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A few months ago my cousin Hannah messaged me on facebook about her coming to Japan in June/July through an exchange program at her school. Although Himeji is a bit far from Gunma, I was determined to go see her. I lucked out on the weekend I planned to go down too, since that Thursday and Friday was testing at school and therefore I was able to take the two days off without missing any classes. So I took the train to Tokyo then the shinkansen to Himeji for a long weekend.

Day 1

The train ride to Tokyo was a special rapid, so it only took about an hour to get there. I hopped out of the station in Ueno in order to buy my shinkansen tickets, get starbucks and an ekiben (special train lunch), and grab the new Tokyo postcard from the post office. Then it was on to Tokyo station to catch the shinkansen to Himeji.

It is only the third time I’ve ever ridden on the shinkansen. After lining up early for the non-reserved cabin, I was able to get a window seat on the right side. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, but it was too cloudy. Still, it was nice to be able to look out the window at the scenery. I ate my ekiben and arrived in Himeji about 3 hours later, right in time to grab a few necessities from a MatsuKiyo (think Walgreens) and Hyogo postcards, then check into my hotel. Took a quick shower, called Hannah, and arranged for them to pick me up for dinner.

It was SO GREAT to see Hannah after so long! Of course I knew what she looked like from facebook pictures, but meeting her face to face made me remember the time I met her when she was six. We had an enthusiastic car ride back to her host family’s house to wait for her host father and sister to get home. Her host mother was super nice and drove back to the house so we could wait. I met her host brother and their dog, then we just sat and drank tea and talked for awhile. Finally her host father and sister came home, and with introductions out of the way we headed to dinner at an American style hamburger place.

After ordering, eating, and packing up to leave, an employee came over and asked us to take a picture together to put on the wall of the restaurant! So Hannah and I are Himeji-famous now! Well, sorta. After that we went back to the house for more talking, as well us giving Hannah a crash course in Japanese music. It was pretty late by the time, so Junko and Hannah drove me back to the hotel.

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Scenery on the way to Tokyo

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My ekiben on the shinkansen

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Arrival in Himeji!

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I took a number of pictures of Hannah, but didn’t get as many pictures of her family and the house as I’d have liked!

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My “Japan” burger in an “American” restaurant.

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Day 2

Hannah had told me before that she usually had her days planned during the week, and that she would go with her host sister to her high school on Friday. Therefore I figured I’d spend friday sightseeing around Himeji, and then would see Hannah after she got off school. Junko, Hannah’s host mother, asked if she could come with me to go sightseeing around Himeji. At first I was surprised, thinking she’d seen everywhere, but she explained that she rarely got to just go and be a tourist in her own town, and wanted to come. So I was really happy to have a buddy to walk around with, and one who knew the area too!

We decided she would pick me up around 9:30 Friday morning, and we would head out to Engyoji Temple on Mt. Shosha first. After lunch, we would see the castle and nearby gardens.

Engyoji is up a mountain a bit out of the city center, and is reached by first taking a ropeway up the side of the mountain, then walking a bit to reach the many buildings that make up the temple. After ringing the big temple bell to announce our presence, we soon reached the main temple area. There was a small pond there with some cute ducklings before going up the stairs to the temple. I got my shuuin (calligraphy) book done, and as I was looking around, one of the priests asked to take my picture to put on their facebook website. Twice in two days! I agreed, and you can see it on their facebook page if you scroll a bit to June 28th

After seeing the main temple area, we walked around to the other buildings, including three huge buildings used for calligraphy and classes as well as a kind of gym. This temple is famous for being one of the filming locations for the movie “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise, so they had some pictures about it. Apparently there was a really snowy scene in the movie, but it rarely snows in Himeji, so they had fake snow falling all around the temple for a whole week… then they had to clean every tiny piece up!

Following that area was a smaller building behind it with some famous carvings Junko-san pointed out. In Nikko there is a very famous carving on the staircase to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu of a small cat, said to guard the tomb. The wood sculptor who made the cat also made four oni (demons) holding up the corners of this building. I wasn’t able to get a good picture of all of them, but here are two. The golden eyes are actually kinda creepy!

Once we’d made the rounds, seen all the buildings, and took a rest with some drinks, we headed back down the ropeway and onto lunch. I wanted to try some Himeji dishes, but Junko-san couldn’t think of anything special, so we went to her favorite restaurant instead. It was SO good! There wasn’t a menu to choose from, they just brought out the meal of the day. Everything tasted really good, and I was impressed with it. So great choice!

Finally we headed to the castle. As you can tell from the picture at the top of this post, Himeji Castle is currently undergoing renovation. This takes place about every 50 years. This time around they are concentrating on redoing the roof and the white plaster around the building, as well as some renovations inside. So while you can’t go in, you CAN see something very unique… the roof from above! The building around the castle (and it is actually its own separate building) allows you to not only take the elevator up to the 8th floor to look down on the roof, but also has many windows on other floors to see workers working. We saw a few, but it was a bit later in the day, so we couldn’t see much on the roof. We were able to see the new shachi (whale/dolphin/fish thingies) that guard the castle roof. They reminded me of the gargoyles of Paris’ Notre Dame.

Once we saw the castle, we went to the nearby garden Kokoen. Because it was getting late and we were going to meet Hannah after school, we didn’t get a chance to explore the whole thing. But we did see the beautiful main area, along with the special exhibition of cut paper artwork, and the Yokota’s favorite garden. There are many individual gardens in Kokoen, each of which has a theme. In that garden, I think it was take, or bamboo, but there was also a pond there with THE BIGGEST koi fish I have ever seen! It was HUGE! It was probably almost my height! I was pretty impressed. And of course the garden was so relaxing and beautiful, I wished I could explore the whole thing, but we decided to go ahead and go.

However we made one more pit stop at a roof tile makers to buy some souvenirs. Then we picked up Hannah, whose bike had gotten its tire punctured, and then headed home to talk for a bit. Hannah had plans to go out to karaoke with her friends and host sister, so I decided to call it a day (my feet hurt!) and so Junko-san drove me back to the hotel.

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The ropeway up the mountain

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Ringing the big bell!

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Engyoji’s main building

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Dragonhead water spout

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The main building, pretty and green!

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Junko-san taking a picture of me getting my picture taken

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Buildings where The Last Samurai was filmed

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Tomb of the Hondas, one of the families connected to the temple

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Big onigawara

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Oni hard at work holding up the temple

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Pilgrams on the way back

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Ajisai (hydrangea)

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Himeji Castle

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Cats and ajisai

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The cute little Himeji mochi character

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Gates walking up to the castle

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One of the most interesting parts, the original shachi (dolphin/whales/fish thing) on the top of the castle according to Era

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In order of oldest to newest, the Edo Period, the Meiji Period, and the Showa Period

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And a banner announcing the newest one was for the Heisei Period (the era we’re in now) in 2012.

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Also, armor

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And the roof! Man that’s cool!

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Close up of the Heisei shachi

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From the 7th story

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Great views of Himeji… I even found the Yokota’s house! Junko-san was VERY impressed! (I was a little off, I pointed out the house next door. But still!)

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Smaller outer buildings connected to the castle

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Junko-san pointed out that the entrance gate is very big, but as you exit the gates get smaller and smaller… interesting!

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An interesting support beam with the many mon (crests) of the main families connected to Himeji… including the Yokota’s butterfly design!

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Another part of the castle where the famous Senhime lived

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Some buildings are due for renovation soon

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Junko-san in front of the castle

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And me too!

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The beautiful Kokoen gardens

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Several people were just sitting and admiring the sight. I wanted to join them, it is a really beautiful garden!

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And watching the koi is always fun too!

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This AMAZING artwork is made by cutting layers of paper

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Every lantern in the garden is a different shape… I LOVE that!

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Walled gardens on both sides

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The bamboo garden

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The biggest koi fish I’ve ever seen

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And an akatombo, red dragonfly!

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The interesting roof tile maker’s shop

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The Yokota’s dog, Sakura smiling at the camera!

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Around the station… it’s my hair salon!

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Day 3

On Saturday, the host families of some of the girls, including the Yokotas, went to Universal Studios, Japan. The family invited me, but I thought it might be a little awkward for Hannah to have her cousin tagging along, so I decided to do a day trip from Himeji that day. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go to nearby big city Kobe, or over one prefecture to Okayama City. In the end, I decided to go to Okayama and see its black castle and famous garden Korakuen. It was also my first time in the Chugoku region.

I woke up at my usual time, grabbed free breakfast at the hotel, then hopped on a train to Okayama. I had to transfer once, and it was about an hour and a half ride, but it was really pretty country, so I didn’t mind. When I arrived in Okayama, I took a few pictures of the station, then went across the street to the post office by the station. I was disappointed… only the ATMs were open, so I couldn’t buy my postcards! Oh well… I hopped on a tram and first went to explore the castle.

Okayama’s castle is sometimes called the Crow Castle, a black castle in contrast to Himeji’s white “Crane” castle. It is also significantly smaller than Himeji. By the time I walked through the heat and humidity to the castle it was around noon, so while the castle was open, some of the special events like making pottery or trying on kimono, were closed for lunch. But it was quiet, and there was certainly something about the heat and the coolness of the castle that was appealing. I was glad to not have to deal with crowds!

Once I explored the castle, I headed over the river to Korakuen. Korakuen is considered one of Japan’s top three most beautiful gardens. I’ve been to Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, which is another of the three. The last is in Ibaraki, in Mito City, called Kairakuen. Ibaraki is close enough for a short weekend trip, and I’ve also never been, so it is on my list of places to go maybe even this summer. Anyway, that is two out of three gardens!

It was really nice, and very big. It is also different from all the other Japanese gardens I’ve been to in that it has this interesting wide open grassy field, which is pretty unusual in Japan. Around the open area were different areas and groves, and even some small shrines and temples. In the middle there was a tiny hill with good views of the garden, some small fields where lotus flowers and rice were planted, and from the garden was a very nice view of the castle. I walked around for awhile, got a drink and a snack, then decided it was a bit too hot for more exploring and headed back across the river to the city.

I stopped briefly at Okayama Shrine before having a mini epiphany. It was a Saturday, not Sunday, so the main Chuo post office SHOULD be open, right? So off I went through covered streets and stalls to find it, and it was open! So I got my postcards after all. Hot and sweaty, but pretty happy overall, I went back to the station for a late lunch, then decided to call it a day and head back. I turned in early with a small dinner. Lot’s of walking for me!

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Okayama is famous for the story of Momotarou, the peach boy. So a famous food from Okayama is “kibidango”, small mochi sweets from the story.

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Castle info and gates

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Views of the castle

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And views from the castle

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Japan’s famous castles! I’ve been to 5 I think.

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The kimono dress up area

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This was used to cart around famous people… you could crawl inside and see what it is like!

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A rather artistic picture. It just says Okayama-jou (Okayama Castle)

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Walking across the river to Korakuen

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Entering into Korakuen

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Various flowers and pictures around Korakuen

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Iris (ayame), one of the few main flowers blooming at this time

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Another is the lotus (renge), and of course, hydrangea (ajisai) which I have a lot of pictures of

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Lotus and duckweed

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Yellow dragonfly

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More Korakuen pictures (sorry there are so many!)

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The left flower I don’t know the name of, but are blooming late June early July. The right flower is azalea (tsutsuji), which is usually from July on. There were barely any flowers at this point.

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My snack, tea and kibidango

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And of course, more views of Okayama Castle

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They had some caged birds… cranes maybe? I don’t know

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Map of Korakuen… I kinda did things backward, entering from a side gate and exciting from the main one!

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Back across the river

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Okayama Shrine

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Covered streets and souvenir places

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A few tanabata decorations here and there

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And cute manhole covers!

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TAMACHAN trams! Tamachan is a cat who is actually a station master at a tiny station in Wakayama prefecture. If you google “Tama-chan the cat” you can see some cute pictures! Anyway, this tram made me happy!

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Lunch was… not very good, actually :/ I wanted to try the local fish specialty, but I think it is a river fish, and usually I don’t care for those. Too fishy tasting. Oh well.

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My local train back to Himeji… I was trying to be artistic.

My last day was basically just leaving… I ate breakfast, checked out of the hotel by 10am, and met Hannah quickly at the station for some starbucks and more talking, before saying goodbye a bit before lunch. I had lunch on the train, then went home, happy and exhausted.

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