Wonderful Himeji-jo, Japan’s biggest and best preserved original samurai castle is now back on our radar, hurrah!
The highlights of a group tour always seem to vary. Everybody has their own favourite thing or place. These are occasionally predictable but more often surprising. Drain covers? Really?
In this post I have selected a few personal highlights from a recent Hidden Japan tour.
I start on day 3 in Himeji, a quiet town famous for its stately castle. Unfortunately the main keep is still under restoration, but the mazy passageways and chunky earthen walls on the castle slopes remain a treat to trek around. And even better than the castle was the neatly trimmed white-walled garden next door. On our visit, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
With the staff outnumbering visitors, we even got extra special service. In a wooden one story building overlooking the garden, while sat on tatami mat floor, 3 kimono-clad ladies talked us through the tea ceremony. We were treated like visiting lords – it was if they had been waiting for us all day. Now I must admit, not all the group fell in love with the tea (typical problem: wrong colour + no milk), but everybody enjoyed listening to the teacher`s exquisitely polite explanation and demonstration.
The day`s pleasant surprises were not over. That evening we took a train to see a festival at a local shrine. At the time, I was worried the event might be too small; I had never even heard of Kashima, the small town we were going to. What if it was just a couple of old blokes standing around a candle?
As it turned out, the scale of the event did become an issue – the narrow streets were so jam-packed with people we barely had room to wriggle. The atmosphere was like a rock concert. The air carried around the smell of sake and the echo of the powerful drumbeat. Giggling gaggles of young girls leant over the security ropes, closing in on the bare-chested men in loincloths carrying the colourful, towering mikoshis.
We even saw a rare glimpse of confrontation, two testosterone-charged members from rival mikoshi teams squaring up to each other. The prolonged eyeballing and aggressive posturing was like a scene pulled from a yakuza film.
The next morning was more sobering but equally memorable. A volunteer guide walked us around Hiroshima`s Peace Park. Her cheery, relaxed, self-effacing manner concealed a quiet determination to tell us about the immediate and long-term impact of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and beyond.
Then came the whole day spent on the tiny green island of Miyajima. We began the morning with a group hike to the top of Mount Misen. Climbing at a gentle pace, we stopped regularly both to take a look into the woods and river alongside the trail, and also to erm…..breathe. It is a steep climb, trust me.
From the observatory we had spectacular views out to the islands of the inland sea where the ferry would take us the next morning.
That afternoon was free for exploring. A stay in Miyajima provides so many enticing options: the floating torii gate, the gnome-like statues at Daishoin, the map-eating deer, the chocolate-filled momiji sponge cakes and not forgetting the ryokan`s hot spring baths overlooking oyster farms in the bay. My particular highlight was a dish in the evening banquet: burdock root wrapped in conger eel – a magical mix of two of Japan`s finest, most underrated foods.
I have only mentioned 3 days of the tour. There were so many more highlights, most of them unexpected: the drunk, solitary salaryman`s haiku on the Matsuyama tram; the guided tour backstage of Japan`s oldest Kabuki theatre; the rainy morning on a forested, hilltop graveyard watching monks serve breakfast to a man 1200 years dead; the bizarre chat with the bubbly Moroccan chef about the BBC series, Birds of a Feather – “I lovvvvvvve Richard, ” he confessed.
These are only my highlights. I am sure the group have different ones.
As the great man once said: “A group tour is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get.”