Way Out West

7 03 2009

Himeji Castle 1, 3/3/2009

For my Spring Break I decided to ride the rails and tour the coasts of Western Honshu, a slightly more traditional area of Japan distinguished by some fantastic cultural landmarks. I have to admit that for a vacation was surprisingly exhausting- by my rough calculations, I traveled close to seven hundred or so miles in about four days. I also was stranded in Tottori overnight (the last train is pretty damn early there, apparently) and had to pull an all-nighter, desperately wandering around the city in search of heat and shelter from the violent winds. But arriving safely home and sleeping for twelve hours has a way of smoothing some of the rough edges of an experience, and now I’m entirely glad I went. I took a lot of pictures, so I’m going to split it all into a couple of posts. First up: Himeji and Kurashiki.

Himeji city view, Himeji, 3/3/2009

Himeji is by far most famous for its eponymous castle, a spectacular white building well preserved from the destruction that has beset many other Japanese landmarks. It was a little overcast, but the castle was still surprisingly brilliant, even in the relative gloom of the day.

Like most Japanese castles, the layout of the grounds are designed to impede invaders, so it's often a considerable walk to this level of proximity.

Like most Japanese castles, the layout of the grounds are designed to impede invaders, so it's often a considerable walk to this level of proximity.

Himeji castle featured a number of at the time state of the art defensive implements, such an intricately plotted layout, numerous venues to drop rocks or fire weapons from, and a number of windows intended to supplement an archer’s view while simultaneously impeding an attacker’s.

Himeji archer window, Himeji, 3/3/2009

I was also pleasantly surprised that unlike Nijo Castle photography was permitted throughout the interior of the castle.

Himeji Castle Interior 1, Himeji, 3/3/2009Himeji Castle Interior 2, Himeji, 3/3/2009

Himeji Castle Interior 3, Himeji, 3/3/2009Himeji was without a doubt a martial installation, and evidence to that fact was on display throughout.

Guns, Himeji, 3/3/2009Armor, Himeji, 3/3/2009

As I neared the top of the castle, my height granted me a number of impressive views of the city. Little cold, though.

Himeji Castle view, Himeji, 3/3/2009Himeji Castle View 2, Himeji, 3/3/2009

A view from the very top. Despite the cold there was lots of people in the field below having picnics and playing soccer.

A view from the very top. Despite the cold there was lots of people in the field below having picnics and playing soccer.

Himeji lodged a number of powerful Japanese families, including the son of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. Each clan that inhabited the castle had their own personal seal, record of which was collected in the exhibit below.

Uhh... don't worry about the stuff on the left.

Uhh... don't worry about the stuff on the left.

Himeji seals, Himeji, 3/3/2009

There were also a few interesting exhibits inside as well.

An old city view of Himeji. The castle grounds dominate the city.

An old city view of Himeji. The castle grounds dominate the city.

A scale replica of Himeji Castle, created by the builders to check for structural flaws (though I imagine this isn't the original).

A scale replica of Himeji Castle, created by the builders to check for structural flaws (though I imagine this isn't the original).

And what would an old castle be without a few ghost stories? Himeji had a rather morbidly distinguished area intended to serve as a site for suicides. The suicide grounds themselves were unspectacular (enough so that I apparently didn’t take any pictures) but realizing that scores of people had killed themselves in the spot was a little unsettling. It’s got nothing on Aokigahara, however. I also saw what I can only imagine was a possible source of inspiration for Sadako, the vengeful ghost in the Ring movies.

The story.

The story.

The well itself.

The well itself.

A few hours more on the train brought me to Kurashiki, a slightly smaller and more rustic city than Himeji.

Kurashiki after dark, Kurashiki, 3/3/2009

Sorry for how dark this is; it looked pretty nice when I took the picture, at least.

Sorry for how dark this is; it looked pretty nice when I took the picture, at least.

I stayed in a youth hostel that night, and despite my failed exchange with the owners (I was disturbed to find that I had become so cold I couldn’t speak properly for a few minutes) I actually carried a conversation with a Japanese high school student named Jun and a talkative college student named Takeshi who were also staying in the room that night. I had many of my usual struggles, and I didn’t understand everything, but actually having a functioning conversation was a pretty nice feeling. Next post, Miyajimaguchi- perhaps my new favorite place in Japan. Also, the merciless sea, tanuki monks, and deers rubbing their faces on their own asses. Get pumped.

A sneak preview of the next post.

A sneak preview of the next post.

Music I’m Listening to Now: Crooked Fingers, “Your Control”.

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Radio City

9 02 2009

Osaka City View 1, Osaka, 2/4/2009

Last week I went to Osaka, one of the most populous cities in Japan. Osaka shares an interesting characteristic with Tokyo in that the population is drastically reduced after night falls and commuting workers return home, which in Osaka’s case 40% of them do. During the day, however, Osaka is a bustling metropolis and has a attitude surprisingly disparate from Kyoto. While Kyoto is also one of Japan’s larger metropolises, it took going to Osaka to make me realize how relatively subdued Kyoto with it’s numerous temples and shrines is in comparison. Osaka is often compared with New York for it’s slightly more relaxed and carefree approach to city living, helped by it’s location in the Kansai area, residents of which are said to be more feckless and prone to humor than their more stoic Kanto counterparts. Residents of the Kansai also often speak a dialect of Japanese, Kansai-ben, that’s said to be faster and more slangy than Tokyo Japanese, as well as including such a number of distinct phrases and vocabulary that it is almost a separate language (such as “ooki ni” for “argitou” and “yan” instead of “san”).

Obviously Osaka is the New York of the East- it even has its own Statue of Liberty.

Obviously Osaka is the New York of the East- it even has its own Statue of Liberty.

I also scoped out Osaka Castle while I was out. One of the larger and more visually impressive castles in Japan, if a slightly odd combination of the historic and the modern; behind the castle is a very anachronistic glass and steel elevator.

Osaka-jou, Osaka, 2/4/2009

A view of Osaka Castle's moat.

A view of Osaka Castle's moat.

Osaka really does seem like a more modern city than Kyoto, especially some of it’s striking skyscrapers, like the humongous police headquarters and equally large NHK building across the street from it.

Too big to be captured in one photograph.

Too big to be captured in one photograph.

Random city views.

Random city views.

Osaka City View 4, Osaka, 2/4/2009

Later I wandered into Den-Den Town, the sobriquet for the area of Kyoto renowned for it’s electronics and now otaku goods, especially manga and anime. All of the competition means prices are quite reasonable, but that’s not always the case.

I don't think this is what they meant.

I don't think this is what they meant.

Sadly (or weirdly, or frighteningly, or other such adjectives), where otaku gather is where certain specialty stores also congregate. I had the pleasure of seeing not one but two different maid cafes while I was looking for okonomiyaki for dinner in the area. Maid cafes, for those who don’t know, are cafes that cater to clientele who enjoy having women in maid costumes serving them overpriced tea and calling them “master” in wheedling voices. Bizarrely, they seemed to have flourished in areas such as Den-Den Town and Japan’s other otaku mecca, Akihabara.

Sorry for the bad picture, but this was as close as I could get. Once I passed by the cafe, glimpsed in the window, and saw women in maid uniforms manning the counter, I was laughing to badly to try for a better shot.

Sorry for the bad picture, but this was as close as I could get. Once I passed by the cafe, glimpsed in the window, and saw women in maid uniforms manning the counter, I was laughing too badly to try for a better shot.

Osaka was nice, and I’m looking forward to going again, especially after I got an awesome Disgaea artbook that goes for quite a bit more in the States. Perhaps I’ll even go to a maid cafe next time (though not alone- I can’t imagine anything sadder).

A view of Den-Den town at night.

A view of Den-Den town at night.

Music I’m Listening to Now: Deerhoof, “Vox Celeste”.