In this journal:
- an ancient castle with cherry blossoms;
- another ancient castle with more cherry blossoms;
- the Last Samurai.
“Hey… They say it’s five centimeters per second. The speed at which the sakura blossom petals fall… Five centimeters per second.”Akari Shinohara, from Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second
map of my Kansai region segment
If you wish to see more of my travels in Osaka, click here.
Ah, back and at it boys! Osaka is probably one of those cities that I would not mind going for the 100th time. The crowded Namba station, sizzling Kuromon Market, countless historical temples, and the convenience to nearby icons are all the reasons to come here again and again. I began my short stay in Osaka this time with a quick walk by the Shinsaibashi, where just 2 years ago I enjoyed a karaoke night with 4 new friends in the Drunken Clam bar right next to the main thoroughfare. The sun was setting, and painted the already wealth-imbued streets with a golden hue.
Yet I was not here to buy clothes or people watch. If you have known me in life, you would know that I am the type of person to patch up broken trousers by learning how to sew rather than going out to buy a new one. I was here in the bustling center of Osaka for one reason and one reason only: food. It is the major reason why I am still travelling all around this globe, as eating has become my sole purpose of existence. I lined up in front of a tiny establishment in a back alley, and I was ready to embrace my inner-glutton.
I welcomed myself to the Kansai region with its most famous food: お好み焼き/okonomiyaki, literally meaning “cooked however you like”. There is nothing more fulfilling than going to a tiny local tavern to try the most local food, especially in a place as rich in food palettes as Japan. Fried noodle drenched in soy sauce, and topped with eggs, vegetables, a mix of pork, beef, squid and chicken, cooked with any extra that you would love to splurge in. This is the ultimate fever dream for any educated Japanese food connoisseur like me, or the Gal Gadot of foodies. The chef cooked the entire melange right in front of me, and his sleek movements were so fast that you cannot even see it clearly in photos. The only thing I remembered was ordering it, salivating over the bonito flakes dancing on top of the finished noodles, probably glowing with a halo, and walking out of the restaurant with 2 pounds of noodles in my tummy. I gained a chin from this dinner, but it was well worth it.
A quick metro ride brought me back to one of my favorite places in Osaka, the historical castle. It was well-lit today thanks to the light show going on in the castle park, and the cherry blossoms were blooming furiously. It is rather difficult to show you how beautiful night cherry is as cameras have not progressed to the level of divinity that can capture even a glimmer of its magnificence. I am glad, however, as that means only being here in person would give you the sense of wonder it can instill in your body, and I am all about travelling afar to see things extraordinary, if you have not noticed in this million-word blog. 😉
I came back during daylight to see a different kind of Osaka Castle under the cherry blossoms. As my yearly ritual to see the beautiful sakura under historical Japanese sceneries, I was delighted to find myself back at this gorgeous locale. Last year, for this activity of Hanami/花見, I was in Osaka as well, and that unparalleled experience was still lingering in my mind. The deer and temples in Nara, the mountain full of petals in Yoshino, the uncontained smell of cherry blossom desserts, and so many others… I cannot believe I am back! So many people dream to even come once in their lives, and yet I could afford the luxury of turning it into a yearly ceremony, what a life I live!
During the day, the castle was full of Chinese tourists and many local cherry blossom viewers, but the improved lighting greatly mitigated the inconvenience brought upon by the crowds. Most of the trees were just about to enter the maximum bloom range, albeit I was there probably 2-3 days too early. This is the problem with cherry blossom viewing: it is extremely hard to predict the correct time that the flowers would be at full bloom, and the majority of Japanese cherries only remain fully open for less than a week. This makes planning trips in advance rather difficult, as any last minute flight bookings are very pricey, and I have been known to sandwich a flower viewing trip in between a dozen intercontinental flights and a short vacation on the moon.
Just 10 minutes walk around a quiet neighborhood right at the north of the castle park, sat another important cherry blossom viewing location in Osaka: the 毛馬桜之宮 park, which literally translates into “the palace of cherries”. It is a series of long walkways on both banks of the Kyū-Yodo River, completely covered by a blanket of cherry trees thousands strong.
The park was especially quiet at the time, as it was just a work day in the beginning of the viewing season. The river now was only running cherry blossom viewing boats, which featured a guide and unlimited cherry-petal made foods. Even though Kyū-Yodo River used to be the main thoroughfare in the Osaka waterway system, it was changed into a minor branch of the Yodo River during a series of normalization projects done in 1930s, hence its name as Kyū(old)-Yodo River. The main branch now sits further north as to avoid the center of Osaka.
And how can I not meet up with Gabi when I am in town? Remember this amazing crown jewel of achievements, the best thing Argentina has ever produced since dulce de leche, and the most hardworking person I have ever met, who pursues her dreams so relentlessly that those dreams give up? Because I do. She had been doing better and better, now completely establishing herself as a senior in a well-known Japanese art company, which is about 4 parallel universes ahead of me. We had a catch-up chat during her lunch break in the heart of the business district, and she picked soba noodles for our lunch. It is always hilarious to see the servers kept coming back to me to ask for our choices while Gabi was the person who speaks Japanese, and the awkward stares ensuing never fail to amuse. Oh the stereotypes never end!
But honestly, just seeing her doing well inspires me to do better. We are the same age but the fact that she has become so successful and happy made me jealous and motivated at the same time. If one day I can be 1/10 as motivated and strong-willed as she is, then I would die a happy and achieved man. I bid her farewell as she had to hurry back to the company, because she was knee deep in the crazy mess of organizing her own art exhibition. On the other hand, the homeless me organized my small backpack, and hopped onto a short train ride towards my actual destination in Kansai this time: Himeji.
The local train pulled into the last stop in Himeji central station, as I had officially crossed from Osaka Prefecture into Hyogo Prefecture. The sun was setting, and it was time for me to take a bus to my relatively countryside Airbnb hosted by an amicable grandpa. Here, he welcomed me into his home, and I was able to take a little walk around the smaller suburbs on the northern side of the city. Little fields of yellow crops were coated gold by the dusk sunrays, as the perched crows were cawing back home to a deep slumber. I returned from the only shop in a kilometer’s radius, a 7-11 convenience store, after realizing we were making more okonomiyaki today.
Grandpa warmly welcomed me and my other fellow guests into the living room, and we began making my favorite noodle-omlette dish together on his electric stove. A bit cabbage here, and a ton of noodle there, and a flip! Voila, what a pleasant surprise! Then on the dinner table, I got to know the other guests staying in his house: a Chinese mother-daughter pair and a Belgian sand-carving master. We laughed at our own creations and exchanged glances at each other’s, while chatting away about the world and its intricate ways of bringing people together. Being at that place at that time was merely a coincidence, and I could not have thanked fate more. I was merely expecting cheap accommodation in a rural Japanese village, but what I got was a nice dinner and some new friends. In fact, the daughter, Chacha, is later featured in Chengdu 2019 when I got to visit her, and later would join me on two trips to New Zealand later that year!
Next morning, we woke up early as grandpa was taking us to the local fish market. This ain’t your Tsujiki touristy market, even a bit less showy than the one in Hakodate, but an actual living, messy, harzardous work place for the fish salesmen and restaurant owners. Fish is probably the most important aspect of Japanese culinary arts, so the tiny market was as lively as it could be for a small town the size of Himeji, and we could actually walk around checking out some of the fish of the highest grade procured from oceans a world over, as long as you mind the shuttling trolleys. We went up the stairs to the fish market’s canteen, a tiny 10 seat establishment that closes at 10 a.m. every day. Here they had everything a seafood-lifting fishmarket worker would ever need: protein covering a ton of carbs, and that was exactly what I, a slightly obese traveller who struggles to get out of bed every day, ordered. Within a minute, my bowl of whale don came with a standard miso soup. Yes, after the adventure in Antarctica and Svalbard, I could not believe it when grandpa recommended me the raw-whale covered rice in Japan!
After breakfast, I decided to hike up the famous Shoshasan a short walk away from grandpa’s house. This is one of the most important local temples in the prefecture, and is known internationally for being the location for one of the most cringe-inducing Tom Cruise movie ever: the Last Samurai. After entering a small shrine at the foothills, I climbed up the steep hills for nearly an hour, eventually reaching the peak of the mountain in the sparsely built-up temple grounds. Chacha and her mother took the nearby cable car and arrived at the main temple Engyō-ji around the same time, so we explored the hallowed grounds together.
The temple was built by a traveling monk in the 10th century, and had stood here ever since. The above main hall is rebuilt after the original collapsed in a fire, and stands tall on a steep cliff. From there, the compound expands upwards, towards smaller shrines and temples dotted along the hillside. Most of them have been used in shooting the Last Samurai, and you can find nearly shot-perfect replica everywhere, as the place has barely changed since 13th century. A few minutes’ uphill climb from the main hall, you will reach the place where the monks practice their daily meditation and where the Buddhist visitors on the Kansai Cannon Pilgrimage rest. This is a rather common pilgrimage in the Japanese Buddhist world, as each region has a Connon pilgrimage that a devout follower has to complete at least once a year, and it almost always involves 88 temples scattered around the area. The same applies to Shodoshima, my next stop, and Shikoku Island, the one after that.
When we were there, the place was eerily quiet, as if the monks had all turned into statues, and the visitors had stopped coming hundreds of years ago. It was just a large, spotlessly clean plaza, with bird chirps on a sunny terrace. Nothing else was there, as if nothing else was needed. We climbed up to the second floor of the study, where a small exhibition on the temple history was held. However, the most eye-catching thing was instead the building itself. The old structures playfully toy with the light, creating shadows and silhouettes of otherworldly visages. This may be my source of transcendence.
We proceeded by walking down the mountain instead of taking the cable car, which afforded us incredible views over the relatively hilly Himeji city. On one of those hills sat the famous Himeji castle, which I would take a look right after descending. Chacha and I talked all the way down, and it turned out that she and grandpa had quite a lot of history going back, as she visited his house the first time a few years ago, and they had remained in contact ever since. She had visited grandpa three times, and he had been to Chengdu twice before. It was incredible to see Airbnb not only bringing lodging-providers together with wary travelers, but also forging an unwavering frienship between a Chinese nurse wih an 80-year-old Japanese grandpa.
A quick bus ride took me back to the main road in front of the Himeji train station, right in front of the famous Himeji castle. The temporary flower-seeing market in front of the castle was bustling with day-trippers from Osaka, as Himeji castle is one of the most popular places to go during Hanami cherry blossom season. That is for a great reason, too, as you are about to see.
The large grassy lawn was stuffed with picnickers, as picnicking is the most popular way for Japanese to see the flowers, same as barbeque for Americans during Independence Day. Above the dying grass trampled by thousands of flower-viewers were the cherry trees, most of them about to enter full bloom stage in a few days. On the hill behind the open area, the large white Himeji Castle stood tall like a white heron taking flight, hence its alternative name “Shirasagi-jō/White Heron Castle”.
A short climb took me to the castle’s first floor. This gigantic early-feudal period castle is the only one left from its era, lasting over 400 years without being destroyed, or even slightly damaged. The building managed to survive a few raids, a dozen severe earthquakes, even more supercell typhoons, over a hundred battles, and an incendiary bomb dropped directly on its roof during WWII. In fact, while 60% of Himeji was burnt down during the air raids in 1945, the castle mainly had some chip brick damage. As a result, many locals believe this castle is protected by the kami, gods, due to its divine importance.
Consequently, every brick and wood beam you see here is original, while the Osaka castle you saw earlier was a concrete reconstruction done in 1997. The original Osaka castle was used as an arsenal during WWII, so when it blew up from an air raid strike in 1945, the entire building was gone. Himeji castle was so historically important and original that the Japanese government once considered moving the capital to this city just for its originality!
Once I took off my shoes and paid the entrance fee, I was allowed to enter. Here you can still see the interior in its intended functional structures, as there are 8 large levels, each with a different function, with the lord sitting on the top. On the bottom floors were the guards and army rooms for respite, so you can find rows of weapon racks capable of storing hundreds of swords. On higher levels, the planners and schemers discussed their next move, so you can find small hidden areas where either the internal investigators could spy on the advisors, or ninjas could carry out assassinations. Needless to say, the top of the building commanded a spectacular view over the entire Hyogo Prefecture.
In the annex of the castle, there was a small exhibition showcasing some of the older parts of the castle that had been conserved, such as the above onigawara. It is a cornerpiece roof tile on the top floor, which features a swallowtail butterfly, the crest of Ikeda family running the area at the time. I took my leave from the castle, thinking that was all for my beautiful flower-on-building action in Himeji, but boy was I wrong. On the high gardens facing the front of the majestic white heron, two large weeping cherries were blooming like fire.
The red of the cherry blossoms complemented the blue, clear sky, while the white heron was taking off with the castle’s flying roofs in the back. This is the reason why I keep coming back to Japan to see the cherry blossoms, instead of going to Washington D.C., or simply staying close to home in Vancouver. The feeling of the red flowers underneath a feudal castle can almost transport you back to the age of samurais and geikos (geiko is the equivalent of geisha in Kansai region), while in the western world’s cherry blossom experience, you walk underneath the flowers as you nibble on the edge of a cup of chai-latte got in a drive-thru. In Japan it is a ritual to come and admire the flowers’ ephemeral existence, while in other places it is a nice day trip from the typical hustle. This is the fundamental difference, not the location or the type of flowers, but the essense. I do not necessarily love flowers, but I love the flower-viewing experience.
Next to the castle grounds was the Kōko-en, a garden that offers unparalleled views of the castle from a unique angle. I quickly stepped inside and reached the restaurant, which would be the location of my final meal here in Himeji. This restaurant is named as 活水軒/Kassui ken, which means “the pavillion of lively waters”, because its view is directly over the stream that leads to the moat of the castle. However, there was a queue in front of the restaurant, so I had to grab a waiting list number and walk around the tranquil garden first.
The garden may seem ancient, but it was actually built on the centennial of Himeji municipality establishment in 1992, in the lord’s west residence. The garden is a joint project with another Japanese garden situated in Himeji’s sister city, Pheonix, Arizona. The premise is comprised of 9 distinct gardens, each featuring a different theme, such as a koi-pond based one with a fighting dojo, or a tiny forest of pines growing on peculiar rocks.
There is also a tea room, where servers dressed in traditional kimono serve your little clay cups of matcha as well as typical accompanying desserts, and then perform the traditional Japanese musical instruments in front of you in a grass hut facing a small river. I, however, had a date with my food in the restaurant, so I promptly passed by.
Nothing comes even close to a kaiseki meal in front of a traditional Japanese garden, hands down. My “prince combo” meal was a collection of seasonal produce and marinated delicacies, along with fresh sashimi as well as soba noodles. Just the gigantic plate presented in front of me transported me to heaven, and eating it would be pointless to describe. I engulfed the entire tray within minutes, and spent the rest of my time looking out of the windows, admiring the water rippling through the stream.
At Himeji station, I grabbed myself the fish-shaped taiyaki as dessert. This is my favorite baked dessert, maybe ever. Just a simple pastry filled to the brink with red bean paste, and molded into a fish shape. Mine was the deluxe version, boasting a creamy soft serve under the piping hot “fish”. I munched on my little friend as I made my way to the seaside, where a large boat heading to Shodoshima Island was waiting for me. This would be my next stop, a place rarely talked about in western travelsphere but highly regarded among locals.
I hopped onto the ship marked with a large mascot of the island, and this olive-boy was plastered everywhere in the cabins as well. Why is he an olive? Why is the ship so big but actually only carried about a dozen people including me? What is the point of life when you can just give in to the void and enter a painless cruising altitude of nothingness? These are questions left for the next journal entry to answer. But now, as the horn was sounded, and as I slowly pulled out of Japan mainland, I could not help but think back as Himeji slowly disappeared from the horizons. After so many trips to Japan, Kansai is probably my home in Japan now. Osaka is always so fabulous, and Himeji is so rich in history. The autumn maple leaves, the summer heat, the winter wind, and the spring cherry blossoms, all are so magical, and nostalgic somehow. Himeji Castle may be the last samurai standing, but the tranquility I felt away from the bustling megalopolises in lesser-known Japanese towns like this is almost an inner reflection so peaceful that languages become unnecessary.
In the opening of Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second, which is titled as 桜花抄/Ōkashō, meaning “an excerpt of cherry blossoms”, the female protagonist said that cherry blossom petals fall off at the speed of 5 centimeters per second, and this experience had just proved her right. We are all here for a short time, and just like the cherry blossoms, we should bloom brightly and relentlessly, release all the energy stored within us, even though our beauty will be ephemeral and will leave no trace. Because for flowers like us, the excerpt of life is written by ourselves, for ourselves, and those next to us who bloom equally valiantly.
The sound of the loud horn woke me up from the trance, as the last petal of the pink flower had just fallen onto the calm sea. Shodoshima is not like your typical island, and I knew that coming in, but I would never expect it to be the most beautiul island I had ever stepped on. Fields of cherry blossoms, ancient temples, tiled rice fields, a road of angels, and so much more awaited. I am jealous of the past me, as he was completely oblivious of the imminent joy he was about to encounter.
“I still don’t know what it really means to grow up. However, if I happen to meet you, one day in the future, by then, I want to become someone you can be proud to know.”Takaki Toono, from Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second