Thursday 25 May 2017 – Himeji Castle, Kokoen Gardens, Engyoji Temple & Akashi Kaikyo Bridge

After a great night’s sleep, we woke to an overcast and drizzly day. We enjoyed breakfast on the 17th floor overlooking the mountains and at 8.30am, we met Takuya Yanagisawa, (our private guide we organised a few months ago), in the foyer of our hotel.
We had a fantastic day today and our words are not going to be able to do it justice. Takuya took us to the underground station adjacent to the hotel and we caught a subway train to the main Kyoto Station, where we boarded a Shinkansen train to Himeji – it was very smooth and travelled at about 270km per hour. From Himeji Station, we walked up to Himeji Castle, as by now the showery rain had stopped and the skies were starting to clear.
Himeji Castle, also known as White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) due to its elegant, white appearance and its well-preserved, complex castle grounds, is considered Japan’s most spectacular castle. The 17th-century Himeji Castle is considered a prime example of Japanese feudal period architecture. Unlike many other Japanese castles, it was not destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and survives to this day as one of the country’s twelve original castles.
Takuya told us that Himeji Castle, a World Heritage Site, lies at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto. He said the first fortifications built on the site were completed in the 1400s, and were gradually enlarged over the centuries by the various clans who ruled over the region. The castle complex, as it survives today, is over 400 years old and was completed in 1609. It consists of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys (courtyards surrounded by walls), which are connected by a series of gates and winding paths.
We entered Himeji Castle via the Ote-mon Gate and walked to the Hishi-no-mon Gate and then through a maze-like area from the Hishi Gate to the main keep, leading us along walled paths and through multiple gates and walkways (it was built like this to slow down and expose attacking forces).
In the middle of the complex is the main keep, a six story wooden structure and a basement. It is apparently one of only a handful of castle keeps in Japan that feature wing buildings.
We entered the main keep through an entrance in the lower floor of the building, where we took our shoes off and were given a plastic bag to carry them in. We climbed upwards via a series of steep, narrow staircases, with each level getting progressively smaller as we ascended. The rooms were unfurnished and Takuya explained some of the architectural features such as portholes, rock chutes, attacking points and concealed spaces, as well as renovation efforts made over the years to preserve the structure.
The top floor had a small shrine and we were able to look out in all directions, down over the castle roofs, at the maze-like defense structures below us and out across the city of Himeji, which was very picturesque as by now there was some blue sky. We could also see the fish-shaped roof ornaments that are believed to have protected the castle from fire.
We then made our way back to the Hishi Gate and made our way along the turrets and explored another bailey, the west bailey (Nishinomaru), which was the residence of Princess Sen. This area gave us spectacular views of the main keep from many different perspectives. Around every corner, there was another view of the main keep from a different angle, and more photos had to be taken!
We then made our way back to the Ote-mon Gate and the Castle Moat and found a little café where the three of us enjoyed lunch together (a lovely pork fillet sandwich and a cold drink), enjoying each others’ company and learning more about Takuya and his beautiful part of Japan (and enjoying to sit down for a little while).
After lunch, we visited the Himeji Castle Kokoen Gardens, which is a relatively recent construction of a Japanese-style garden, opened in 1992 on the former site of the feudal lord’s west residence (Nishi-Oyashiki). It is 3.5 hectares and consists of nine separate, walled gardens in various styles of the Edo Period. Among the gardens, Takuya took us to one with a pond and waterfall, a tea ceremony house, a garden of seedlings, a flatly landscaped garden, a pine tree garden, a bamboo garden and a flower garden.
After wandering around and enjoying the gardens, we caught a taxi to the Mt Shosha Ropeway, a cable car, which took us up to the Engyoji Temple. It took us 781 metres up, with a 210m vertical lift.
Engyoji’s temple buildings are spread over a spacious, densely forested area on the mountain-top, which was spectacular. From the ropeway station we caught a shuttle bus to Niomon Gate and then hada 15 minute walk to reach the Maniden, a beautiful wooden temple hall, constructed on pillars on a steep slope. Another five-minute walk along the beautiful forest trail past the Tomb of the Honda family and then the trail brought us to the three massive wooden temple halls, known as Daikodo (main hall), Jikido and Jogyodo. We visited another temple building before walking back down the steep path to the shuttle bus. At each of the temples, we took our shoes off and left them at the entrance. Takuya related interesting stories about each of the places we visited and in many of the areas, it was just the three of us so this was a unique opportunity to enjoy the tranquility of each these temples and the forest without the usual crowds.
Because of its beautiful scenery and the lack of modern buildings on the temple grounds, Mount Shosha is frequently used as a filming location for historical movies and TV dramas. The Hollywood movie “The Last Samurai” was partially shot on the mountain, including scenes taken around and inside the three halls.
We travelled back down by shuttle bus and then caught a local bus back to Himeji station. We enjoyed the trip through the local suburbs with people getting on and off the bus.
The bus dropped us at Himeji station and we caught a Special Rapid Service train to Nishi-Akashi (this only travels at 12 kilometres per hour) and then a Rapid Service train to Kobe and from there a local train to Akashi Kaikyo. We walked down to the base of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which is a suspension bridge, linking the city of Kobe on the Japanese mainland of Honshu to Iwaya on Awaji Island. The Bridge, which crosses the Akashi Strait, is almost four kilometres long and is the world’s longest suspension bridge. We walked along underneath the bridge and had good views of the Akashi Strait and Osaka Bay.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. Interestingly, when we board the MS Caledonian Sky on Sunday afternoon for our cruise around Japan, we think we will be going under the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge as we leave Osaka on our way to our first stop at Kurashiki.

After a wonderful day, Takuya took us to the station where we caught a series of trains to Sannomiya and then the Shinkansen back to Kyoto Station via Osaka. We arrived at Kyoto Station at about 7.30pm, where we said our heartfelt thanks to Takuya, who put us into a taxi and told the driver to take us to our hotel and he headed back to Kobe. Our taxi delivered us back to our hotel at about 8.00pm – two very tired but extremely delighted adventurers.

We managed to travel on 5 different types of trains (subway, local, Rapid Service, Special Rapid Service and Shinkansen trains) as well as taxis, buses and a cable car. We lost count of the number of stairs (although Fitbit says it was 167 flights of stairs) and we estimate that we walked 16 kilometres. Our private guide, Takuya was very helpful, most informative and made this a very special day for us.
This has been a wonderful introduction to Japan.
(Thanks Alison for advising us to visit Himeji Castle!)

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