Day 6: Himeji

Today is new years day, but unlike in America where we celebrate the night before the year ticks over and through into the new year, Japan really doesn’t celebrate new years eve. There were a host of variety shows on the TV, and an understated program live at a Shinto shrine with the priests ringing a bell at midnight, but nothing like CNN’s coverage over the satellite. Of course that’s not to say there weren’t fire works in Tokyo but I didn’t see any in Osaka one of the largest cities in Japan. The real celebrations are today, new years day when most of the country goes to pay their respects at a shrine to give prayer and good wishes for the new year. Because of this my plane tickets to Okinawa were a good $100-150 cheaper flying today. I was smart when I booked my flight though, and got a flight late in the evening, allowing me to do some sightseeing during the day. Osaka, unlike Kyoto, doesn’t have a lot to offer me in terms of sights, its really just a large bustling city. So today I train hoped my way to Himeji to see their famous castle. But before I left I had breakfast at the hotel (this time it was free as part of my reservation). The food again was pretty bad, but it was buffet style, so at least I got to make up for it with portions to last me the day…

The Himeji castle dates back to the 1500s, and is one of the oldest surviving castles (a lot of them got burned down and what not during wars). To get there I totally abused my rail pass, first hoping on a limited express that only made 2 stops before Shin-Osaka station, before catching a Shinkansen bullet train 2 brief stops down to Himeji, making a potential long trip just 1 1/4 hours. The town was built around the castle hundreds of years ago, and it shows. The thing is at the center of the city with the large streets radiating from it. As you walk up you begin the realize the immensity of it all, the castle is high on the hill and very large, and around it are moats. The castle offers free guided English tours, but because the guides are all volunteers, its hit or miss whether you get one or not, and when I arrived they had a sign out that they had no English guides. I walked on in, and decided to take the route that takes you around the castle’s outer wall instead of going straight up to the castle, and this turned out to be quite the windfall. After walking partway in one of the rooms I noticed some white people and noticed they were speaking English, I was about to walk on by, when I heard another voice that had a distinct Japanese accent explaining about some piece of history, I went back and sure enough there were 4 Aussies with an English speaking tour guide, I introduced myself and tagged along with them. It really enhanced the whole tour to hear all about the castle, the tactics the designers used to help defend from siege, some of which was really quite extraordinary, drawing on tricks, misdirection and psychological elements. Our guide would also explain about the lives of those who lived in and served the castle as well. At the top was a Shinto shrine, and seeing as how today was new years, the upper floor was packed with people coming to give a prayer. I took part in the ritual where they give a small donation, then ring a bell, clap twice, and give a silent prayer, usually a wish. Part of what was cool about going today was that there were quite a few people wearing kimono, women and children mostly.

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