We have decided the Japanese weather is even more changeable than at home. The temperatures go up and down like a roller coaster and despite quite a bit of rain, we’ve not had more than one wet day in row. After a duck day yesterday, we were hoping for better things today for our visit to Himeji.
Himeji is a small Japanese city of around half a million people between Hiroshima and Kyoto. We had the privilege of going there to visit the Sasaki family. Last year we hosted Nao Sasaki, a delightful 10 year old girl on a school exchange to New Zealand. Her brother Ryosuke (we call him Jo as the sounds in his name are really tricky to pronounce) also stayed with us for a few nights, so we were really looking forward to seeing them again. We were also really excited to meet their parents, Tetsu (Dad) and Sachiyo (Mum). Sachiyo and I had been emailing regularly since before Nao and Jo visited, so we already felt like friends.
We lined up early for the unreserved car on the Shinkansen to Himeji. It paid off and we all managed to get seats in various parts of the car. Quite a few people were standing, but it was much less crowded that we had feared. One hour later we met by Tetsu, Sachiyo and Nao. High school students attend school on Saturdays so Jo was not there – our kids were horrified by this concept!
First stop was their house while we waited for Jo to finish school at midday and they were happy to give us a tour. It was fantastic to see inside a Japanese house. Although not a large house, it was surprisingly spacious and the clever use of space was impressive. I have fallen in love with the way the Japanese use so much wood in their buildings. The Sasaki home was very modern, but everything was wooden and it was just beautiful. I’m sure the team at work would have loved to tour with us. The kids were particularly impressed with the loft and the indoor swing from the wooden rafters!
After collecting Jo from school, we headed back to central Himeji. We were taken to a gorgeous cafe for lunch and ate the best burgers we have had in a very long time. Sachiyo had three wishes for our visit today – to see ninjas, kimonos and the castle. The first wish was granted on the way to the restaurant when we bumped into three obliging ninjas who were happy to pose with us for photos.
Himeji is home to the most impressive castle in Japan. Japan isn’t the first country you think of when it comes to castles, but these structures are seriously impressive – and Himeji is considered to have the best castle of all. The castle is wooden with plaster over the top and needs restoring every 60 years. The most recent restoration took five years and was completed on March 27th when the last scaffolding was removed, just in time for our visit. Add some sakura (cherry blossoms) and a perfect sunny day to a newly restored castle, and you get a quite a sight. Sachiyo had kindly arranged an English speaking guide for us at the castle which made it so much more interesting.
The line for the main keep was too long for our limited time, but we were able to go inside other parts. The outside was our favourite part anyway, the grounds were like a maze. The castle looked very different to anything we have seen before, but the concepts were the same – make it hard to get in and confusing for the enemy if they do, and have plenty of ways to shoot them. We did get to see women dressed in kimonos, so Sachiyo got all her wishes. Not having done the main keep gave us more time and made it more relaxing. Sachiyo and Tetsu both have far better English than most people we have met, so it was great to chat more about life in Japan with them and our guide.
We had a really wonderful time with them, it was a real highlight of our trip. They were incredibly kind, generous and welcoming and it was really special to spend time with a Japanese family. After a quick round of ice creams (we have been amazed how popular and good the Japanese ice cream is!) we said our goodbyes at the station and Andy and I headed to Kyoto on the Shinkansen. Anna and Matt are staying with them until Monday, and Tetsu let slip that they are going to USJ (Universal Studios Japan) tomorrow. Their grins were a mile wide!
We grabbed a taxi when we arrived in Kyoto and got dropped at the taxi stand near our house where we were met by Acco (the owner). She walked us to the house and gave us lots of great tips for sightseeing in Kyoto. The house is gorgeous – a traditional wooden home tucked in a back lane just below one of the most famous temples. It’s a traditional Japanese home, but with all modern comforts.
We headed to Gion in search of some dinner and enjoyed a delicious meal. Gion is one of the most traditional areas of Kyoto, with many wooden buildings and red lanterns everywhere. A really beautiful part of the city and great for a wander after dinner. We even saw a Geisha and managed to sneak a photo. Tomorrow we are looking forward to exploring more of this beautiful city.