September 23, 2009
Open up any Japan travel book and you’ll see this country boasts a lot of historical castles. Don’t let Lonely Planet trick you though – the dirty secret is a huge chunk of these landmarks are just pale imitations of once majestic places. I learned (in college! Whoa!) most of Japan’s castles were burned down…so the current incarnations are remade buildings, not the real deal as the real deal was turned into smoldering ash like 200 years ago. This is like going to Legoland to see the Eiffel Tower.
But then there’s Himeji Castle. Unlike all the phonies hanging out in Japan, Himeji is the real deal – this is the more-or-less (give or take minor renovations here or there) the original structure. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whatever that is. Wikipedia tells me it’s the most visited castle in all of Japan. Himeji Castle means business.
I rationalized that, to make the most of my stay in Japan and become slightly more cultured, I should visit Himeji Castle at some point. A few problems though – I’m lazy and also highly low-class, in that I’d probably skip on the history to wander around staring at pretty lights and looking for silly things (“whoa, Subway! Do they have the five-dollar footlong???”).
Thankfully, friend here told me Himeji Castle will be closed to the public starting this Fall to undergo renovations, and the project will take two years to finish. Well, that settled that – it was either see the castle on my day off or never see it outside of Google Image Search. Away to Himeji I went!
Himeji the city seemed pleasant enough. The place had a huge combination train station/shopping mall, lots of shopping arcades tucked down alleys and a French restaurant. The more we progressed down the main street, though, the clearer it became that Himeji really just exists for the castle. As we inched closer to the famous place, more food stands and souvenir shops started popping up, peddling fried foods and knick-knacks to visitors with cash to blow. Himeji went from “nice city with a big 7-11” to “exhibit at EPCOT-lie.”
The castle grounds itself are huge. Tourists enter through a big wooden gate straight out of a Kurisowa film and then enter what is basically a giant park. Walk a little further and you run smack dab into the hour-long line to fork over 600 yen and get into the castle proper. Our group apparently wasn’t alone in knowing the castle is shutting down for a bit.
(While milling about in line, I noticed a nice little change of pace – at Himeji Castle I received questioning glances mostly from other foreigners. I don’t know why, but the other non-Japanese people walking around the park tended to glare in our general direction when they neared us. Then again, I was wearing this…)
The actual castle experience is a bit tough to write about. Mainly, after waiting an hour in a line to pay we only had like five minutes to wander around before hitting another line to get inside the castle structure. This wait lasted two-and-a-half hours. On the plus side, the place you stand offered plenty of cool glimpses at various parts of the Himeji Castle grounds. Downside – stood in a line for two-and-a-half hours (note to others – don’t do this trip during the summer, you might as well stand in front of an oven for four hours). Once we finally made it inside the castle, the wait had drained me (nothing more physically taxing than standing) and I felt less excited about seeing artifacts and more pumped to sit down. At least EPCOT has the Fast Pass.
If that comes off as a bit of a downer, I should clarify Himeji Castle is a totally cool place to visit and legitimately a “things I must see in Japan” honoree if you dig history. Not to mention the views at the top of the castle make all the waiting and ascending stairs worth it. Plus, there is a little box you throw money in and you apparently get good luck. Hope 5 yen works wonders!
(Japanese Fun Fact #18 – Well, the good luck didn’t come right away…we ate dinner in Kobe [more on that someday] but missed the last train bound for Nabari. This meant we were stranded. The good news? We made it to Osaka, so we at least got marooned in an awesome place. After a much more pleasant stay in a capsule hotel than the first time – mostly because I actually used my sheets this time around – I woke up and went home. But I didn’t get far without noticing this little wall showcasing two things Japan loves – Dragonball and the Wu-Tang Clan. If you can’t make it out, it says “RIP ODB” under Goku. Big Baby Jesus would be proud.)