Our three-day whirlwind trip to Osaka was not short of adventures. We toured the city on the first day, being mesmerized by Namba Yasaka Shrine, blinded by the neon lights of Dotonbori and thoroughly amused at the Universal studios. We were also keen to see something beyond Osaka and explore the region a bit and a trip to Himeji Castle and Kobe seemed perfectly possible in a day.
We hopped on a local express train to a small town Himeji at the western edge of the Kansai region. As soon as we emerged from the train station we saw the white castle looming over the town like a gracious white swan at the end of a wide boulevard (Otemae-dori). It is spectacular and majestic and astounding at the same time. Dating back to 1333 it was the largest castle in Japan by 1500s and is still considered to be one of the top three most beautiful original castles in the country according to Japan Guide (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2296.html). Being a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993 this breathtaking white edifice miraculously escaped earthquakes and fire-bombings during World War II. The castle wows with its elegant exterior. The bright white paint and intricate, ornamental designs that adorn the building are truly impressive and make it a stately architectural jewel. Interesting fact: you will often see water creatures like fish adorn the castles. Apparently, it was believed that they would prevent the building from fire. Getting the tickets (¥1,000 adults) was fairly easy and thankfully the grounds were not too crowded as we visited on a workday. After being disappointed by the super modern interior of Osaka Castle, I was keen to explore Himeji Castle from the inside and see its original interior design. After taking our shoes off we were allowed to wonder the ancient hallways covered entirely in wood at our own pace. There was an eerie feeling in the air as we were moving from hall to hall gawking at the bare walls and pillars and climbed six flights of narrow and very steep stairs. There are a few museum displays but it’s mostly left empty and visualizing how the castle was set up, what purpose each room served was sadly left to our imagination. There were little boards with brief information at each floor, but it concentrated on the engineering side of the castle without mentioning anything about how this space was used. I really would have loved to see how the shoguns lived, where they brainstormed their battle tactics, where and how did they relax and sleep. In that respect, the visit to Himeji left me yearning for more although I think many castles are the same way. Once you reach the top floor – the main keep – there is a small shrine for saying the prayers. The 360-degree view is spectacular and probably gave a great vantage point during the wartime. When you are done touring the castle’s main keep you can also proceed to another building that was added to the complex as special quarters for Princess Sen. A life-size model of the princess, a princess of the Shogun and a beloved historical figure, and the Wedding Desserts delivered to her husband Lord Honda Tadatoki by the Shogunate are displayed to give you an idea how she lived. On the way back to the station we strolled through a shopping arcade that runs along the entire length of the Otemae-dori on the boulevard’s right side (when facing the castle) and is lined up with cafes, restaurants and shops. It is considered to be the main shopping district for locals as well as tourists. We hopped onto the train to head to our next destination – Kobe. Famous for the legendary Kobe wagyu beef, it is in fact an important port city and one of Japan’s ten largest cities. There is much more to do in Kobe then just have dinner at one of the teppanyaki restaurants specializing in Kobe beef.
A few of the popular things to do in Kobe include visiting a vibrant Chinatown, taking a stroll in waterfront Meriken Park which features Kobe Tower and other remarkable contemporary architecture, going on a sake tasting tours in one of the breweries, or riding on Shin-Kobe ropeway to be rewarded with great views of the city and its harbor. We had very little time to explore before our scheduled dinner reservation and decided to hit Kobe Harborland which is such a pleasant and relaxing place to hang out, shop and eat. I read it is particularly beautiful at night when the entire harbor is illuminated in different colors, but we never got a chance to see that, since we soon departed to savor world’s one of the best steaks. I will tell you about it in greater detail in my next post.
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