Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Himaji and Hiroshima

We checked out of our hotel. We left most of our belongings in two large bags in the baggage check, and traveled with two backpacks.

We started by taking the Shinkansen to Himaji. The Shinkansen has a separate terminal, with special shops and waiting areas. We were not sure how much in advance we have to have to wait for the train, and so we took the escalator up to the platform. It turned out that two trains will stop before ours. This gave us a chance to watch the procedure. Each train is very long (16 cars) and has two engines, one at each end. The train arrives while breaking, and reaches a complete stop with the doors facing exactly where the signs on the sidewalk say they will. People quickly board the train, and off it goes. All the announcements are as usual both in Japanese and English.

Once on the train, we had airplane like seats, but with much more leg room. The train started moving and it was hard to judge its speed. However, once in a while we passed a training going in the opposite direction. It looks like a huge white blur crossing window and you can feel its rush, and before you realize what happened, the 16-car train already passed.

In about an hour we reached Himaji. This is a relatively small town that is well-known due to the local castle, which is considered the most beautiful in Japan. We stored one bag in a locker and then stopped at the tourist information to ask for a map, and instructions on how to get to the castle by a bus. In a spur of a moment I asked the receptionist, who spoke very good English, if there are guided tours of the castle. Instead of answering she went to talk with another lady in quick Japanese, which was weird to me, as it seems that she was capable of answering the question. After a minute they both returned, and the second lady introduced herself as a guide that can give us a free guided tour. Her name was Keiko Yamaguchi, and she immediately took over guidance.

Keiko was full of energy and I had to explain that the heat was hard on us, so lets not run. At the castle entrance we crossed a large moat. Unlike classical moats this had running water, which were fueled by two local rivers. Keiko told us that this was the inner moat, and that two outer ones once existed and enclosed the whole area of the town.

The garden inside the walled area is full of cherry trees. Right now they relatively plain, but in the spring the whole castle is covered by flowers and is considered a highly regarded destination. Keiko told us that in April the visit to the castle is essentially one long queue throughout the visit due to the large number of tourists (most of them Japanese).

We learned that the castle was under renovations. Thus, much of the main tower was covered by construction framework. Two large cranes towered over the main tower. Nonetheless, the structure was very impressive and beautiful.

The inner part of the castle consisted of serpentine path that passed through gateways. Keiko explained that the whole design was to slow down and confuse any invading force so that if it managed to overtake the gate it still had to pass many hurdles and traps on its way to the tower.

The walls inside the castle had holes of different shapes - square, round, triangle, and rectangle. The rectangle ones were for shooting arrows, the others for rifles.

Keiko took us through a tour of a residence quarter that was built for a princess that lived in the castle. The actual castle was a military barrack and storehouse, and the local governor and his household lived on a side building. When one of them married to the granddaughter of the Shogun (ruler of all of Japan), he got extra finances to take care of her and built a more elaborate wing.

The inner parts of the building was mostly bare, and consisted of small rooms linked together. As we climbed up to higher floors the rooms became larger and better built. Keiko told us that since the whole structure was wooden, fires were not allowed in it. This meant that in the winter the servant quarters were freezing.

When we exited the building we donned our shoes again and returned the plastic bag that we took them in. A woman sat in a side room and recycled the plastic bags. She put them on a big block, patted down the bag onto it, and then pulled it while creating vacuum to get a nice bag that was folded in put in a basket to be used again at the entry way to the building.

We embarked on the climb to the main castle.

Keiko explained that to protect the castle from Ninja invasions, there were no gutters along the roof. Instead, water channels were worked on the floor. These were made from old local tiles, giving the pathway a special texture.

From up close we could see that the roofs of each floor and window were decorated with various
figures. The most common was a chimera of a carp and a dragon, which served as defense against evil spirits.

We passed through a series of gardens that can be turned into killing grounds by capturing enemy forces between a pair of gates, and reached a landing that was directly blow the main tower.

Due to the constructions we had to stop here, and did not get a chance to see the treasures of the castle itself.

Keiko explained to us that the roof tiles had different patterns for each ruling family. Thus, the tiles signify who built that part of the castle.

We returned to the gate house and had a farewell from Keiko. We enjoyed her guidance and explanation, and so would recommend her to anyone visiting Himaji. She can be reached directly at evol_okiek@yahoo.co.jp.

We had two hours before our Shinkansen reservation onwards to Hiroshima. We strolled down the main street that was mostly deserted in the middle of a hot weekday. We stopped at a small Udon restaurant recommended by the guide. This was a small place, where the cook makes the noodles everyday.

The menu was a common Japanese way a collection of tiles hanging from the wall. The noodles were thick and tasty and we all enjoyed them very much.

We took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima.

We stored our bag in a coin locker and took a local tram to A-bomb site. The area around the epi-center of destruction by the bomb was transformed to a park with a memorial museum. The most iconic structure in the park is the A-bomb dome, a single structure that partly survived the blast.

We strolled around the memorial peace park, taking in both the memories as well as the beauty of the site now.

Sunset arrived and gave the place a special feel.

After sunset, we headed back to the station. We took a local train and then another to reach the Hiroshima Beit Israel, where we were staying the night. We were not sure if are arriving too late or not. By time we reached our destination it was dark and the street seemed quite deserted. The instructions we got were very clear and we did not have problem finding the house, which serves both as a church and a dwelling of the Rev Toru Nakamura and his family.

Rev. Toru received us warmly to the house. He explained how in Japanese houses one has to remove shows so as not to touch the wooden floor with the show, nor the "outside" floor with your foot. We were given a guest room with its own shower and toilet, and also a pair of tatami mats in the living room. More about Beit Shalom later.

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