Kawaguchiko to Himeji was the next leg of our journey, which took us through Osaka. We had just enough time for breakfast in Osaka’s fancy modern train station before we caught a train to Himeji.
Himeji is a small city famous for one thing. It is home to the most outstanding example of a Japanese castle that is still original. When we say original what we mean is that is still constructed as it was originally but in order to preserve it, it has actually been disassembled and reassembled into it’s current form. We had read that it would be busy and upon walking across the moat we noticed just how many tour groups were being led around. Because of this we opted to see the castle gardens first and hope that by the time we made it to the castle the tour groups would have left.
The gardens were more beautiful than we expected. We walked through the entrance and found ourselves in a peaceful serene garden with bamboo, mud walls and maple trees with spectacular autumn colours of red and gold. Even better there were only a few other visitor and none of them were snapping hundreds of selfies. From the first garden we strolled over a wooden bridge and into a traditional teahouse with views over a lake and waterfall. The water was full of giant koi carps from grey through to polka dot orange and white (we know that koi keepers probably have fancy names for these). This garden was probably the most beautiful we had been in and we think this was partly due to the fact we were able to walk among the plants, across the stepping stones and stone bridges rather than be restricted to a gravel walkway. There were also a few other gardens with themes of bamboo, pine trees, flowers and seedlings. The garden wasn’t huge but we spent a long time enjoying the calm between its walls.
Moving on to the castle we knew we had made the right decision. People were thin on the ground giving us much better views of the castle upon the hill. We took the most trodden path up to the castle keep and up to the sixth floor. The entire structure is wooden and made from some truly gigantic beams all fitted together without nails. They had even managed to replace some of the partially rotten beams and retain most of the old sound parts. There were a few interesting features where knots had been cut out and replaced with star shapes or seating areas were raised so shooting was easier. Really the most impressive part was the scale and size of the castle which we really appreciated as we scaled the steep stairs with our backpacks on. Fortunately they weren’t as steep as the ones in Matsumoto castle. The views from the top were great although a little too hazy to see the sea.
We returned to the castle after dinner as we were lucky enough to visit during the annual illumination festival which was themed about a princess. The lawn in front of the castle was strewn with light balls and the trees in the courtyard had disco balls and lights to make them shimmer in the darkness. Himeji town may not be all that special but the castle is definitely worth a look.
That night we stayed in one of Japan’s stranger hotels. They are called love hotels and are designed to give couples some privacy. It seems Himeji has more than its fair share of these hotels and they were well rated. We decided to try one and hope that they were more romantic than seedy. Our hotel was on the edge of town and a little run down but the room was ok. We discovered the only real difference to a business hotel was a massager by the bed, a condom vending machine and a heap of adult channels on the tv. Thankfully there were normal channels and a decent breakfast included. We maybe wouldn’t recommend love hotels but for a night when all the other accommodation is too pricey, they aren’t bad.
The next morning was a big day. Matthias was celebrating a big birthday. We started our day with breakfast in bed before making our way to Okayama. As a treat rather than skimp and save money we took the Nozomi shinkansen (the fastest bullet train on this line). It was quite exciting. As we waited for our train we saw several trains speed through the station at up to 300km/h. They seemed to come every couple of minutes and made the ground rumble as they passed. One train stopped on our platform for just a under a minute before it departed again and accelerated to a couple of hundred km per hr. When our train pulled into the station we jumped on and walked to find a seat. Before we were even a third of the way along the carriage the train was already pulling away. The acceleration was smooth and the scenery started to flash past. The train was so much quieter and smoother than we had imagined. More shocking was how full it was. Shinkansen trains are fast but super expensive. Our ticket for just 75 km was 3600¥ each and tickets between Tokyo and Hiroshima often cost more than flying. Somehow Japanese people have enough money to pay the ridiculous fares and be whisked from Tokyo to Hiroshima in around 4 hours. We had expected a 30 minute ride but after just under 20 minutes Okayama was announced. We made sure to be ready to leave the train as they stop for such a short amount of time. We watched our train depart within 2 minutes of arrival. Then to our surprise the next train pulled into the station. It just happened to be the slower train we had watched depart from himeji before ours. When you think these trains reach speeds of up to 300km/hr and use the same line just minutes apart – just wow!
Back down to normal speed we discovered our hotel had a bath and sauna just for men so Matthias could pamper himself. We went out for an all you can eat buffet for dinner and enjoyed beef, pizza and puddings. We were stuffed when we returned to our hotel but it was worth it. After some birthday calls it was time to sleep off our huge meal. The next day was the real present. We were going to see Mnozil Brass or Munozir as they are called in Japanese.
Our morning walk in the famous gardens was followed by a mid afternoon concert due to electricity cuts. We bumped into some of the band members on the stairs though Zoë didn’t recognise them. The concert was well attended although the 4000 seat hall wasn’t full, not that it mattered once the show began. It was great fun with lots of gimmicks and good brass music. The Japanese crowd definitely appreciated it as much as we did.