Friday, November 6, 2015

Zoom Zoom... Really

This is the next post of our Japan trip.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

We were due to spend 4 days in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, but on the way was the biggest and best castle in Japan at Himeji so we had to break our journey there.

Cat's itinerary for the days says:

Hiroshima to Himeji

52 mins past the hour, 57 minute journey

Aim for 9.52 am.

Fat chance of that!  We ultimately made the 10.52 and had our first bullet train, no sorry the Shinkansen, experience.  What an experience!

Each train apparently is designed differently so has different names like shark, snake and so on and when you see one, you know why!

The Snake!
The layout is like airline business class seating with a low purr as the train smoothly glides along on its own track.  Unlike regular trains with shorter rail lengths, the Shinkansen doesn't seem to have the same issue.  Maybe its one long rail?  When you watch one pass through a station at top speed without stopping it has an ethereal air to it with what seems like a sort of halo around it.  Difficult to explain but you have to experience it.

So all too quickly we ended up in Himeji, just the 57 minutes away and the castle was a brief 15 minute walk away from the station.  Very impressive it was too and at this point I shall digress about some Japanese history.

A charming older man stopped us in the gardens outside the castle to ask us where we were from.  We had a nice chat.  He said it had rained for 5 days straight which was why so many people were outside!  He wanted to practice his English which was very good.  Far better than my Japanese which at this point only extended to 'Konichi-wa" -- Hello.
Of course everyone is familiar with the TV series called Shogun from 20+ years ago with Richard Chamberlain as the ship wrecked westerner who unluckily fell into the hands of the Japanese.  Happily for him, he was smart enough to get on and that is what the story is about.  Good one too.  However it was set in the 1600's around the time Himeji Castle was first built and was the home and bastion of the then shogun Tokugawa.

Shoguns are basically war lords.  Actually he not they are rather the big boss warlord.  Some 1,000 years ago the Emperor was side lined by the war lords because the line became weak and the Emperors the equivalent of prancing ponies.  So they became figure heads and were used as political pawns in the never ending struggle of the big war lords around the country.  As a result the seat of power (as Himeji was for a time) followed the fortunes of the Shogun as opposed to the Emperor who was given a stipend and studiously ignored.  The last one was Tojo who fell in 1945.

The Shogunate was enforced by their soldiers, the samurai.  Essentially anyone not a war lord or samurai was the equivalent of a serf and were treated like dirt.  Japan sounds a nasty place to live if you didn't have money, position and power back then.

Foreigners were treated even worse.  Certainly there are stories of Portuguese missions and the occasional one like that I mentioned earlier, but the routine treatment of anyone unlucky enough to land in Japan either by chance (e.g. ship wreck) or design was to be executed immediately.  The Americans in particular got sick of this by the mid-19th century when their whalers who fished in Arctic waters hereabouts got into trouble and had their heads chopped off as opposed to being offered safe haven.  So Admiral Perry in his iron dreadnoughts sailed into Tokyo Bay and ... well opened the place up by the virtue of his big guns.

But the castle itself was a whopper.  The biggest in Japan and a World Heritage Site.  It has just been reopened after a lengthy renovation so was in very good condition indeed.  Those of you who have been paying attention will expect this by now but as the castle itself was first built 500+ years ago, the current one is version #24.  The earliest bit of the castle was from the 1950's.  Being in the middle of nowhere really, the castle was untouched in WWII.

We tramped up all 6 or 7 stories, depending how you count them, and even though the blurb says that it was built to the highest tech of the time, I did think that the Normans who basically built every standing castle in England out of stone in the 11th and 12th century would have sneered at the wood and mud hill construction.  However they weren't here then (and of course would have been executed had they been) so the castle was probably pretty much impregnable.

Call that a castle?

The gardens were of course lovely too and the whole visit was a most enjoyable segue into our arrival in Kyoto just in time for dinner

... and of course more sake!

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