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Japan 2015 — Day 8: Kyoto; Himeji; Hiroshima

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After two nights in Kanazawa, we’re ready to move to our next des­tin­a­tion. With the price of accom­mod­a­tion skyrock­et­ing in Hiroshima over the upcom­ing week­end, we head there mid-week, des­pite its con­sid­er­able dis­tance from Kanazawa. We make stops in between, though, in Kyoto and Himeji, so we don’t waste the day trav­el­ling at all.

Himeji Castle has been under an extens­ive peri­od of renov­a­tion, and only just reopened to the pub­lic in full in May 2015. It’s con­sidered Japan’s most spec­tac­u­lar castle for its impos­ing size and beauty and its well pre­served, com­plex castle grounds. We’ve long wanted to vis­it!

Kanazawa

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Looking out from our hotel win­dow, the weather’s a bit drier than yes­ter­day.

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We’re going to miss the spa­cious­ness of this hotel room!

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Outside JR Kanazawa Station is sculp­ture of a giant kettle into a small hill.

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Before the two-hour long train ride to Kyoto, we stock up on baked goods to get us through the day at the German Bakery inside the sta­tion. We’re not big fans of ekibens.

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And with that, we bid good­bye to Kanazawa after see­ing Hyakuman-san, the loc­al mas­cot for Ishikawa Prefecture that looks like a dar­uma doll.

Kanazawa –> Kyoto

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Back on the JR Thunderbird, we’re busy filling out stom­achs with fresh baked goods. On the left is a katsu curry pan — a curry pan with deep fried chick­en inside. On the right is a saus­age pan drizzled with tomato/​bbq sauce. They’re both quite tasty.

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Whereas D sticks to safer food options, I’m always keen to try things that look a bit strange. Like the mel­on pan (top) that’s unlike anoth­er I’ve seen — it not only has the pat­tern of a mel­on, it’s col­oured like a mel­on both inside and out, and tastes like mel­on. It is truly amaz­ing. Below, we have an apple pie wrapped in lay­ers of flakey pastry — the apple innards were deli­cious.

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After filling our stom­achs, D takes a nap while I watch the coun­tryside whiz past.

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…and lots of fields.

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Sitting on the oppos­ite side of the train gives us a view of Lake Biwa.

Kyoto

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We’re chan­ging trains at Kyoto Station, rather than Osaka Station, for no oth­er reas­on than we’ve been the lat­ter lots of times, but haven’t been to Kyoto Station since 2011. We take a look through the souven­ir shops around the sta­tion before set­tling for some ice cream at Ice Deli.

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The shop assist­ant entices us with samples of all the fla­vours, and we end up get­ting a cup of ramune and houjicha. The ramune has bits of fizzy ramune candy with­in, while the houjicha has the pleas­ant roas­ted green tea fla­vour.

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We people watch briefly before head­ing back to catch our shinkansen to Himeji.

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With our JR passes, we’ve reserved seats in advance, which makes our life so much less stress­ful. There’s no need to worry about arriv­ing early to make sure we can snap up the rare two-seat­er (with Kyoto not being the ori­gin­at­ing sta­tion for the train).

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After try­ing out the yakisoba pan from the con­veni­ence store yes­ter­day, we bought a prop­er one from the bakery earli­er in the morn­ing. This one has more fla­vour with bonito fla­vours and aonori. The noodle in bread concept con­tin­ues to impress me by being bet­ter than I expect.

Himeji

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Where to store our lug­gage at Himeji Station while we vis­it Himeji Castle was always a worry for us — there aren’t all that many lock­ers that will fit a large suit­case, and Himeji Station also doesn’t have a counter to hold lug­gage. So, super relieved does not even begin to describe it, when we spot a couple empty­ing their lug­gage just as we arrive!

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Himeji Castle is a 10 minute walk north of the sta­tion.

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Both sides of the street are lined with ever­green and ginkgo trees.

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The main keep of Himeji castle is in full view from out­side the castle grounds.

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This is the third bailey of Himeji Castle. It’s rather bar­ren in late autumn, but it’s a pop­u­lar spot for view­ing cherry blos­soms dur­ing spring.

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This is the Hishi Gate, which marks the entrance to the paid area of the castle grounds.

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Himeji Castle is also known as White Heron Castle (Shirasagi-jo) due to its eleg­ant, white appear­ance.

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There are sak­ura blos­soms linger­ing well past spring.

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This is what the Himeji castle com­plex looked like in the early Meiji Period.

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A recon­struc­tion of the Himeji Castle town is on dis­play in the main keep.

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There are some rather low entrances to the castle. I’m rather short, and I just made it through without touch­ing the foam lin­ing the top of the gate.

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There are expans­ive views of Himeji from the win­dows as you ascend the main keep.

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The impos­ing size of the castle gives you views of adja­cent build­ings from the main keep.

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This is the view down the third bailey and the main street towards Himeji Station.

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One par­tic­u­lar aspect that dis­ap­poin­ted with oth­er castles vis­ited in Japan, is that the interi­or archi­tec­ture is hid­den by exhib­its show­ing the his­tory of the area and the castle.

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Himeji Castle is the excep­tion with the main keep being entirely left empty.

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The stairs con­nect­ing each floor of the main keep are ridicu­lously steep with shal­low tread. Yet, we see hoards of gran­nies vis­it­ing the castle!

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This is the view of the second bailey from the castle’s main keep. Visiting Himeji Castle is truly unlike any oth­er for its well pre­served, com­plex castle grounds. Unlike many castles in Japan, like Kanazawa Castle, it was nev­er des­troyed by war, earth­quake or fire.

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These sculp­tures of fish are said to pro­tect the castle against fire.

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Far off in the dis­tance, we spot this town nestled in the val­ley.

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The castle has advanced defens­ive sys­tems from the feud­al peri­od.

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Soldiers would hide in this hole in the wall in wait of intruders.

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The main keep is breath­tak­ing in size and beauty.

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We spot this fruit tree on the grounds, think­ing it might be a yuzu tree.

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A well on the castle grounds is filled with coins from vis­it­ors wish­ing well.

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The stone walls of the castle have a fan curve — when seen from the side, the pitch of the corner of the high stone wall increases towards the top. “The high­er a stone wall is, the great­er the pres­sure on the stones inside, which can lead to the wall col­lapsing. To ensure that a wall can with­stand such pres­sure, the pitch at the foot is com­par­at­ively gentle while the upper part is made with a steep pitch that is almost ver­tic­al, allegedly to pre­vent enemies from scal­ing it.”

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Leaving the main keep of the castle on an over­cast day is quite a trippy exper­i­ence. You see none of the city­scape and the col­our of the over­cast sky matches the white of the castle walls. Much like walk­ing into a James Turrell art­work, this elim­in­ates your sense of depth so that the sky appears as anoth­er ceil­ing dir­ectly above you. Yes, I am still an art geek.

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From the west bailey (Nishimaru), you can appre­ci­ate the com­plex­ity of the castle grounds.

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The west bailey is unfur­nished and shows brief his­tor­ies of its use through­out the years along its long 300m cor­ridor. It once served as the res­id­ence of a prin­cess.

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The west bailey provides a closer view of the city­scape around Himeji.

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In one of the final rooms in the west bailey, we see man­nequins play­ing the game Hyakunin Isshu karuta, a tra­di­tion­al Japanese card game where play­ers try to find the last two lines of a poem after giv­en the first three lines. D and I recog­nised this card game imme­di­ately, hav­ing seen the anime Chihayafuru. The char­ac­ters play com­pet­it­ive karuta, where they devel­op the abil­ity to identi­fy a poem by its first one or two syl­lables. It’s an addict­ive anime!

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If you ever only vis­it one castle in Japan, Himeji Castle should be the one. But per­haps I’ll recon­sider after vis­it­ing Kumamoto and Matsumoto Castles, which are also con­sidered premi­er castles. But even so, neither have Himeji Castle’s bril­liant white exter­i­or.

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On the way back to the train sta­tion, we check out the shops on the oppos­ite side of the street as when we came as the rain starts to pick up.

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JR Himeji Station is fron­ted by this impress­ive and styl­ish met­al and wooden struc­ture.

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The next shinkansen bound for Hiroshima is booked out, so we make reser­va­tions for the next avail­able one (1 hour away) and check out the shops inside Himeji Station.

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None of the shops really interest us, so we settle into Oraga Soba for an early din­ner.

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We go into the store hav­ing decided what we wanted from the wax mod­els out­side, only to be con­fused when the wait­ress gives us a menu that fea­tures none of that. No wor­ries, though, we go out­side and take pho­to­graphs of the wax mod­els to show her and all is well. (It seems they assumed we were there for din­ner, where­as we wanted their lunch ser­vice which was just about to fin­ish.)

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I order cold soba with tem­pura. Cold noodles always have an addict­ive bite to them. The tem­pura veget­ables are crispy and light, although the prawns are little bit soggy. But non­ethe­less, tasty!

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D orders the same meal with hot soba, and likes the soup so much he drinks some of it.

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Mid-way through the meal, the wait­ress brings me this pot of white liquid that leaves D and I at a loss. What is it? What do we do with it? Do we drink it? We pour some out onto a sau­cer and it tastes like flour and water. And the only explan­a­tion we have for it, is that it’s for me to pour over the cold soba noodles to stop them from stick­ing.

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After din­ner, we still have some time to spare before our train, so we head up to the second storey of the entrance to the sta­tion to check out the wooden struc­ture. Isn’t it styl­ish?

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You can see down the main street dir­ectly to Himeji Castle, which is lit up at night.

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All the tour­ism paraphernalia fea­ture Himeji Castle, which leads D and I to won­der if any­one ever vis­its Himeji for any­thing else.

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The man hole cov­ers fea­ture the white her­on — anoth­er ref­er­ence to the castle?

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After retriev­ing our lug­gage, we wait in the shinkansen area to avoid the blis­ter­ing cold on the plat­form. There’s a fest­iv­al float on dis­play.

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As an after din­ner snack, we enjoy the rest of our pastries from this morn­ing — an apple pie (left) and a lem­on pastry (right). The apple tastes deli­cious like the one from earli­er this morn­ing. The lem­on pastry has both a stripe of lem­on cream and lem­on curd, which are delight­fully tangy.

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Shinkansens are beau­ti­fully stream­lined.

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The inside of the Sakura trains have wide seats and great pitch. It is noth­ing like trav­el­ling in a CountryLink train in Australia.

Hiroshima

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Remember what I said about major train sta­tions in Japan look­ing like air­ports?

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After reserving tick­ets for our trip to Okayama in two days, we stop by McDonald’s.

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One year on and they still sell these chocop­ies. They’re lay­ers of flakey pastry hide a hot fudgy chocol­ate centre. Yum!

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We’re used to sub­ways and trains when get­ting around Japan, so catch­ing the tram around town is new to us. They take IC cards but not the Suica (from Tokyo) — an IOCCA or Pasmo (from Osaka) would’ve worked — so we pay using coins.

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We’re quite pleased with our accom­mod­a­tion. This room in Hiroshima has a shower cubicle, i.e. not a bathtub with a shower cur­tain. It is quite lib­er­at­ing to shower without hit­ting your elbow on the wall or the shower cur­tain.

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We’re still res­ted at 8pm from rests we got dur­ing the shinkansen trips, so we head back out to check out the Christmas illu­min­a­tion down Peace Boulevard.

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We walk through the main shop­ping street in down­town Hiroshima, a five minute walk from our hotel, to get to the Peace Boulevard.

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A 1 kilo­met­er length of Peace Boulevard is lit up through to the Peace Memorial Museum.

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We see some maple trees lit up at night…

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…with maple leaf lights!

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And some entirely plastic maple trees too.

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There’s a pir­ate ship that’s been attached by a whale…

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…and some snow flake lights across the street.…

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…along with a snow man and lar­ger snow flakes.

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There’s a merry-go-round that lets you ride the horses but doesn’t spin.

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Giant fruit are made with lights. I’m not sure how this relates to Hiroshima or Christmas?

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There’s a phoenix and pegas­us with a horn/​unicorn with wings…

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…and a flor­al walk­way across the street.

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And a light tun­nel…

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…as well as a few hot air bal­loons.

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For the love birds, there’s a horse-drawn car­riage.

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Or you can catch a train, if you fancy mod­ern tech­no­logy.

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There’s a beau­ti­ful Christmas tree with sak­ura blos­soms illu­min­at­ing its base.

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The sak­ura blos­soms are pretty lights.

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The Christmas tree is made from lights strung on a real tree.

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There’s a palace con­struc­ted from light.

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And a sec­tion ded­ic­ated to pre­serving peace in Hiroshima.

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These candles light up a pyr­am­id.

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There’s a rab­bit with a car­rot adm­ist the peace dis­play.

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And just before we return to the maple dis­play, there’s a sec­tion for Halloween.

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On the walk back to our hotel, we spot this multi-storey car­park with col­oured rooves.20151125-DSC01463

We stick our heads into Okonomimura, a com­plex famed for Hiroshima-style oko­nom­iyaki. It’s late and the atmo­sphere is a bit dodgy, and we’re also not that keen on eat­ing it (too much cab­bage!), so we head back out…

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And straight into Don Quixote to check out their snacks. Corn pot­age is the ulti­mate com­fort food. It’s also not quite like corn soup in Australia.

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We spot a 250 ml bottle and 500 ml can of Coca Cola.

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To fin­ish the night off, I try a roas­ted sweet potato. It’s deli­ciously starchy, although more fibrous than the ones I’m used to in Australia.