, Himeji-jo castle was unaffected by the earthquake). I shall then take-in Kobe's 'foreign' quarter before calling it a day. If the weather is good – and I have the time – I might climb up one of the many hills over-looking the city. Though I plan not to waste the day tomorrow, I do also plan to enjoy my Christmas and to relax somewhat.

Merry Christmas

Toodle Pip!


  1. Merry Christmas matey!
    Sweet old dears are usually the most racist :)
    Do you really have to eat a KFC?

  2. Yes it is true

    For some UNKNOWN REASON, the Japanese think that we 'western folk' tuck into the Colonel's finest.