Japan 18 : Secret Garden

After a long snooze I awoke with sand in every crevice I could think of. A shower the previous night would have been a good idea but I had just flopped onto the bed and spent quality time watching crazy people do stupid stunts on giant greased logs for no discernible prize on the telly. After a good wash and some time hitting the hell out of my shoes to rid them of the last of the sand, I went downstairs and checked out.

Strictly speaking, I should have woken up in Osaka rather than Himeji, and given the size of the former it would have warranted the two day stopover I had originally allocated. However, things being as they were I found myself caught short when booking time in Osaka (there were no available rooms in any hotels near the station) and the best I could get was one day in each. First impressions were not great; Himeji was awash with last nights rain and it hadn't stopped there, it was still going: Sometimes you can go out in the rain and barely feel as if you're getting wet. This was the other kind, the kind that made you very, very wet as soon as you stepped out into it.

Despite this, I had decided not to spend the first half of the day travelling to Osaka in the hope that by the time I stepped out at the other side it had stopped. My interests had been piqued by Himeji Castle and surrounding Koko-en gardens, and thus thought it was only fair to split things 50:50. I went to the train station and stuck my bags in a locker there, and then got some brekky. I then in a succession of mad dashes between covered markets, overhanging roofs and whatever else I could find to shelter under, approached the castle entrance.

Himeji castle was easily spotted through the dark clouds, rising up from the flat expanse of the terrain the city had used as its foundation. I bought a dual ticket (one for the castle, one for the gardens, which were on separate land to the side), and figured inside might be the best idea first to give the rain chance to stop.

Across a square and then a busy road, the bustle of modern-day Japan was left immediately behind and was replaced by the relative quiet of the entrance; a beautiful Japanese moat bridge - the Sakuramon bridge (a good panoramic pic is here) - spanning the wide outer moat followed by the large Otemon - the main gateway - beyond which the huge outer courtyard began.
Himeji Castle is one of the largest and the most visited of all the castles in Japan, and despite the foul weather, the crowds had not abated today. I dread to think what it would be like in May at the height of the tourist season.

I started in a general direction towards the castle, perched high up on its walls as many of Japan's castles are. In fact, it was very reminiscent of Matsuyama a couple of nights before in its size and shape and the iconic curved supporting walls that made up its base, although Himeji had definitely turned the opulence meter up another crank; here were people who wanted to flaunt their wealth and power so much more - and they were good at it too.

Sensing an opportunity to get away from the crowds a bit, I hooked a left up the side to see some of the gardens in the courtyard. Though the Sakura was well and truly out now, there was very little else other than some scraggy grass that was still recovering from the previous summer, so I brushed my way past the empty branches and onwards, rejoining the crowds around the corner. There followed a series of increasingly more internal alleyways and openings, where I could get a few good pictures of the castle looming large in front of me, all well signposted with some nice external 'exhibits' and commendable English support.

The insides of Matsuyama Castle were also quieter and less prone to death by slipping down steps. As I entered the castle I had to do the now familiar switcharoo with a set of (outsize) flip-flops, only this time I had to do it in a steadily moving and pulsating queue, where I had to make my own seating arrangements. Fortunately they provided plastic bags or else I'd have never seen my shoes again. Unfortunately, these flip-flops were more like slippers that had no backs on them and so threatened to fall off at the raise of either foot from the ground.

The innards of the castle lead the tourists on a winding path, splitting the already narrow stairways in half for the steady and continuous up and down flows of feet. On each floor, there were a selection of artefacts from the various periods of the castle's history, the original structure dating back to the 14th century and the castle as it is now from the 17th Century. On the compact top floor (there were 5, and this one was about as big as a large attic) the crowds became queues, forming to pay their respects to the shrine located in the centre of the room and taking up a good portion of it. Once through the shrine and having taken some pictures of the fantastic views I made my way carefully back down the stairs (the flip-flops were doing a lot of flopping. Mostly off.) through the exhibits of scale models and structure of the castle, and out into the courtyard again. It was nice to get my now freezing feet back into some relatively warm shoes and I half walked, half hopped out as I tried to stuff my ice cube toes back into them without anything snapping off.

After a little more ambling around the courtyards, I decided it was time for the gardens. It hadn't stopped raining much but the skies were pretty universally grey so they wouldn't be doing any time soon anyway. Unlike the castle, the gardens were almost empty, although that could have been because most of the plants were still asleep and a bit grumpy when you tried to look at them. Some of the larger trees were still bound up in their protective winter sheaths and many hadn't burst from bud yet. I was feeling like there was going to be little to see until I crossed a gently curving wooden bridge and emerged into the central area - a quad of walled-off sections of garden with a central pond and streams shared between them, absolutely full of multicoloured Koi. The first - and most beautiful - section contained the largest pond, complete with waterfalls, weeping willows, firs of all shapes and sizes, and even a bit of Sakura for good measure. There was also a covered viewing platform for just such a day, and I happily spent time watching the writhing of fish under the water as they revelled in the constant spit-spotting of the raindrops on the water.

I spent a little while strolling through the various areas, I was quite surprised at the amount of recognisable plants around, although the general not-quite-woken-up look of the rain-soaked twigs and buds could only be interesting for so long, there was little beyond some spring bulbs and some unknown but very delicate flowers actually putting on a show. Heading back to the entrance, the heavens opened once more, so I sat for a while next to the ticket office. An elderly guy named Charlie from London appeared and sat down wearily next to me. He decided to wait for his wife and her Japanese guide to finish going round the gardens with him. They had just come over from Aukland on a round the world trip, and were in the country for a few days. We sat and chatted for a while about where we had both travelled and where to go next (I recommended Hiroshima to them for the impact of the area and its history, and Kyoto for its temples) until his wife picked him up and they went on their way. By this point it had stopped raining, so I made my way quickly back through the market areas. After yet more Italian food (a nice lasagne with 'pizza toast' and some more proper tea!) in a very pleasant and cosy little restaurant tucked away in the corner of one of the covered arcades, I headed to the station to get my bags.

Osaka station was pretty close, so the intervening trip was short and largely devoid of sights. I arrived about 4pm in Osaka with the intention of doing a couple of things before nightfall. First thing was to find the hotel, which was no mean feat as the station was massive, and when I exited it was into a solid flow of people going about their business with robotic efficiency. After negotiating some underpasses and over busy streets with only my watch-compass and an increasingly damp map to work with (fortunately there were some walkways to get through the worst of the traffic) I finally got on the correct street and arrived at the hotel Hokke, situated on the back streets amongst ..ahem.. businesses of liberal repute - offering professional massage services. The hotel was perfectly respectable (with a.. lovely view) but it felt a little seedy being in the district even so.

No matter, I ditched the bags in the room and headed out. As I retraced my steps through the city, I tried not to gape too much at the enormity of everything around me for fear of ending up under a bus or slipping over and giving a poor native some unwanted personal contact. One attraction I did know about in Osaka before starting out was the Umeda Sky Building, an enormous glass structure in the shape of an inverted 'U' that contained a circular viewing platform at its height. Once on the other side of the station it was easy to spot, but getting there would be more difficult. I passed a post office just as it shut - too late to get any cash out, then headed past a shy Big Issue seller, under the train tracks and out the other side where things looked very much more industrial. Following the road down with grand buildings to the left and empty trainyards to the right, I was on a heading 90 degrees to the sky building and it was getting increasingly dark. A good 5 minute walk allowed me to cross at a level crossing and backtrack to the sky plaza, located in the Umeda district - a large coming together of business and retail blocks. The commercial structure is home to several banks and on the lower floors were several ATMs, though again none would take my dirty foreign card. I would have to wait until the next day it seemed, but I had enough cash to be going on with for now so it was OK.

Relieved that the building wasn't closed, I reached the entrance as the day was turning to night. The layout of the building was a bit stuffy to just have a single lift to the top, so partway up you transfer from the lift to an enormous escalator which straddles the two sides of the building, with a smaller escalator that takes you into the top dome on the 40th floor. Lit up at night it was something special to go in, not overly flashy, just enough to give a quiet sense of awe as you were taken into it. Between escalators was - predictably - a souvenir shop, which I largely ignored as I was light on cash, there were some nice trinkets but I ignored them on the basis of cash shortage and the lack of packing room.

Alighting at the top, there was a fantastic panoramic view of the city at night, and the inner wall of the dome was decorated with tall photographs of other notable buildings from around the world - although I was most interested in the views out of the window. The pictures were going to be difficult - the lack of ambient light meant my little camera would need a long exposure time per photo, and from experience I knew I wouldn't be able to hold myself still enough to take anything that didn't look like an earthquake was happening. I solved the problem by standing the camera on a windowsill, slightly angled downwards with whatever papers I could stuff under it without falling over. I then set a 5 second timer so I could press and not be part of the vibration when the picture was taken. My fleece was used as a cover to minimise the reflection of the light from the inside of the room. A bit make-do-and-mend I'll grant you but I got some cracking pictures through the rain-dashed windows.

I spent a while at the dome, it was very relaxing watching the city come alive with light and movement, yet be so far away from it in complete peace. I finally left about 8pm. Leaving the building and looking up, the circular dome had a beautiful flickering green-blue glow to it, making it look like a landing UFO and lighting up the rest of the building in with metallic blue hues. It's definitely one of the most striking buildings I've seen and better still for visiting at night. As I headed back I passed the post office again, and inside through a door I could shout through was a guy sorting some mail. I took a chance and asked about the ATMs I could see in the barricaded off area, and after what I thought was a shooing off, I realised he was telling me to go round the outside to another bank of machines - which had been available all the time - doh!

Getting out 40,000yen (about £200) I immediately spent some in the adjacent Italian (yes, again) which was very busy but expensive. I had myself a sausage pizza with mango juice and a choc and banana sundae which was yum. At about 9pm I went back to the hotel and spent a little time uploading things on the free internet downstairs, which made me completely lose track of time and I went to bed around midnight.

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