By Antonio Malara
Himeji was the last destination I visited in Japan during the trip made with my sister in April 2018. Moreover, that day was also the last we would spend in Japan and we spent it in the most articulated way possible. That morning we checked out of our hotel in Kyoto and left our bags there. Immediately afterwards we left for Himeji and on the way back we stopped again in Kyoto just long enough to pick up our luggage and return to Tokyo where we spent the last night. All this was possible thanks to the magic and efficiency of super-fast Shinkansen trains. Covering those distances and being able to be in so many places on the same day was only possible thanks to this technology combined with the precision of Japanese people. That visit to Himeji is to this day the closest thing to teleportation I have ever experienced in my life.
Himeji was a destination strongly desired by my sister and in fact our visit was focused exclusively on the famous Himeji Castle. Also in this case as for other previous ones in Japan, I had planned on the maps how to reach the castle and my sister would gradually explain the interesting things about it. The construction of Himeji Castle began in the 1300s and expanded over the following centuries. The castle was conceived as a military building and in 1993 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the super fast train ride I thought I was going to see a place for the first time but in reality I had some déjà-vu whose mystery I only solved a few years ago.
To succeed in our “mission” we had to wake up early and at about 8 AM we were already at the Himeji station. The singular thing once out of the station was that a straight and wide but slightly uphill road led straight to the castle which could be seen tiny at the end of the road. This road was called Otemae St, it was very nice and modern and after walking it for about twenty minutes we arrived in front of the wooden walkway that was the entrance to Himeji Park. From there we could see the castle which, however, still remained small and this made us understand the vastness of the park. The whole area was surrounded by a stone wall about three meters high and in fact those walls separated the city from the park which was surrounded by a small river that ran all around it. After crossing the front door we found ourselves in an immense green meadow, it was deep and wide, the view of the meadow ended where that of the castle began. It stood on stone walls and was beautiful, white with several separate structures around the main one. That place put an incredible calm and we spent about ten minutes there taking pictures and enjoying the view of the castle and it was in that moment that I had the déjà-vu, more than anything I had the impression of having already been there. Up to the entrance we had to walk for at least another fifteen minutes with the road that was slightly uphill. At the end of the path there was the actual entrance inside the castle, there we had to take off our shoes because the visit had to be done without them. To tell the truth, I don't remember if it was out of respect or to preserve the structure. Up close and before entering, I could appreciate the magnificent work of the stone wall on which the castle stood, which from there was shown in distorted perspectives. Inside, the castle was even more interesting than outside; all around us there was just wood, everywhere! Floor, pillars, beams and windows; it was a show of wood design that I have never seen before. All in a very large space that gave way to appreciate even more the beauty of that work. The internal route was marked with skittles, however it was not annoying precisely because the interior of the castle was very large. Although these interiors were bare and without furniture, they still conveyed a sense of intimacy and security. Slowly and respecting the line we went to the upper floors and looking out the windows we could see the beauty and grandeur of the park. Although the view also overlooked the city, I was personally more impressed by the park. If I remember correctly it was not allowed to take pictures inside but since I own them, it means that I have transgressed this rule. This is because that internal environment affected me so much that I had to take tangible memories with me. I don't know if it was precisely because it was bare but inside the castle, surrounded by those wooden rooms, I felt very relaxed, the castle inspired me with confidence and made me feel at ease. It kind of reminded me of the castle from the animated film “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi”. Even today at night I dream of sleeping alone in a very similar place, all in wood, then I wake up, I look out through the window but I’m not able to perceive the outside panorama. I don't know if the dream is due to Himeji Castle, to Hayao Miyazaki's animated film or both. The fact is that even in the dream that environment gives me a unique sense of comfort and safety.
The visit to the castle lasted about an hour and twenty minutes but the exploration would have continued inside the park. Straight outside, we first enjoyed the view from the dirt park which was level with the castle walls. In fact, from there there was the same view of the castle that we had seen at the entrance but with a different perspective. In fact, the castle was much closer from this park and the sand color of the ground gave a different chrome than the green. Let's say that they looked like two different places, more classic the view at the entrance with greenery all around and wilder the one with a sand color ground. After spending some time there taking pictures we moved on to go for the next visit.
Once out of the park, we took a small road that ran alongside the river outside the walls and headed to Koko-en Gardens. The visit to these gardens was purchased by paying a little more for the entrance ticket to the castle, which we had done. These gardens were recent and memorial to Himeji city. The place was in perfect Japanese style with lots of greenery, streams and ponds. The stone walkways that led from one side of the lakes to the other, were very beautiful because they characterized the place a lot. There were many beautiful views inside but with the exception of a few reddish plants, the vegetation was almost totally green. The point that I liked the most was the one where there was a row of stone slabs that was used to cross one of the many small lakes there. It was very characteristic and I enjoyed walking back and forth on it while my sister took pictures of me. The visit to the gardens lasted just over half an hour after which we walked back up Otemae St. On the way we saw a sort of self service restaurant displaying all the variety of foods in an inviting way. We stopped there discovering that we could take our time because there was still time before our Shinkansen left for Kyoto. We had managed to make our Himeji visit plan, simply perfect!
Himeji was a risky visit but one that was successful thanks to the efficiency of the Japanese infrastructures. Once again the electrifying experience of the Japanese "teleportation" had allowed us to explore places that we otherwise would not have been able to visit. As I said before, Himeji Castle left me with a positivity inside that still manifests itself in my dreams giving me relief mixed with incredible mystery. That visit was partly also a farewell to Japan, however we would have spent that night in Tokyo so it really wasn't the day of departure. As for the déjà-vu I was talking about at the beginning, I discovered that the view of the castle from the entrance park I had actually already seen in the movie "007 You only live Twice". The scenes in which James Bond was training with the ninja warriors were filmed in that place. I only discovered this a few years ago after re-watching all the movies of the series that I'm passionate about. I can say that Himeji was for me a subconscious place, seen for the first time but with the impression of already knowing it. In addition to this, the interior architecture of the castle created in me a new dimension of comfort that I didn't have before or maybe I had but was set free by that visit. Himeji as well as an enthusiastic visit was a place with psychological values that gave me a new source of inspiration.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Nikon D800