Japan Day 8: Himeji-jo and Miyajima

Today was another early start. I took the  8:04am train southbound towards Okayama but got off at Himeji this time. I had my luggage with me so I stored it in one of the coin lockers that are conveniently located in every train station.

Coming out of the station through the Central gate you see Himeji’s star attraction strait ahead down the avenue: the castle, high in the sky directly ahead about 1km away. I strolled down the boulevard, and since it was early (8:45am) I stopped for breakfast at a cafe and then entered the castle shortly after it opened at 9:00am.

Himeji is Japan’s most magnificent castle and it is one of only a handful of original castles remaining (most are modern reconstructions). It’s nickname Shirasagi-jo (“White Egret Castle”) comes from its lustrous white plaster exterior and its stately form on a hill above a plain. The main keep features seven levels: 6 floors above ground and a basement below. There are three smaller keeps, all surrounded by moats and defensive walls punctuated with rectangular, circular and triangular openings for firing guns and shooting arrows.

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Himeji Castle Main Keep

Although there have been fortifications in Himeji since 1333, today’s castle was built in 1580 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and enlarged some 30 years later by Ikeda Terumasa. Ikeda was awarded the castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu when the latter’s forces defeated the Toyotomi armies. In the following centuries it was home to 48 successive lords.

As part of your visit, you get to climb to the top of the main keep and visit some other buildings within the main keep area like the “long corridor” (mostly used as living and sleeping quarters for ladies in waiting and others).

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Himeji Castle

After visiting the castle area I made my way to another site nearby called Koko-en.

Koko-en is across Himeji Castle’s western moat, and it is a stunning reconstruction of the former samurai quarters. The site presents nine Edo period–style homes and gardens with various combinations of waterfalls, koi ponds, intricately pruned trees, bamboo, and flower shrubs. The place is so scenic that it has been used as the set for many Japanese historical movies and dramas.

Once I finished my visit to Koko-en, I rushed back to the train station, got my luggage and made the 12:03pm train to Miyajima.

Note: There are no trains directly to Migajima because it’s an island. So when I say “train” I really mean “I took two different bullet trains followed by a local Japan Rail train and finally the ferry. It wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds. I was on Miyajima by 2:30pm.

The island of Miyajima is one of Japan’s most visited spots. Its star attraction is the iconic vermilion torii (shrine gate) of Itsukushima-jinja, which seems to float on the waves at high tide – a scene that has traditionally been ranked as one of the three best views in Japan. Arguably, it is also at its evocative best at sunset, or when lit up after dark.

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The red tori at Miyajima

I decided to stay overnight in Miyajima as an opportunity to stay in a real “ryokan,” also known as a guest house of inn. Ryokans are very traditional Japanese housing. You have a little room, with a bed on the floor (which is covered in little mats), you must take your shoes off at the door and you’re given different slippers for the bathroom and shuffling around the ryokan, they give you a little robe to use as well as special pajamas (which I’m  currently wearing). There is a half bath in the room, but the shower area is similar to what I saw at the baths yesterday on Naoshima and they are communal (but of course you can lock the door and have privacy–the point is that there are no showers in your individual room). This whole Japanese experience is delightful and the ryokan in general is absolutely adorable.

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My room at the ryokan

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The tradition Japanese shower and bath at the ryokan

I had lunch at the hotel and settled into my room and immediately took off to see the sites. It was getting late so I went over to the Itsukushima-jinja temple to visit it before it closed for the day.

After roaming about town, I decided to go for a little hike up Mt Misen, the big mountain on Miyajima. My initial plan was to hike up to “the rope” (their term for some sort of funicular) and take it to the end of the line and hike the rest to the very top of the mountain. Then as a compromise I would walk down one of the trails. I’ve been doing a lot of hiking and walking lately so this all sounded like a good plan.

Well, the rope was closed by the time I got there (close to 5:00pm) so I decided to hike up and see how far I could get. Around an hour and 2.5 km later I was at the very peak of the mountain – I really climbed this one quickly, and because I move fast downhill I was at the bottom within 25 minutes. It was close to 90F out so I was drenched in sweat. And the hike itself was not easy – it was incredibly steep at times and I almost considered turning back once or twice. But it was well worth it for the views.

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Views from the top of Mt. Misen

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Views from the top of Mt. Misen

After the hike I roamed around town and took photos of the iconic torii at sunset. Ate dinner nearby and then went back again to photograph the torii at night. It’s  incredibly beautiful and I wish photos could capture its allure.

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This town is very quiet and sleepy, and as I headed back to my ryokan at 8:30pm everything was dark.

I decided to relax and take a nice hot bath. Not a bad way to end the day.

Tomorrow should be a shorter day. I won’t get to sleep in much but it should be less intense than yesterday and today.

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