Located 117km southwest of Kyoto is coastal city of Himeji. More like a town really with its 500,000 inhabitants compared to the metropolitan region of Osaka/Kyoto/Nara.
Why were we leaving the hustle and bustle of downtown Kyoto to visit this smaller place?
Himeji Castle… that’s why!
Its a 17min walk up the wide boulevard of Otemae Street, north of the station and the original sotobori ‘Outer Moat’, before you arrive at the uchibori ‘Inner Moat’. Like European castles, these moats were built in rings around the inner bailey or tenshu.
The current Castle dates back to the 1600s and Ikeda Terumasa’s rebuild. It is called the ‘White Heron’ Castle due to its white exterior and shape (it looks like a bird taking flight). Originally it started as a small fort, built in 1333 before being expanded in 1346 by Sadonari Norimura (son of the original castellan).We were very fortunate that there was zero queuing to buy tickets and then enter the castle grounds.
One of the most interesting items in the castle was a very small ceramic tile, one of thousands of Kawara that make up the intricate exterior of the castle but one that is very unique as it displays a Christian Cross. The only Christian symbol in the entire complex. Legend has obfuscated the reason it is there but it has been credited by local superstition as the reason why Himeji Castle survived a number of disasters, it was not slated to be destroyed by the Japanese Government in the 1870s,nor when it was purchased soon after for 23 Yen and then slated for bulldozing, and it was not bombed into extinction by the US XX Bomber Command on 3rd July 1945 despite a number of firebombs dropping onto it. (Himeji itself was an important railway junction). A Castle with Nine Lives!!
We were afforded the opportunity to climb up the Main Keep (Daitenshu), all 7 floors and 46m of height. Two pillars of wood, the east one a single fir tree, the west one a pair of Japanese cypress trees from the Kiso Mountains that join on the third floor, hold up this massive structure. The interior contains tatami mats, weapon racks, hidden rooms for defending samurai. The third and fourth floors have platforms for observation and defence.
As you go up the flights of wooden stairs the levels get smaller and smaller before you reach the top where you can take some panoramic shots across the castle grounds and back on Himeji city.
If you are wondering if you have seen this castle before, you might be right. It serves as Tiger Tanaka’s secret Ninja Training Base in the James Bond Movie “You Only Live Twice” (1969), with special prominence as Sean Connery’s bond flies in by helicopter. It also featured in the Richard Chamberlain series Shogun (1980). (Which is a really great glimpse of Medievel Japan btw).
You can also build it as a World Wonder in later versions of Sid Meier’s classic strategy game Civilisation.
After exploring Himeji Castle in the morning we spent the afternoon checking out the city of Kobe on the way back to Kyoto. Japan’s 6th largest city has a population of 1.5m inhabitants and is located slightly to the west of Osaka. Kobe has had quite an interesting history and was one of the first Japanese ports to be opened up to Western trade after the end of the Policy of Seclusion in 1853. What followed was a synagogue, Japan’s first mosque, Japan’s first Sikh Temple and numerous examples of European Architecture as traders and merchants around the world descended on Kobe.
We were greeted at Kobe Shinkansen Railway Station by some street art and murals – evidence of creativity from the nearby Kobe Art College.
Karen had done some research and we jumped on a tram down to the waterfront to check out Meriken Park. On January 17th 1995 the city of Kobe was devastated by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Over 6,400 lives were lost, 300,000 people displaced from over 10,000 ruined homes and most of the great port was destroyed. We expected to see a warzone, miles of contstruction sites and enforced changes to the landscape. What we found was a city re-born. The only evidence of this event was the memorial and part of the original harbour left untouched – like a proud scar on the face of Kobe.
Part of that re-birth can be seen in the futuristic Port Tower and Kobe Maritime Museum (operated by local company Kawasaki Heavy Industries) and in the sentiments behind the ‘Be Kobe’ sign
Back towards town we see part of the American influence on Kobe beginning with the Fish Dance Monument – a giant karp made of chain link mesh and copper plating by famed artist Frank Gehry (the one from that simpsons episode where Homer goes to prison and become a snitch!). Its massive at 72 feet tall and shares a fountain with a much smaller statue of an American Eagle holding a salmon in it’s claws. A gift from Kobe’s sister city, the great Western port city of Seattle.
Around the corner is the 15th Building – once home to the first American Consulate in Kobe in the original foreign concession – built in the Classical European style (two floors, veranda and columns on the second floor). The concession (settlement) itself was just north of the harbour in the present day chuo-ku district.
Nankingmachi is the name of the Chinatown district in Kobe. Named after the former capital of China Nanjing by the Chinese settlers who arrived post 1868. Compact but full of character the usual assortment of business and restaurants vie for tourist attention with small stalls selling manju (steamed buns) and ramen. Located back towards Sannomiya station it was great to spend some time taking photos.
This decision was incredibly easy. Kobe is home to a very specific set of standards regarding Wagyu Beef that has given rise to a delicacy – Kobe Beef – tender, fatty and well-marbled texture. The Japanese have Chinese migrants to thank for bringing over cattle in the 2nd Century and these later were cross-bred with European breeds (Devon, Shorthorn) to give us the Japanese Black Wagyu strain that we enjoyed. Only 3,000 head of cattle each year qualify as Kobe Beef so it is not cheap.. but it tasted divine.
Before that we stumbled down some stairs and found another hidden cocktail bar. Outside ‘a cacophony of sounds, a kaleidoscope of colour’ (to quote the great Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh), inside soft jazz and muted decor wrapped around a very decent looking selection of booze. For those to follow this placed was call Alco-Hall.
We had a great couple of hours in Kobe but felt like we barely scratched the surface. A must-do return trip would allow us to explore Nunobiki Ropeway and gardens, or take a trip to the Onsen Baths at Arima, stroll along Kitano Concession or do a Sake Brewery tour.