Truly one of the best sights we saw on our recent trip to Japan. Perched majestically on top of a hill, it looks over the town of Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. It is also known as the White Egret/Heron as it supposedly resembles a big white bird ready to take flight.
There has been a castle (or fort, at least) there since 1333. It has been maintained and modified a few times since then though. It was first built in 1331 and the current structure completed by 1609. Most of it has been there for at least 400 years, pretty impressive!!!
We went there by train from Kyoto and it took about 3 hours and a few transfers. It only took us this long because we were using the Kansai Thru Pass and wanted to use the trains that were included in this (i.e not the JR train which would have made a more direct journey). It was still definitely worth the trip.
It was the middle of summer and the middle of a heatwave. Turning left out of the train station and heading in the direction of the castle almost immediately brings it into view.It is a magnificent sight that only gets more impressive the closer you get. It was about a 15 minute walk to the castle grounds. My advice would be to get there as early as possible as it does get very busy and they only allow a limited number of visitors per day.
You can choose to just view the castle from the grounds or pay to go all the way to the top of the keep. It was more expensive than most attractions, going at 1000¥ per person.Pay the money, it’s worth it.
We bought our tickets and (kind of) patiently, queued with the masses to get inside the keep. It took about an hour to make our way inside, of which most time was spent fanning Kayley and putting a wet towel to her face. She was not handling the heat! Just before you enter the keep itself you have to remove your shoes and put them in a bag to carry with you. This is because the majority of the castle is still the original wood it was built from!! Most of the building is made of wood with the walls and a few of the smaller defensive buildings made from stone.
It’s truly awe inspiring to be inside a building that is as old as Himeji Castle. Seeing the original east and west wooden supporting pillars that run all the way from the ground floor to the top of the keep (on the 6th floor), stairs and floors that are polished by thousands of feet. Most of the keep is bare with only a few plaques denoting what a certain area was used for back in the day. No furniture or weaponry, (although the wall mounts for the swords and spears were still evident), no garish displays of what life used to be like. Just a genuinely old and impressive castle that is mostly still in its original form.
The view from the top is also breathtaking. The castle is perched on top a hill in the middle of the town and as you make your way around the top floor you can get views of everything surrounding the castle. There is even an app you can download that uses your phone camera to show you what the surrounding area looked like and where buildings were etc.
Once you exit the keep you have the option of walking along the walls and viewing a few of the secondary buildings. We chose not to do this as we had a few more places we wanted to see that day (Kobe – for some beef!!) on our long trip back to Kyoto.
A few days later we also visited Osaka Castle which was a bit of a let down. The grounds are beautiful and you get amazing views of Osaka from the top of the building but the castle is just a modern replica and the inside is like a museum. If you want to read more about Osaka Castle, our friends Megan and Scott were there a few days before us and wrote about it here.
Osaka was our last stop before heading back to Korea. While in Osaka we made use of a 2 day Osaka Amazing Pass which gave us free entry to a lot of attractions and unlimited subway usage. It was definitely worth it and made getting around really simple. We checked into our AirBNB, which was actually a small guesthouse called Guard Guesthouse. We took a walk over to Dotonbori, a famous shopping and food street that runs along a river.
First up we went straight to the river and hopped on board a river cruise! Boy, were we in for a treat when they told us that a Japanese TV show was being filmed on that exact lunch time cruise!They asked if we were okay with it…well of course we were! It was hilarious! These guys were dressed in full black suits with crazy hairstyles and were acting like such silly billy’s! Of course everything was in Japanese, and we sat there with these goofy grins on our faces the entire time. Every now and then they threw out these English words at us. The camera man eventually came and sat with his camera pointed directly at us, the only foreigners on the boat. Who knows if we will make it onto the show or not but it was definitely a crazy experience!
As we were walking away laughing about it, another group of guys came and asked if they could interview us on our experience of Japan! How random? Hopefully we will get to see some of this! We mozzied on over to Umeda and wandered around on the way towards Umeda Sky Building to try catch the sunset, however as we got there the sky turned ominous grey and soon started shooting down some big drops of rain. Our plans of hopping on the Ferris Wheel on top of the HEP 5 shopping mall nearby where also crushed because of the bad weather. We made our way back to our AirBNB for a bit of a rest before hitting Dotonbori again to try ALL THE FOOD! I wish we had taken a video of us tasting everything like our friends Megan and Scott over at BoboandChichi, but I was TOO BUSY ENJOYING IT ALL and Mark found himself some other forms of entertainment…FISHING in a games arcade!!
The following day we went straight to the HEP 5 Ferris Wheel and hopped straight on, enjoying our pleasant view of the city. From there we made our way to Suita…why? Because that’s where the Asahi Brewery is located DUHH! First off we went to the wrong entrance, where the security guard asked if we had a reservation for the tour, (obviously we didn’t because we couldn’t call with our phones and the website was in Japanese!). We didn’t take no for an answer though, and walked around to the visitors entrance where we acted oblivious and tried again. But…still no! We begged, we pleaded, and we may have even feigned tears. Still, we didn’t quite believe them that there was no space so we walked in to look at the shop. We stood at the front desk and decided to see what the lady could offer us. All she said was “are you here to look at the shop?” so that’s what we did. Then we walked back to her and asked if there was a possibility of trying some of the beer. Again she asked about reservations and again we tried ever so hard to get our foot in that door. EVENTUALLY some kind man overheard us and checked something on the computer, whispered something to the lady and gave us an information card and said “special service” HOORAY!!! SUCCESS! (See, mom, this “not taking no for an answer” business finally paid off from all that practicing I did on you!). So,we had our brewery tour and as many free, ice cold drafts as we could guzzle down in 20 minutes and then walked back in rather a good mood to the train station.
Back in Umeda we went on the hunt for some okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake made on the grill with whatever you like in it, plus some octopus shavings on top. Flipping delicious. We finally got up to Umeda Sky Garden (and were a little disappointed to find no actual garden). The sunset over the river and the views of the city were great!
We really loved Dotonbori, mainly for the food and lights and bustling-ness of the city! Umeda, however, made me feel a little nauseous as we kept getting lost inside Umeda station!! I don’t know how, but the two or three times we found ourselves there we just couldn’t seem to get out. It really didnt help that our google maps went crazy because of all the railway lines connecting there! Have you been to Osaka? What was your impression of Umeda Station? Are we the only ones to have felt this way??
We spent the next leg of our Japan trip in Kyoto and surrounding areas. We had an early morning flight from Okinawa where we had spent some blissful days enjoying the island life. From Osaka we used our Kansai Thru Pass and took a train to Nara. We only spent the afternoon there, and took a train through to Kyoto a few hours later where we would be spending the next three nights. We were hot and tired from our early morning getting to the airport. We stayed at a lovely hostel called Kaede Guesthouse that was honestly the best hostel we have stayed in, even though it was in an 18 sleeper dorm. It had 24hr tea and coffee facilities as well as a free basic breakfast if you woke up early enough. They had great maps of the surrounding area, sights to see, restaurants, how to get there and how long it would take. These were very helpful to plan our day trips. That evening we had our first taste of Japanese Ramen, courtesy of Ippudo, one of the most deliciously rich and tasty things I have ever tried! (This was a firm favourite for the rest of our time in Japan). Walking around Gion really gives you a glimpse into old town Japan. We were so excited to even see a (REAL LIVE) geisha just going about her business, walking along the road. Of course I wanted a photo, but felt bad to ask or interrupt her. Excitedly i just watched her…and then some other tourists walking along, spotted her and made her take photos with them…ENVY!! Later on in the evening in another part of town, we witnessed two geisha’s being dropped off back at their housing. It was rather eerie, as the driver opened their door and they quickly hopped out of the van and hurried inside. Another man came out to collect their big bags as the driver unloaded them from the trunk!
On our first day in Kyoto we tried to get going early to beat the crowds to Fushimi-Inari, over 5000 torii gates winding up and around a mountain behind the main shrine. It was a truly impressive sight! We weren’t exactly the only ones with that idea but I’m sure we were better off than most! We hiked the torri lined pathways for a while hunting for that perfect selfie spot. We really loved the tranquility that comes with the early morning.We took our snaps, enjoyed the views and magnificent structures before heading out again.
A wooden Buddhist temple with a 5-story pagoda (these things are pretty impressive) was kind of along the way to our next spot so we stopped in for a quick look. We had a little rest break from the heat (these are super important!) and took some pics of my ever so handsome boyfriend!
Our last stop of the day was Ginkaku-ji, more commonly known as the “silver temple” (but it’s wooden). The area around it had a lovely little stream and pathways and the grounds themselves had a little maze towards the entrance and a Zen garden inside. The walkway through the gardens, toward the temple is really pretty, and probably more inspiring than the temple itself. Shattered from the heat, we stopped off at a mart for some beers and snacks and found ourselves at Sanjo River Bridge. We sat in the shade with our feet in the water and a cold beer in our hands… Perfect ending to the day!
The following day proved a biggie…we really did wake up early to be the first ones at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple. This one really is plated with gold and provides a stunning reflection in the pond in which it sits. Japanese Gardens really are rather beautiful!
I would be lying if I said we didn’t spend most of our day on public transport that day. Mark really wanted to see Himeji Castle, as it is one of the oldest surviving castles from the 1700s (It was first built in 1331 and the current structure completed by 1609). So we spent a fair amount of time getting there and back. We spent our last evening in Kyoto with beer and ramen and geisha spotting.
We really loved Kyoto, and could have spent so much more time there. There are so many gorgeous little side streets to wander and plenty of shops, markets and interesting food stalls. It’s a great idea to hire bicycles and cycle from place to place. many hostels and AirBNB’s in the area actually have them available, free or for a small daily charge! Here’s a small video of a few of th memories we remembered to capture in Kyoto – I think we were too busy escaping from the heat!
Our first stop in Kansai was Nara, the capital back in the 8th century. The one and only thing I had heard about Nara prior to visiting was the deer. Upon arrival in Japan I kept asking people where I could find the deer and what the best way of seeing them was – well fret not. They were everywhere!! Just a few hundred meters from Naratrain station isKofuku-ji, a Buddhist temple.
Beware, the deer!
There are deer just roaming all around, and literally hundreds of them! We kept walking a little further, towards Nara Park and there are plenty more deer looking for some snacks. There are even people selling little packs of deer cookies for you to feed them. This is great because it prevents people from feeding them any old thing!. However, this has lead to some very greedy, little (read: big) deer! They come right up to you sniffing out some treats and can get quite pushy (read: aggressive). One naughty lady deer even took a nip at me and ended up biting my hip, through my dress and panties! We bought a pack of deer cookies and a beer each and had a picnic in front of the museum. A well-deserved rest break!
We took a walk through Todai-ji and spotted a deer just as exhausted as us, hiding in the shade of the tourist stalls. There were so many people around, we decided to walk out through the back grounds of the temple complex. We stumbled upon the cutest little store selling all sorts of handcrafted deer paraphernalia and some really old postcards!
We only gave ourselves one day in Nara, which we were happy with. I’m sure there were so many more things we could have really enjoyed and savoured. With the heat though, we were content with what we had seen and experienced in one day in Nara.
Summer vacations (or any vacation) to me means beach. Sun, sand, sea. So with our trip to Japan, I was concerned about where or how I was going to get my beach time in. In our past school vacations from Korea, we have traveled to Indonesia and the Philippines. So Japan is not exactly the place where beach party pops to mind, but rather temples, shrines, sushi and kimonos! But don’t forget about the thousands of outlying islands! Okinawa is a well-know island just a short flight away. One Google image search had me sold. I booked flights out of Osaka for Mark and I and got to sorting out our visas. To our surprise and excitement, our visa fee was wavered because we were visiting Okinawa. For us South Africans this was a small victory! On collection of our passports, the staff at the embassy pointed out to us that the remarks section in our visa had “Okinawa” written on it so now we had to go! After some research online I discovered that due to both natural and nuclear disasters, some areas and islands in Japan allow you a free visa to promote tourism in those areas.
So after my few days in Tokyo, Mark and I met up in Osaka where we hopped on a plane to Okinawa – an island a few hundred km south of mainland Japan. We spent one night in Naha (the main city in which the airport and Tomari ferry terminal is located), sampling the delicious taco rice that Okinawa is known for, as well as Okinawan Soba and Orion beer, produced on the island. We stumbled upon this little “restaurant” with the oldest man I’ve ever seen who poured our beers (really slowly) and actually prepared our food himself. I eagerly tried to snap a pic of him but I think he is a bit shy!!
After that we headed for some drinks in the downtown area around Kokusai Dori (Street). We sampled some local craft beers from Helios Pub, which were very good but pricey. Later on we ended up at a strange little bar, Bar Rehab, where we got a history lesson on Okinawa and the US occupation of it during the war from a “local”. He was actually Canadian and married to a lady from Okinawa and had been living there for many years.
We ummed and ahhed about taking a day trip out to a smaller island- Zamami as it was scheduled to rain. We decided that we probably wouldn’t be back in Japan any time soon so we should just do it! So off we went to Zamami Island….well that’s the island we had planned to go to and researched, but it turns out we bought tickets for the wrong ferry and ended up at another island, Tokashiki, which was just as beautiful (and closer so less time on the ferry). We took the smaller, fast ferry – the Marine Liner (2490Y) so it got us there in about 35 minutes. There was a minibus waiting at the port where we had to pay 500Y for a 10 minute ride to the beach on the other end of the island. On the way back to Okinawa we took the slower ferry as the fast ferry was cancelled due to bad weather. That was a bit cheaper (1660Y) and a bit slower too.
Aharen Beach was magnificent, with beautiful sunshine and azure waters and we totally high-fived each other for our good decision making skills! We quickly hired an umbrella and bought some beers, before diving into the beautiful water. The wind picked up a little, and it wasn’t long before the clouds rolled in and the rain plummeted down, soaking right through our umbrella, bags, towels and even diluting my beer!! We ran for cover into the ocean (the rain drops were so big and hard on my shoulders). Luckily these tropical rain storms only last a few minutes, and it wasn’t long before we were enjoying the sunshine and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters again.
We spent 4 glorious days on Toguchi Beach, Yomitan. We basked in the sunshine, watched the magnificent afternoon storms, drank copious amounts of Japanese beer and ate sashimi everyday (sometimes twice)! We had such a great time here, and it was probably my favourite part of the trip. We woke up at our leisure daily, had a morning beach walk or swim, followed by some breakfast. Everyday before lunch we walked to the local store and bought fresh fillets of tuna and salmon. (This is definitely recommended as it is so cheap and so delicious!) We also made a concerted effort to try every different beer we could find in the supermarket, this was a hit and miss strategy. Our afternoons were spent snoozing on the couch (in the aircon – haha) and escaping the humidity, and then watching the gorgeous afternoon storms. Usually they cleared up within half an hour, where after we grabbed the kayaks or SUP’s (stand up paddle boards) and enjoyed our uninhibited access to the beautiful water. We were so lucky that our CouchSurfing host had such a sweet spot, and such a welcoming and friendly attitude! We felt like we were at home, and really had a real, relaxing and restful vacation! After our few days of bliss we packed up and took a taxi to the airport for our short flight to Osaka. We hoped the few days of rest would prepare us for some real “tourist-ing” in the heat of the Japanese summer during the last leg of our trip in Osaka.
In Okinawa we had our first couch surfing experience. For those of you who don’t know, CouchSurfing is essentially a service/website where you can meet people who live where you are traveling. You can meet up with locals to sight-see or have a meal together, or they may have a couch or room available for you. In essence you have friends to stay with all over the world; you just haven’t met them yet (some paraphrasing going on there from their website)! It obviously takes some common sense and (very) careful consideration about who you feel comfortable meeting up or staying with. You are encouraged to fill in your profile and read references about your host or surfer. So after all this, we stayed with a guy from the US who is working in the military in Okinawa. He had this wonderful home right on the beach, kayaks, snorkeling gear and such an open mind and heart! He had two other people staying with him at the time, a guy from Israel who lives in Taiwan and a Chinese girl from America who teaches on mainland Japan. We all got on so well and just had the best time. Meeting other people from different countries is always so interesting (I ask way too many questions followed by many “wowwww”s). I guess it’s not for everyone (and I also realise that we might have landed with our bums in the butter in this one) but our stay in Okinawa left me with the best feeling in my heart! It was truly one of my greatest experiences.
Here’s a video of our (too short) time in Okinawa! My favourite part is our SUP adventures at the end!!!
YAY Summer Vacation! Off we went to spend the next few weeks in Japan. Our trip took us through Tokyo, Okinawa, Nara, Kyoto, Himeji and Osaka. I flew out a few days earlier as Mark still had to work till the end of the week. I headed to Tokyo where I spent a few days seeing the sights, enjoying the city life and enduring the sweltering heat. This trip meant so much to me…. It was my first solo vacation.
Now, I have travelled on my own before, both to live in the USA, visit my brother in London on my way back to South Africa, and again when we moved to Korea (and Mark only followed two weeks later) but this was different. This was a planned holiday, where I decided I wanted to go visit a new city and was happy to do so all alone. I definitely felt like it was a rite of passage in this travelling adventure of a life I find myself in. I was enthralled and excited, nervous and anxious, and maybe even somewhat smug (especially when my coworkers told me how brave and daring I was).
Early that morning, Mark dropped me off at the bus station where I waited for the airport bus. I arrived in the afternoon at Tokyo Narita airport (and very nearly missed the train I had booked a ticket for because I left one of my belongings at a counter somewhere). My hostel “Irori Nihonbashi Hostel and Kitchen” was pretty easy to find as I had bought a sim card online prior to leaving Korea and picked it up at the post office in the airport. I used Sakura Mobile and got a LTE sim card with 500MB data. It cost JPY1890 for 15 days. Not the cheapest in the world but the option that suited me best with regards to collection and delivery etc. I can’t complain about the service at all.
After settling in I went to Asakusa to check out Sensoji Temple and the shopping street just in front of it. Unfortunately all the stalls were closed already so I hung out around the shrine for a bit and went to get myself some dinner. Not feeling so brave yet (and maybe feeling a bit lonely) I went into Denny’s and ordered some chicken and spinach and a glass of wine…hahaha! If I only knew how much I would love Japanese food in the days to follow, I never would have wasted money and an eating opportunity on that! Back at the hostel, I stayed in a 22 sleeper female dormitory, each bunk was equipped with a double shelf (one fit my bag on perfectly), a lamp, two plug points, and all round black out curtains. It was clean, quiet and comfortable!
On my first day in the city, I met up with a lovely Japanese girl that I had been speaking to online a few weeks before. We went for a traditional Japanese lunch of some kind of fish cooked in a soy sauce and she gave me so many ideas about what to do. She even showed me to the hedgehog cafe that I’d been planning on visiting and called ahead to make an appointment for me. Said hedgehog cafe was super cute and the staff were really serious about people treating the little critters nicely so that was good, but the damn little hedgie peed on my white dress after 5 minutes when I’d already paid for 30!
Friends from Home
Conveniently, our friends Ed and Bianca were also in Japan for summer vacation! Mine and their time in Tokyo overlapped somewhat. I managed to meet up with them for a day or two where we were able to see some sights together. I saw multiple gorgeous shrines and temples (the architectural style differs so much between each Asian country). Without too much effort, I caught glimpses of Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree, two iconic towers strutting into the skyline of Tokyo.
Japan is known for its quirky little cafes (as we have experienced in Korea somewhat), so when we happened upon this maid cafe we were intrigued. In we went for the most bizarre experience. It was cute and all, but I think our impression was skewed by the old man sitting alone at the table next to us sipping his tea and paying for shows – shows that entitled him to 2 glow sticks and a dance on stage by these cutesie young ladies, all while he thrashed his glow sticks around in the air. Every time we ordered something or to get the waitresses attention we had to spew some cutesie noises and actions around, it was a little awkward! But hey, its all about experience, right?
A few months before going to Japan I started playing this “game” on my phone called Neko Atsume. It’s a Japanese game where you wait for cats to come visit your home and they pay you in fish (silver or gold), which you can use to buy food, toys for the cats and to remodel you house. It’s weird, I know, but until somebody gets me a cat, this will have to do. Anyway, I nearly died of excitement when I spotted the claw machines and gumball machines with my Neko characters in them…maybe I spent a small fortune each time, but I now also have my very own Snowball, Peaches and Breezy sleeping on hamburger cushions and climbing on cafe rooftops!
One of my favourite things about Japan was these Purikura photo booths…I don’t know what it is but they make me severely excited every time I see them. I forced my friends Ed and Bee to join me and we giggled profusely at the outcome. These photo booths take pictures and turn you into the traditionally Asian idea of beauty – that is, big eyes, skinny faces, matte white skin and long legs. I guess because we already have longish legs and wider eyes, us western folk tend to look hilarious(ly cute). Anyway, we had lots of fun and I even went further and got some on my own!
I got lost in Harajuku (more specifically Takeshita Dori) a street filled with crazy Japanese accessory stores, bright colours, Purikura photo booth stores and so many people dressed in Harajuku style (think Gwen Stefani-Harajuku Girls).
Shibuya Crossing is said to be the world’s busiest crossing. It is otherwise known as Shibuya Scramble, where the traffic lights turn red for all cars and allows pedestrians to cross the intersection over 8 pedestrian crossings. Traffic literally halts for throbbing masses of people to scramble across to the other side. The view from Starbucks on the 2nd floor allows you a glimpse at the sheer craziness of it all.
After walking around in the heat all morning, we had our first sushi lunch. A popular spot. as we waited outside this sushi shop for 20 minutes. I stuffed my tummy full of all sorts of sushi at an automated sushi spot – Genki Sushi. You sit at a bar type seat, with a little computer screen in front of you, some condiments and a tap with hot water for your matcha (green tea powder drink), select what you want and it gets delivered on the belt right up to you! Too much fun, I just kept selecting things and watching them arrive and ended up ordering way too much!
All citied out!
But four days in a city is just three days too many for me, so by the last day, I jumped on a train to the beach. I followed the train for an hour to the end of the line to a quaint little seaside town. The almost excruciating 10 minute walk in the sweltering heat to the beach was dealt with by thinking of my dip in the ocean that awaited me…. The water was horrendously warm though, so it wasn’t much of an escape from the scorching sun and humidity. I spent the day in the sun at Zushi beach, with the hopes of seeing Mount Fuji in the distance. However, no such luck with the cloud cover at that time of year.
After 4 days in the city, and walking almost 20km a day, I was ready to say goodbye to Tokyo and meet up with Mark in Osaka for our trip to Okinawa… I definitely realised that I am more of a beach babe than a city girl…that life just aint for me!