17 Jul 2014 day 2: Himeji Castle & Kokoen Garden
The weather forecast for the day included rain and several chances of thunderstorms. We had planned to go from Osaka to Himeji and see the castle, then head to our accommodation in Hiroshima. I wondered if we should instead swap our days and see the castle on our return from Hiroshima to Osaka. The weather forecast for the next few days wasn’t great, with lots of rain predicted. Tim said seeing as this was one thing I really wanted to see and the main reason we were in the area in the first place, we should visit as planned and if the weather was really bad then we would make time to return on our way back as well.
We had breakfast at the hotel as it was included in our stay. The lobby area was small but we were able to get a table amongst all the business workers, although I had to share a seat with Fletcher. Breakfast was self-serve style and included croissants, danishes, bread rolls, a salad, yoghurt tubs, bananas, juice, milk, tea and coffee. It was quite good for a basic hotel breakfast and the staff were always refreshing the food and drinks. After breakfast we went up to our room to get our bags to bring down and then had a long wait for the elevator. We checked out, leaving our suitcase in the hotel storage as we would be returning for another night. We had packed an overnight bag for our stay in Hiroshima.
Osaka to Himeji
We took the midosuji subway line from Honmachi station to Shin-Osaka station. There we got a shinkansen to Himeji station. We arrived in Himeji at about 11am, a lot later than we had planned for, due to trying to make a decision and the long wait for the elevator at the hotel. We left our overnight bag in a locker at the station and then headed for Himeji Castle. Exiting the station, it was easy to know what direction to go as we could see the castle up ahead.
About Himeji Castle
Japan’s most impressive castle is referred to as “white heron” due to its white exterior. The castle gets its appearance from the white fire resistant plaster that covers its buildings. Situated on top of Himeyama hill in Himeji, the castle dates back to 1333 when Akamatsu Norimura first built a fort on the site. In 1346 the fort was dismantled and Himeyama Castle was built in its place, two centuries later it was remodelled into Himeji Castle. The Castle was remodelled again in 1581 and a three-story keep was added.
During the early 1600’s the castle was rebuilt and expanded with several buildings and moats being added to the castle complex. Himeji Castle has remained intact throughout the years, surviving bombings during world war two and natural disasters. In 1993 Himeji Castle was registered as a UNESCO world heritage site and it is also a national treasure.
Himeji Castle restoration
Himeji Castle was fully re-opened to the public in March 2015, after under going several years of restorations. Our visit to the castle was in October 2014. The castle had previously been covered with scaffolding and the public were able to enter an observation area to watch the restoration works being carried out. During our visit the scaffolding had all been removed and the castle was now fully visible. The inside was now off-limits as well as a section of the grounds, we weren’t able to approach the area around the main keep. A crane still remained to the side of the castle.
We walked over the bridge and under the large gate, which opened up into a large ground where tour groups were gathered, taking photo’s. In this area there is also the entrance to a small zoo. At the time, due to the continuing renovations, the entrance price was discounted to 400 yen. We purchased a combined ticket that included entry to Kokoen garden for a little extra.
The castle grounds are set out to be maze like as this was a form of defence, to confuse any approaching force. The castle’s defensive systems from the feudal period include roughly 1,000 loopholes in the shapes of triangles, rectangles and circles that can be seen all around the castle buildings. We followed the arrows around the castle complex, exploring the many different angles, levels and high stone walls.
Himeji Castle with a toddler
We had to leave the stroller in a designated area just inside the entrance, so Fletcher was left to walk around the grounds. We entered a small display area and I had told Fletcher he wasn’t allowed to touch any of the items. He was really good at just looking but the second his little hand reached up to a barrier rope, a staff member rushed over to scold him. I thought it was a bit over the top and she frightened Fletcher, so we headed to the exit.
There was a hall that was open to enter but we decided not to, instead letting Fletcher roam free outside. He really enjoyed seeing all the different sized rocks that made up the large walls and the shaped loopholes. He ran up and down steps and tackled steep climbs and made it around the entire grounds.
I had known before our visit that we would not be able to see the castle’s interior but I couldn’t find much information about whether certain areas would be out of bounds. It turned out that a large section surrounding the main keep was a no enter zone, with large safety fences in place. Although it was disappointing to not be able to see the castle from close-up, we all really enjoyed our visit and still found Himeji Castle extremely impressive. So far we hadn’t had any rain or thunderstorms. It was cloudy and humid all day and when we left the castle there were some large dark clouds around but the rain held off during our time in Himeji.
We collected our stroller and placed our worn out toddler in it. I had a quick look in the busy gift store and seen many expensive but impressive models of Himeji Castle. We exited the castle grounds and crossed the road in search for some lunch. Once we were over the road we noticed Fletcher was starting to doze off. We laid him back and kept walking. He soon fell asleep and we decided to walk back and see whether we would be able to push the stroller around Kokoen garden. After the first lady I asked couldn’t understand what I was saying, a younger lady came out and I repeated the question, gesturing at the stroller. She gave the ok sign and pointed us in the direction of a wheelchair access path.
The path lead us past a large pond with waterfalls on either side. There was a building that contained a restaurant and then the path lead to a viewing platform that looked out over the pond that was filled with several large Koi fish.
We were fascinated with a gardener who was manicuring a tree. They had a ladder set up in the pond and an umbrella hanging off the tree to catch the trimmings before they fell in the water. We strolled along the path, stopping and taking turns to view areas that were accessed by stepping-stones or gravel paths. We came to an area full of various bonsai trees, some which looked to be very old.
It was a really nice garden to just wander around and take in the different areas. It obviously would have been different had our toddler wanted to explore and run around. He was sound asleep in the stroller and we commented that as much as we love seeing him enjoying new places, this was perfect timing as we got to enjoy a relaxing walk through a Japanese garden in peace.
We walked past a tea ceremony house and garden. Then came to landscaped gardens that were separated into different areas with a variety of trees and plants throughout. In one section there was a small pond with stepping-stones and little bridges. At one end was a Japanese style gazebo over the water.
The bamboo garden was the last section of the whole Kokoen gardens. A path looped through the bamboo. There were some people confused. I think that they expected to find the exit. We went out through a wooden gate, I love Japanese style roofing and stopped to admire this mini version up close.
Afternoon in Himeji
After leaving Kokoen gardens, Fletcher was still asleep so we sat on a bench seat under trees. It was a lovely spot beside the moat of Himeji Castle. An older Japanese man approached us, attempting to practise English. He asked us questions but had no idea what we were saying. The talking disturbed Fletcher and he began to wake up. The man then gave up and walked away laughing. Fletcher got out of the stroller and we went to look at the moat before heading to get some late lunch.
We got some sandwiches from a 7/11 and found a quiet spot to sit and eat them. Strolling along the street, we came to gashapon machines with souvenir items inside. We got a Shinkansen pin and a Himeji Castle pin. Afterwards we bought green tea soft serve ice-creams, before heading to the station. We quickly entered the shopping street next to the station, just so I could see the Hello Kitty cafe. After collecting our bag from the locker, we took a shinkansen to Hiroshima. We had a night booked at the Sheraton hotel right by Hiroshima station.