Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My Quest for Castles: Japan's National Treasure Castle 3

Author's note: To fully appreciate this post, I highly recommend starting with the first installment of the five-part series, which can be found here.

So, once I had heard there were four original Japanese castles on the National Treasure registry, and I had already seen two of them, I figured I could make it a point to see the other two. I'm goal-oriented, after all, and I couldn't just let the other two go... unseen. The third one I saw was Himeji, which is the most famous of Japan's Castles. It's the largest of the originals and if you have see an image of a Japanese castle, chances are, it was Himeji.

It's a huge tourist attraction, especially during the cherry blossom season, which usually hits the first week of April. We went March 30 in the hopes of missing some of the crowds. While we did miss the biggest crowds of the season, because the blooms were just starting to pop, there was still quite a mass of humanity.

As we made our way up to the castle, we were told it would take 2-3 hours to get through the inside of the castle. On a non-cherry-blossom-season day, it takes about 30-45 minutes. We weren't sure we wanted to invest that much time... but we gave it a shot. And stood in the same spot for a good 25 minutes. I tried to pass the time by photographing details...

But we decided to give up and just got the front yard of the castle to get some shots of the castle and the view from it.

Castle 3, Himeji, check!

Early on in her 3-month visit, I made the mistake of encouraging my mom to collect the different Starbucks city mugs. She got Hiroshima's and then, with my blind encouragement, was on a quest for any others she could get her hands on. I did not have the foresight to check and see what mugs were currently available, which led us on a 90-minute goose chase to two different Starbucks locations for a Himeji mug that did not exist. Oops.

As you may have noticed from previous blog posts, we like to cram as much sightseeing into a road trip as we can. So, again with the suggestion provided to us by our friend and experienced Japan traveler, Carolyn, we headed to the Engyoji Temple where the 2003 film "The Last Samurai" was filmed. Of course, after our time at Himeji Castle NOT seeing the castle, and the search for a Starbucks for my mother, we got there late in the afternoon and only had about 50 minutes to see the place. This wouldn't have been a problem if it hadn't been suggested that we take a tour bus to and from the ropeway station at the top of the hill to the actual temple site. There are a lot of hills to hike and, well, we only had 50 minutes. So this was a rush job... to not miss the last bus down the mountain, as well as to miss the threatening rain.

But, here are my less-than-stellar images to prove I was there where Tom Cruise once stood (not to mention all the famous Japanese historical figures who I cannot name, but could easily be found with a Google search):

The view of the valley from the ropeway car.
So with three castles down, there was only one more left... Matsumoto Castle near Nagano... just a mere 9 hour drive from Iwakuni. But there was a plan hatched to make that trip happen... for the next installment, click here.

My Quest for Castles: Japan's National Treasure Castles 1 and 2

So, I never planned to have one of my bucket list items be to see the all of the original National Treasure Castles in Japan. Japanese castles are cool, but, like shrines and temples, they seem to be in abundance in the land of the rising sun, and unless you are a historian, Buddhist or Shinto, there is really no reason to visit every roadside landmark like these. To the untrained eye, such as my own, they all look a lot alike and there is typically little to no English. Not that I expect that... this IS Japan, but the fact is that my interest strays much faster if I have no idea why that dragon is playing with a ball in that particular fountain. When it comes to castles, temples and shrines, I hit the biggest, the best, the oldest, the most unusual.

I don't mean to mean to be callus. Truly, many of these building are stunning and should most definitely be appreciated. But, in a country a millennium older than my own, I wanted to touch buildings and statues and non-man-made objects that were ORIGINAL, that had stood the test of time. My first couple of years here, I was disappointed. So many of the touristy things had been rebuilt due to fire, earthquakes, wars, and, um, bombs. But once I chatted with some of my travel-experienced friends and did some research, I realized that there are a lot of several-centuries-old things still standing. It's just most of them are off the "beaten path."

So, when I visit my first original Japanese castle, it was as a side trip to the main event we road tripped to: the annual fertility festival near Nagoya held March 15. I had been in 2014 with the spouse, but this spring, I went with two members of my "lady clique" and a baby. Yes... I realize that taking a baby to a fertility festival is just unnecessary... obviously someone is fertile. But the fertile one happened to provide sustenance for her child, so said child was packed along. You can see he had a lot of fun.

Of course, we did family-friendly activities, too... I visited Nagoya Castle for the second time. It has been rebuilt from being destroyed by air raids in 1945, and isn't original, but it is still beautiful.

But, of course we had to get to the fertility festival, which kicks of in the mid-afternoon with a parade from one shrine to another.

Once we had our fill of wooden phalluses, we took some advice from our friend Carolyn and drove about 20 minutes to Inuyama Castle... the first that I saw of the original National Treasure Castles. We checked out the shrine below it first, and then headed up the hill to touch something built in the early 1600s.

Inuyama Castle

While photographs were discouraged inside the castle, I do want to tell you that the wooden steps are steep and slick, and there are several flights of them. The castle also tends to shift and shudder in the wind, so if you are afraid of heights, wind or aren't able to climb ladders in bare feet (no shoes in these castles!) then you may just want to admire the architecture from outside.

Castle 1, Inuyama, check!

In my research I had found that there were a total of 12 original castles across Japan. My friend, Shannon, just saw her #8 and will see the other 4 in July. However, I did not make this a quest until I saw Inuyama and then was on my iPhone on the ride home to see where the rest of the castles were. I knew I would not be able to fit all 12 into the timeline I had before my family moved back to the States, but there were only 4 that were national treasures. Maybe I could check all of those off of my list. (Just so you know, you need to keep reading because the internet lied and I found out the hard way.)

But I googled away happily in the back seat, driving away from Inuyama, and realized that Castle #2 was on our way home! Way too excited for my own good, I managed to get my tripmates to agree to a drive-by viewing because the castle would be closed by the time we got there. So, we did the drive-by viewing of Hikone Castle (and there was a Starbucks a mile away, so we caffeinated up and got back on the road. Home was still more than 5 hours away.)

Castle 2, Hikone, check!

Well, gee, I've now seen two of the castles... I'm halfway there! Japan's most photographed castle, Himeji, is supposed to be a sight be behold during cherry blossom season, and my mom was coming for a 3-month visit. My third castle was going to be checked of the list in just a couple of weeks.

Click here for the adventures of Castle 3... Himeji