Nara and Himeji Castle

We have been in Japan for over two years now and I have noticed (more so this year) that our daily experiences have started to change. We have been very fortunate to have had even more visitors this year and it is only when we see Japan through their eyes that I start to notice, things we once thought were weird and wonderful, are becoming ‘normal’ for us and that makes me sad. The loud and ‘genki’ shouts you are greeted with when you enter any shop; the fact you can get a hot coffee (or hot chocolate in my husband’s case) in a can out of a vending machine and the unusual food are just parts of our every day life now.

But we are reminded with every visitor that they are not normal, they are uniquely Japanese. It is only when I am wandering around the touristy sights and we see the wonder and awe in our friend’s and family’s faces that I am reminded that I am living so far away from home in a country where its everyday idiosyncrasies are so peculiar to our own. Moving here was a much bigger act of bravery than we thought at the time and actually living here is quite ‘cool’. But that is the only time we feel it – when we have visitors or when we see or visit somewhere new. When we return to work and get on with our everyday lives, we are no different to the person sitting next to us on the train or our colleagues and so it is easy to forget where you are.  However, Japan truly is a magical country and when we make the effort to get out of our home town, I am regularly reminded of why I love this country so much. Its beauty is forever changing from prefecture to prefecture. With each new exploration around these mystical islands, we experience totally different aspects of Japanese culture and unparalleled scenery. We are basically on an extended holiday, when we make the effort.

2016 has provided us with the opportunity to experience five very different but equally beautiful parts of Japan. July was when we visited the emerald green waters of Shimoda, south of Izu peninsula, a mere 150mins away from bustling Tokyo.  In August we finally managed to make it to Odaiba, just one of Tokyo’s many districts to discover my favourite view of this impressive metropolis and the October break was our chance to visit the north of Okinawa’s main island, Onna.

By December we were feeling very fortunate but it appeared it was not the end of our travels. With the arrival of my parents for their second visit just as I was finishing for Christmas, we decided to book somewhere we had never been before… Kobe. It was here that we had the opportunity to visit the final two places of the year! Even though Kobe is not really famous for anything in particular (well apart from Kobe beef) it is very well located for accessing some of the more well known parts of central Honshu. It is only 30 minutes by train to Osaka and Kyoto. 80 minutes to Nara and 40 minutes to Himeji. Being the cheapest city to stay in out of them all, I would highly recommended it as a base for exploring the area, it definitely saved us a lot of money.

We flew down to Osaka Kansai airport on boxing day and took a 65 minute airport bus to Kobe Sannomiya station. It was only one stop on the underground to our hotel which was located right next to China town. For our first full day we decided to explore the ancient capital of Nara. Famous for its deer and numerous well known temples, it was an obvious choice. When we first arrived, we sourced the tourist information, which proved to be very handy giving us an all day bus pass for 500yen and some detailed maps. Normally we would prefer to walk but the rain was blessing us with its presence that day and we felt it would be best to take the drier option. We headed straight for Todaiji temple and wandered through the deer ridden pathways up to the entrance gate which was covered in scaffolding and white sheets- not quite the ideal picture shot I was looking for! We weaved our way through the deer freely roaming the road looking for people to feed them, to the entrance gate at the end. It was quite entertaining watching tourists being mobbed and in some case head-butted by over zealous deer, especially once their food had run out and they were forced to run away to escape. It was for that reason we choose to pass on this particular tradition and actually came away from the day free of all forms of deer related injuries… Bonus!

Once we purchased our tickets for the temple the view from inside was definitely worth it. Taking the average size of any shrine I have visited in Japan so far, this one was easily double in height- an impressive structure.

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And once you stepped inside it, it was easy to see why! It is famous for housing the largest Buddha statue in Japan and it is huge. Uncommonly you were allowed to take pictures of it, which I took full advantage of but no matter how many photos I took, from every possible angle, none of them could capture the sheer size and towering magnificence of what I saw in person.

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Once we were finished, we left and turned right. We headed to what we thought was a small simple shrine at the top of the hill but oh boy… how we were wrong!

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It turned out that the “small” temple we were just planning to take a peak at was actually the hilltop sub-complex of Todaiji called Nigatsudo Hall. It is famous for hosting the famous Omizutori – a series of torch lighting events held in March. The balcony from the main hall provides you with a hilltop view of Nara and the surrounding area as well a place to contemplate and relax. Something the locals seemed to enjoy.

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We headed back to the bus stop where we grabbed some Japanese curry and then back on the bus heading down to the old part of town. From there we gently strolled through the winding streets of older, more traditional houses, shops and temples until we saw the peak of the pagoda at Kofukuji temple. It was here that we ended our day trip, exploring the collections of buildings at Kofukuji before heading back to the train station, back to Kobe.

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The next day we decided to take the 40 minute train ride to Himeji to see the world heritage site that is Himeji Castle. It had been on my to do list since arriving in Japan so I was thrilled when I realised how close we were.

When you come out of the station, it is clearly signposted to the castle so there is no need for a map. Following the main street, it isn’t long before the pristine white and grey pointed roof top with its unmistakable shape can be seen over the trees, showing you the rest of the way. Once you are inside the outer walls it is basically a case of following the crowds, first through the admission gate and then up and into the castle. Of course there are numerous spots to take photographs but once you get inside the main building, you might as well put the camera away.

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The Japanese are very good at the external views. The intricate designs and beautiful shapes created through their architecture but they are not too hot on the inside. Back in England, the inside of an ancient castle would be laid out with as many artefacts and recreated objects to show visitors what it was like at the time it was used. What the sleeping quarters were like, barracks, prison cells, banquet halls but I am afraid to say that in Himeji there was none of that. Each room and each floor (all seven of them) were bare. Not a single painting on the wall, chair, rug on the floor. Not even a picture to show what it might have been like in the days it was used as a watch post during Kyoto’s reign as Japan’s capital city. Each visitor is ushered in one direction up numerous steep and narrow staircases that are more like attic ladders than steps. To add to this you are expected to take your shoes off upon entering and provided with a ‘one size fits all’ pair of slippers that were way too big for me and too small for others. For my own safety I climbed most of the steps in my socks, which on a cold day in December meant spending the rest of the day with freezing toes.

On your way out of the main castle building you round the corner into a courtyard which is the perfect place to take a selfie- if you are that way inclined. We were…

Once we left the castle we headed to a local coffee shop for a pit stop then headed to the Japanese Kokoen Garden. A pleasant walk but a little bare in the winter. It is somewhere I would have liked to see in full bloom around spring time. It was after that we grabbed lunch and headed back to Kobe to spend the afternoon exploring our base city. As it turned out we shopped more than we did sight-see but we all came away with a new addition to our winter wardrobe so we weren’t too disappointed.

The next day we were up early for our bus ride and flight home but we couldn’t leave with out our daily breakfast stop in Starbucks just next door to our hotel. We had gone in every morning and without realising it, we had become memorable. On the morning we were leaving, we rolled in with our suitcases and one of the young women behind the counter spotted us. She asked if it was our last day and made a sad face which was really quite cute (kawaii). Later, whilst enjoying our coffee, she came over to our table and presented us with some sachets of Starbucks Matcha Tea. She said they were a gift, a special Starbucks coffee that could only be bought in Japan to take home with us. She had also written on each one ‘Thank you’ with a smily face. It was a true act of random kindness and reminder of how kind and welcoming the Japanese people can be. Something I will never forget and lovely end to our trip.

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Being my parent’s second visit, it was nice to visit places we hadn’t seen before. We often find that with each new visitor, we revisit the same sights. We could fill an entire photo album just with the number of visitor selfies we have taken in front of the red lanterns of Asakusa and the Daibutsu at Kamakura. This doesn’t mean to say we don’t enjoy showing visitors the sights of Tokyo and our local area though. Each visitor reacts differently to the places we show them and they find different things fascinating so for us the experience changes each time. However, there are times when we would like to check off some of our own sights to see. That is what we got to do this holiday and it was fun.

Overall we have seen so much and travelled more than either of us could have imagined in 2016. As well as Japan we went to Hong Kong and Guam. More friends were willing to spend the money to come and see us, allowing us to share our life with them. We were able to show my husband’s parents our home here and why we love it so much and the friends we have made here in Japan are starting to feel like family. We have been blessed to end the year happy, healthy and full of memories of our experiences and we can only hope that 2017 is pretty similar. Already we have a birthday trip to Mt. Fuji in February, the arrival of my husband’s sister, niece plus husband and nephew to look forward too in March and a long over due visit back home to the UK in the summer planned. So busy, busy, busy!

But for now I am just going to continue to enjoy each day as it comes.

Bye for now!

SP x

One Comment Add yours

  1. jenny22blog says:

    Great update of your year Sam..makes us feel closer and totally understand your ‘normal’ feelings about Japan..same here in Udaipur this time around.. love you

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