For the long weekend last weekend, I decided to explore an area of Japan previously unknown to me: Himeji, famous for its white castle nicknamed "Shirasagi" for its resemblance to a white egret (or heron). It's one of the most iconic images in Japan, particularly during cherry blossom season.
Before heading out to Himeji, I'd signed up for a half-day photography meetup in Kamakura at several local temples (Engakuji, Megetsuin, Tokeiji, Jochoji and Kenchoji) with local photography enthusiasts. Although the weather was originally slated to be rainy and overcast, the day turned out to be absolutely gorgeous and I was able to get many spectacular shots of plum blossoms (it was also one of the first times I've shot exclusively manual with my DSLR). Our group was only five, so we had a leisurely morning / afternoon shooting with a lunch break for sansai soba, finishing around 3:15. I arrived in HImeji a little after eight, checked into my hotel, then headed for the hot springs.
The next morning, I got an early start to see Koko-en, a modern Japanese-style garden located next to the castle. Although I'd read the garden was small, there were numerous themed gardens (pine, bamboo, plum, flowers), each one unique and captivating, and I spent a couple of hours exploring and having matcha in the gorgeous tearoom.
Afterwards, I set out to explore Himeji Castle, which was overrun with Asian tour groups. I was sorely disappointed to find that the interior was completely devoid of lighting, any kind of exhibits or armor, and even bathrooms. Every other castle I've visited in Japan (Komaki, Inuyama, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima) has at least had exhibits, photos, samurai armor and swords, photo ops, etc. for guests to learn more about the history of the castle (I still think Nagoya has one of the best educational exhibits, complete with a recreation of an Edo-era street), but at Himeji the hundreds of tourists were simply herded up five stories then back down.
After visiting the castle, I decided to stick to my original plan and head out to Mt. Shosha, a nearby mountain which houses a sprawling temple complex where parts of "The Last Samurai" were filmed (I kept wondering HOW ON EARTH they got the actors, crew, and equipment up and down the mountain! To see side-by-side screenshots from the film with the actual temple locations, click here). You must first take a bus 30 minutes outside of Himeji, then catch a cable car, then hike about 45 minutes to reach the main part of the complex. The steep hike (I estimate the slope was more like 45 degrees) features wooded trails lined with gorgeous bronze Buddhist sculptures, each one unique and haunting in the late afternoon light.
I visited the main temple, where I purchased a new temple seal book as I'd forgotten to bring mine, then hurried back down the mountain to catch the last cable car of the day; to say my legs were like jelly after a full day of climing Himeji Castle, gardens, then hiking up and down the mountain were an understatement!! Hot springs never looked so good...
The next morning, I caught the first train back to Tokyo and snapped some gorgeous scenery along the way; I hit Shinagawa at rush hour (as it was Monday), but like all things in Japan, the station was set up to accommodate massive amounts of commuters quickly and efficiently, and I caught a train home easily. (Shinagawa is one of THE major hubs in Tokyo; if trains are delayed or stopped for any reason (power outage, technical problems, jinshin jiko (train jumpers), etc., it causes massive backups and chaos).
Altogether, a fantastic (if busy!) weekend and the chance to see a new part of Japan!