August 2015

There’s pretty much one reason that people come to Himeji and it stands there right before you at the end of a long broad avenue as you exit the train station. On the steamy hot (mushiatsui) summer’s day I came here, the six white storeys of the castle’s main keep set against a backdrop of majestic blue skies and white clouds were simply breathtaking.

On the long train journey back home to Shizuoka afterwards, I kept looking with almost religious reverence at the photographs I had taken. This was a building it was possible to entirely commune with in mind, body and soul. In fact, it was so perfectly conceived it was barely of this world, seeming to exist on another plane entirely, perhaps halfway to heaven. If you only see one castle in Japan (a highly improbable occurrence), make it this one!

As uplifting as the views of Himeji Castle were, the actual sightseeing was more of a hard slog. Visiting during Obon, the impossible number of visitors meant that the whole trip into the castle, up the wooden floors to the small shrine at the top and back down again consisted of one massive queue. The best part of the trip was, in fact, at the very end, when the attendants were no longer urgently ushering you on and it was possible to enjoy the edifice in (relative) peace.

The hostel I stayed at was Himeji 588. It was reasonably priced by Japanese standards (2700 yen) and had free coffee, tea and water, a godsend in hot weather. The beds in the dorm were Japanese style mattresses in small cubby holes one up one down and the showers had free soap and shampoo. There was a bar downstairs and a small area to meet other guests, which I did. The one downside was that guests are asked to leave from 1000 to 1600 for the staff to do cleaning, not so great if you were partying the night before.

For dinner, on the recommendation of the hostel manager, we headed down to an area just northeast of the station where there was a cluster of izakayas in one of the colonnaded shopping arcades. I was joined by some other hostel guests and after being told they were full up in most places (it was Saturday night), we finally went down a random set of stairs and found a great little underground cavern bar. The menu was only in handwritten Japanese, one of the hardest things in the world to decipher, so I just asked the staff if they had this or that and what they recommended (‘osusume’) in Japanese.

We then went looking for another place and came across a Latino bar with a suitably cheesy name, ‘Bar Tropicana’. Drinks were not free. I had a chat in Spanish to the friendly Peruvian owner from Cuzco, who had married a Japanese lady. There weren’t too many people there, but there was one young Japanese guy, who for some unknown reason was keen we took our shirts off. The Swedish fellow I was with happily obliged, despite or perhaps because of his massive girth.

We left as soon as we’d finished our drinks, but the owner said it was his birthday the next day and encouraged us to return. I was sceptical as to whether that was actually true or not, but my holiday had come to an end. It was time to get back to Shizuoka.