Well I should have done this post a few days ago, but once I got to Thailand I turned into a giddy little kid. Responsibility was put promptly on the backburner for a minute. I will tell you a bit about Thailand at the end of this post, but I need to share my last few days in Japan with you!
I used my Japan Rail Pass for a couple more side trips after Nara and Uji (mentioned in my last post). I would have liked to use it more, but the weather and my health did not cooperate. It snowed hard one day with some really strong winds and with a high below freezing, it did not seem to be a good day to spend all day outside. Another day it decided to wash the streets with a torrential downpour. It was slightly warmer, but with the wind, there was no hope of staying dry. I woke up that morning with a cold, so I didn’t think it was a good idea to spend the day cold and wet. So there is my full list of excuses, but I will get to the places I did visit.
The first was Himeji. Himeji is famous for its huge castle complex. It is a mostly intact castle complete with a moat!
While I was able to see the grounds and many of the buildings in the complex, the main building of the castle was undergoing restorations so it was under a huge scaffolding. Disappointing, but the grounds were impressive unto themselves.
One bonus was a lookout from the top of the scaffolding where you could get a view of the whole city called the “Egret’s Eye View”. I couldn’t help but thinking that if it were in the US it would be the Eagle Eye View. I wonder if Egrets have really great vision like Eagles? I digress…
Once I got off the elevator to the lookout, there was a “Host” there. I am not sure what his official capacity was, but he was wearing a bright yellow “I Speak English” shirt and lit up like Christmas when I walked in. He approached with some level of apprehension, “Excue me lady, can I talk to you?” I was curious how many people told him no… He gave me what I assume was a good description of the castle’s history in very heavily accented English. I caught about 20% of what he was saying. There was a whole lot of nodding and smiling going on. One thing I did catch and laughed out loud at was his description of the castle walls. He told me that the castle grounds were originally surrounded by three moats and a stone wall about 60 feet tall. The wall was originally plastered to make it smooth. He told me, “Only the sneakiest ninjas could make it up there.” Immediately my mind was filled with sneaky ninjas.
One of the things I liked the most about this castle was a multi-level long corridor lined with small rooms. As you walked along the corridor they had plaques outlining a tragic yet beautiful story of Senhime, who once lived in this corridor that was built for her. The small rooms were places for her ladies in waiting. I wanted to share her story with you while I share the castle pictures.
Senhime was born on April 11th, 1597. Her father was the second Shogun and she was married off to Toyotomi Hideyori in Osaka when she was 7 and he was 11. It was purely a political marriage and she was regarded as a hostage. There was a lot of political struggles for supremacy in the family and she grew up to be a beautiful woman in a difficult position. On May of 1615, Osaka Castle burst into flames caused by an attack. Her husband and his mother both killed themselves, but Senhime was barely rescued and survived. Sakazaki Naomori dashed into the flames to rescue her, but he was burned in the process.
Full of grief and depression, Senhime made her way Edo (now Tokyo). On the way there she met a handsome and dignified man by the name of Honda Tadayoki. He welcomed her to stay on behalf of his father during her long journey. After she left and made her way to Edo, she could not get Tadayoki off of her mind. But once she got to Edo she was told by her family that she was only alive because they had bribed someone to rescue her from the fire by promising her hand in marriage to her rescuer, Sakazaki. Even though he saved her life, she refused the arranged marriage. “I will not do as I am told anymore, I wish to marry Tadatoki.” She defied her family for the first time in her life.
Marriage for love was extremely exceptional in those days, but her grandfather was touched and consented to Senhime’s marriage to Tadatoki. She married him and they moved to Himeji castle in 1617. A mansion was built for her husband and another one was built for Senhime including this long corridor of 600 feet, lined with more than 20 small rooms for her ladies.
Senhime and Tadatoki had a girl first and then a boy, but their happiness did not last long. Their sone died at the age of three and they were not blessed with any more children after that. People said that it was the curse of Hideyori, Senhimes first husband, who killed himself in Osaka. Senhime built a shrine on a hill near Himeji Castle and prayed to it every day from the very corridor where I was standing. However, her prayers were not answered. Tadatoki died of an illness at the age of 31 in 1626, followed closely by his mother, and then Senhime received news of her own mothers death back in Edo. Crushed with grief, she took her only daughter and left Himeji. She became a nun and lived out her years at Edo Castle until she dies in 1666 at the age of 70.
I walked back to the train station and caught a train back to Kyoto with Senhime’s story on my mind. I found it vastly more interesting than just seeing a castle with the dates like many others I have seen. It puts it into context and allows you to envision how life would have been for a princess in that period of Japanese history. I would love to go back and see the castle after the restorations are done. The other thing the host told me (that I understood) was how beautiful the grounds are when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. I can only imagine how peaceful and lovely the castle would have been (when not under siege, that is…)
My next destination was Miyajima. Miyajima is an island about an hour outside of Hiroshima. Getting there was quite the process. I had to take a train to Osaka, switch to the Shinkansen (high speed) train to Hiroshima, and then transfer again to Miyajima. Once I was at the Miyajima train station, I took a ferry over to the island. You have seen pictures of ths island before. How do I know? The bright red Torii gates in Miyajima are the most commonly used images when advertising tourism in Japan. They sit in the open water and greet visitors to the island.
In addition to taking about 20 pictures of the exact same subject matter, there was a lot of activity here on the island. One of the things I enjoyed seeing was all of the street vendors. They were my favorite in South Korea, so I was happy to see some of them in Japan. However, and this is a big however, I was not really interested in bacon wrapped fish cake (a compressed fish paste similar to hot dog consistency), nor did I have an interest in eating seared oysters. They did make a good photography subject though!
The island also had a fairly large population of deer like Nara. These deer were everywhere in the temples and shops throughout the area. Also found on the island were several pagodas and shrines. AND, stop the presses, the worlds largest rice scoop.
I am pretty sure it is just a typical tourist trap similar to the worlds largest ball of twine, but I still thought it was funny. Many of the souvenirs were little rice scoops with the Torii gates.
I walked around the crowded streets for an hour or so and then got back on the ferry to start my journey home. Overall, very touristy, but still extremely picturesque and worth the trip.
I had planned to go to Hikone to see the castle there before I left, but unfortunately as I mentioned above, the weather and my health did not cooperate. I was a little bummed by that, but honestly was ready to move on to warmer weather. I had an enjoyable time in Japan, but it was not as cool as South Korea in my opinion. The people were not as hospitable and remarkably few people spoke any english. I definitely saw some beautiful temples and shrines. My final take on Japan: Visit, but come during the Spring. It was too bitingly cold on many days to enjoy myself. On one day I wore thermal underwear, three long sleeve shirts, a sweatshirt, and a fleece jacket and I was still frigid cold. Another overarching theme on my trip was, “It’s beautiful here when the Cherry Blossoms bloom.” Great, thanks, but I’m here now and they are not blooming. I almost felt like people were pitying me for missing it. It would be extremely hard to time it though because they only bloom for 10-14 days and it varies each year in a two month window of time. You would have to be ready to fly at the drop of a hat to catch them.
Ready to hit some warmer pastures, I happily jumped on my plane to Bangkok. Those of you that follow my Tweets or Facebook know that my love affair with Bangkok started right when I got here. I am staying on Rambuttri Road which is one street over from Khao San Road, a worldwide renowned backpackers haven.
The streets are lined with bars, vendors, and cheap souvenirs. I bought two tank tops and two blouses for $8, got an hour long massage for $5, and walked down the street and had a couple of beers for $2. Seriously, I love this place. It is shockingly hot and sticky here after being in frigid Japan, but I am sure I will adjust.
I woke up this morning and walked around for a bit before hitting a street vendor for some freshly made Pad Thai for 30 baht (about a dollar). Delicious!
Here is your dose of Daily Zen:
I will update the blog as often as I can, but internet access will be spotty for a while as I make my way through more rural areas of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia over the next month or so. If you need to get in touch with me, email is still probably the best because I will be checking it as often as I can!
Love to all!