Hatsumode:  New Year’s Shrine Visit


“Church is who we are, not where we go….” ~Unknown

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Shrine Entrance

Shrine Entrance

Jody and I headed out with every intention to visit our local Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Eve – one of the most important dates to celebrate in Japan and much of the Far East – to hear the ringing of the shrine’s bells.  Futenma Gongen is just a short drive from where we live, and a Shrine that Jody can see from the Navy Hospital on Camp Foster where she works.  However, with me coming down with a serious case of the flu/respiratory infection, we opted instead to visit the shrine as most Japanese do, in the few days following New Year’s Day.  After all, it is bad form in Japan for anyone to go to “church” impure and soiled with sickness….

Talisman for the New Year

Talisman for the New Year, including evidently lucky-dice!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-proud-celebrationsHatsumode (初詣) in Japan is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead.  Some of the most popular shrines (shrines are Shinto in Japan) and temples (which are Buddhist here) organize festivities with stalls that sell food, provide carnival-type games for this kids, and offer souvenirs and sweets like you might find at an old-tyme American county fair (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oils for more).  And yes, I did have to get a great big bag of cotton candy, just as popular here as anywhere else in the world.

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Each year the shrine puts up a large ornately painted wood plaque with the New Year’s zodiac. This Year: Year of the Rooster!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-leaving-ema-wmWe went off to see the shrine for the first time during the afternoon of January 2nd.  Luckily we approached it from the direction where people queued up for entrance, and after passing a line extending at least a kilometer, we decided to come back on a more…reasonable day.  No doubt god understands.  Returning a couple of days later after Jody got off work we found the shrine still bustling with people, but with really no lines at all.  While this probably doesn’t meet the strict intent of visiting by the 3rd, we weren’t alone; there were plenty of Japanese doing the exact same thing!

Jody's Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

Jody’s Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-tied-fortunes-wmPart of such a visit usually involved purchasing omikuji, which are fortune-telling strips of paper, selected by reaching in and hand-drawing one out of a large box of bound fortunes.  Jody and I each selected our fortunes, and after reading and sharing what lay in store for us (pretty much all good, like most fortunes), we left ours tied on wires strung near the shrine’s special pine tree.

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new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-new-year-talismans-2-wmThere are also a whole slew of talisman and lucky charms that can be purchased for a small donation, all of which promise to offer increased safety for drivers, prosperity in business, healthy babies for pregnant women, and even good exam results for students!  Of course most focus on love and health, rightfully so.  Jody and I decided to purchase two ema, small wooden plaques on which prayers can be inscribed.  One was to leave at the shrine with our prayer welcoming in the New Year, and the other to take home to add to our collection of ema we’ve collected from across Asian over the last 3.5 years.

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Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

Prayers are also offered at the shrine or temple’s main altar.  After throwing some coins into a tamper-resistant donation collection box which can be found in front of every altar no matter how large or small, parishioners than grab a thick robe hanging down nearby and swirl it around to ring a connected bell a few times.  Finally, the faithful bow twice, clap their hands twice in front of their chest, pray, and when finished, bow one more time in respect prior to leaving.  Luckily for us Westerners, this procedure is pretty much the same at either Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples.  This time around, since the Shrine remained a crowded buzz of activity, Jody and I passed on offering prayers at the altar.

Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-new-year-arrownew-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-turnip-headed-arrow-bulbFinally, we selected our New Year Kabura-ya (鏑矢, “turnip-headed arrow”).  This represents a particular type of arrow used by the samurai class of feudal lords of long-ago Japan.  Originally a way to announce approach and send messages, the bulbs on these arrow heads were designed to make a particular sound when fired.  Over time legend grew that such jangles could chase away bad kami, basically evil spirits.  Today, even carrying such an arrow, or placing it in your home can ward against evil spirits.  Our arrow rests safely and purposefully near the entrance to our condo.

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It’s true that church is not where we go.  While Jody and I are neither Shinto nor even church-goers at home, there is value is maintaining such positive, almost secular traditions, that are hinged at welcoming a future full of health and prosperity.  Church is, in fact, who we are and will be in the coming New Year of the Rooster 2017.

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Happy New Year from the Kings!

Diving Against Debris:  For A Cleaner, Healthier Ocean Planet


“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

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dad-interactive-mapdad-jan-2017I decided to host my first Project AWARE “Dive Against Debris” event here on Okinawa at the turn of the New Year, and I must say, it was a smashing success!  At a local dive site called “Kadena North Steps,” almost 40 scuba divers were successful is removing 198 pounds of submerged debris from the ocean, amounting to over 635 separate pieces of trash polluting our coastal underwater environment.  Check out our full Kadena North Steps report here.  A big shout-out to all those who came out in support of this worthy effort!

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The SAD and DEPRESSING Underwater view of Kadena North Steps

 

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If you are not aware, our oceans are under siege.  More than 250 MILLION tons of plastic is estimated to make its way into our ocean by 2025.  Our everyday trash is entering the seas at an alarming rate, and it has created a clear and present danger to the ocean’s ecosystems.  But a global community of proactive divers is beginning to fight back against this onslaught.  And I decided to become more an active part of the solution than a passive participant in creating the problem.

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What is amazing is that all it takes to create grass-roots activism is to provide just the seed, although with creating an environment where that seed can germinate and take root.  What do I mean?  Make it “an event.”  Advertise.  Provide collection bags.  Offer donuts and coffee!  And take care of the debris after the divers have removed it….  Real and sustainable global change is only empowered through such grassroots action.

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Marine debris is, simply put, deadly to marine life, often hazardous to human health, and costly to our economies.   Animals, especially marine mammals, become entangled in debris and even mistake it for food – both often with fatal results.  Toxins can enter our food chains, resulting in sickness for an individual, and detrimental depressions in local and national markets.

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dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-counting-collected-trashThe event I hosted was a formal Project AWARE “Dive Against Debris” (DAD) survey.  That means we not just collected trash, but weighed, categorized, and reported the data to a global database.  I also offered training and certification, for those divers so interested, In PADI’s “Dive Against Debris Diver” specialty.  Eleven divers completed this course of education and training that morning!

Cleanup Divers Entering the Water at Kadena North

Cleanup Divers Entering the Water at Kadena North

dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-morning-diver-fueldive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-kevin-event-organizerDive Against Debris® is Project AWARE’s flagship citizen-science program.  DAD is the first and only marine debris survey of its kind which utilizes scuba divers to report types and quantities of debris found on the ocean floor.  If you’re a certified diver, you can collect and report important data while removing marine debris during your dive.  With your help, Project AWARE can use the information you report to convince individuals, governments and businesses to act against marine debris.

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dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-trashed-bottom-3However, Project AWARE goes even further.  Not only does the organization work to reduce underwater impacts of marine debris, but to prevent trash from entering the ocean in the first place.  Through “Partnerships Against Trash,” Project AWARE works with businesses, NGOs and governments to advocate for long-term solutions and influence waste management policies at local, national and international levels.

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Since my experience running this event was so positive and down-right run, I have decided to take my activism to the next level.  Ultimately, the most dedicated Dive Against Debris leaders across the globe are increasing commitments to the fight against ocean trash through another program called “Adopt a Dive Site™” (ADS).   Leveraging enthusiastic dive instructors, and concerned dive centers and resorts, ADS ensures ongoing local protection and monitoring of our underwater playgrounds.

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captureMy dive business Dive the Blues Scuba and I have adopted Kadena North as “my” dive site to care for.  This means I have committed to executing monthly Dive Against Debris surveys and then reporting types and quantities of trash found underwater each month from that same location.  To support this effort, Project AWARE will be supplying some additional survey tools, and will provide a yearly report on the state of my local dive site.  ADS is focused on removing debris on a sustained basis to ultimately improve the health of local ecosystems.

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You can view “My Ocean Profile” at Project AWARE to see these local actions, and see the details of my first Dive Against Debris survey.  Finally, you can see my first Adopt a Dive Site event where you can determine if you too want to come out and become an active part of the solution, rather than be a passive part of the problem.

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And don’t forget to come out and support my February 2017 Dive Against Debris survey this President’s day, February 20th, starting at 0900 local at Kadena North Steps.  Together, we can work toward a cleaner, healthier ocean planet.  One dive at a time.  And ultimately, we as a global nation of divers will be judged all the greater for it.

Toshikoshi:  New Year Noodles in Japan


“Noodles are not only amusing but delicious….” ~Julia Child

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Jody and I are lucky to have a delicious udon noodle restaurant, Marukame Noodle, just a few minutes away, and even more fortunate to have a terrific excuse to head out on New Year’s Day to feast on a steaming bowl of fresh Asian pasta in a savory broth:  “Year-Crossing Noodle”!

Marukame Noodle, Okinawa

Marukame Noodle, Okinawa

Toshikoshi (年越し蕎麦), or “year-crossing noodle,” is a traditional Japanese noodle dish eaten, for some on New Year’s Eve, and for others, on New Year’s Day.  And although yes, I admit, the noodles are usual of the soba variant, I find myself preferring the much thicker and almost chewy Chinese udon as the noodle of choice.

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The tradition of eating noodles around the New Year became common during the Edo era (1603-1868) in Japan.  When soba noodles are made, the dough is stretched and cut into a thin, elongated form, a geometry said to represent a long and healthy life, while the buckwheat plant (source of many Japanese noodles) being a rather hearty plant that can survive severe weather represents strength and resiliency.  And cutting the noodles while eating symbolizes a wish to cut away all the misfortunes of the old year in order to commence the New Year anew and refreshed.

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However, the noodles should never be broken, cut or shortened during cooking.  And there are other various traps that could result in a backfire; don’t eat right at midnight (you’ll not be able to cut ties with the old), and don’t eat while temple bells are ringing (the bells are supposed to cleanse of evil and sin, and you wouldn’t want to consume any!).  Jody and I, having a late lunch/early dinner on New Year’s Day, were pretty much free and clear of any complexity.

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Given all this positive symbolism (see Welcome Spring and the New Year for more), why tempt bad karma and NOT slurp down some tasty noodle soup at the New Year?  Steaming hot, Jody and I topped ours with nuggets of fried tempura batter (actually the leftovers of frying tempura meats and veggies), a slew of freshly-sliced green onions, and with sides of tempura chicken, shrimp, and vegetables.  Yummy!

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Happy New Year, friends!  I hope you had an amusing and delicious meal of your own to help invite longevity and health for you and yours.

Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum:  A Moving Visit


“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-1-early-morning-disasterkobe-earthquakeOn January 17, 1995 at 5:46 in the dark, cold morning, the city of Kobe and the surrounding area of Osaka, Japan, were rocked by a massive earthquake in what became to be known as “The Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake”.  The region, home to some 3.5 million people and an economic center of Japan, was devastated.  Electricity, water, gas, transport and most emergency services were left inoperable, many for weeks.  Innumerable structures were damaged or destroyed, directly by the quake, or by fires which raged the city afterwards.  Survivors were left to face the cold winter with nothing.  Worst yet, the quake destroyed 249,180 homes, and left 6,434 people dead and another 43,792 injured and in need of medical care.

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Jody and I have a vested interest in learning about earthquakes; they are an all-too-common occurrence in Okinawa (see Love and the Ring of Fire for more).  The Kobe Earthquake Museum, more officially known as the tongue-twister “The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution” (DRI), was opened in 2002 to commemorate the tragic event and to educate visitors about earthquakes and disaster mitigation and prevention.  The museum includes a theater, life-sized dioramas, and expansive exhibits halls, all of which catalog the cataclysm in great detail.

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maxresdefault-1Please note that this is not a casual stroll at your own pleasure visit.  Guests are queued for hard start times, where they are shuttled to the upper floors as a group to a movie screening.  Standing in the theater, a powerfully moving bass creates tactile soundscapes, and a 3-dimensional large screen supports stunning visuals, which when combined offer a fairly immersive experience of that fateful morning.  The roughly seven minute movie leaves most speechless.  But keep in mind that in reality the death and destruction depicted took only about 20 seconds….

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After the movie guests are quickly herded through a life-size diorama depicting scenes of damage from the quake.  Personally, these types of displays are some of the most interesting, and I would like to have lingered here, taking in the experience.  Unfortunately, at this point you are on the museum’s time, and out you go.  Oh, and by the way, no photos are allowed in these areas (of course).

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bn-gm010_0116j__j_20150116014629Next guests will find themselves in a large exhibition hall filled with photos, exhibits, and audio commentary detailing every aspect of the disaster and recovery you could imagine.  There are extensive displays on how the people and the government attempted to deal with the devastating effects of the catastrophe.  There are English-speaking docents here, and a free English audio guide is provided, keyed by numbers displayed on the various exhibits.  I must admit, the sheer amount of information presented here is overwhelming; it’s hard to take in so many accounts and data of such an event….  Two of the most moving stories I encountered, and will never forget, both involve the death of a loved-one.  In one, a man recounts that his wife was injured in bed when their home collapsed, and although she was still warm when he put her in his car, she was already cold when he went to remove her at the hospital.  Still more tragic, a sister recalls escaping the collapsed wreckage of her home and locating her sister, still pinned in place by debris.  As a fire started to consume the remains of their home, the sisters had to part, one telling her family to leave her to save their selves, the other having to listen helplessly to her sister die in the flames….

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kobe-2016-earthquake-museum-rebuilding-and-recovery-montage-wmVisitors proceed down in the main building after the exhibit hall, where various other interesting information and simulations are provided.  Crossing a skybridge to a secondary building, the focus shifts to water disasters and how prepare, mitigate and respond more effectively and efficiently to such calamities.  Little things, like anchoring furniture resulted in many escaping the quake uninjured.  There was also a tongue-in-cheek traveling exhibit on, what else, but the potty!  Seriously, after weeks and sometimes months without potable water, human waste became a huge and dangerous problem during recovery efforts.  Games and experiments are offered throughout to help visitors learn about natural disasters and how to minimize risk and damage in future.  The focus in this second facility, however, seems to be more focused on children.

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Jody and I spent a morning at the museum, more an archive of first-hand testimonials than almost anything else.  This catalog of suffering goes far in meeting the self-stated goal of the DRI:  ensuring that the lessons of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake are never forgotten.  We left impressed about not just the extent of damage and loss of life, but more indelibly imprinted was how quickly Kobe and the entire area recovered after the tragedy.  A revival made possible only through people helping people, which in the end, is all it takes to make a genuine difference.

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Location:  Located in HAT Kobe, a relatively new city district east of the city center.  A ten minute walk from Iwaya Station on the Hanshin Main Line, or in a 15 minute walk from Nada Station on the JR Kobe.

Website:  http://www.dri.ne.jp/en

Hours:

October-June:  09:30 to 17:30

July-September:  09:30 to 18:00

Fridays & Saturdays:  from 09:30 to 19:00

Closed on Mondays, December 31st and January 1st

Admission

Adult:  600 yen, discounts for secondary students, elementary & junior high students free

Himeji Castle: Top Secret Ninja School??


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ~Gilbert K. Ches

A Castle in the Clouds

A Castle in the Clouds

James Bond:  “Do you have any commandos here?”  Tiger Tanaka:  “I have much, much better. Ninjas. Top-secret, Bond-san.  This [Himejijo] is my ninja training school.” ~You Only Live Twice

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-armored-door-and-internal-passageway-wmNinja training school or not, Jody and I recently made our way south from our stay in Kobe, Japan, to visit one of Japan’s most iconic castles:  Himeji.  Compared with Nijo castle in Kyoto (see The Last Samurai’s Castle for more), this is much more like castles with which most Westerners would be familiar.  Thick walls full of loop-holes for shooting.  Narrow passages and numerous gates armed with watch-towers and reinforced locking doors.  And a tall, hill-top Keep, full of weapons racks and murder holes through which heavy rocks and boiling oil could be dropped on invaders….

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-couples-selfie-with-the-white-castle-in-the-skyHimeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji-jō) is a hilltop Japanese castle located in the city of Himeji, Japan.  Regarded as the finest surviving example of historic Japanese castle architecture, it is comprised of a tight defensive network of 83 buildings dating from Japan’s feudal period.  The castle is often locally referred to as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō  (“White Heron Castle”), because of its brilliant white finish and resemblance to a bird taking flight – a somewhat vague analogy in my opinion.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-rooflines-wmHimeji Castle started as a small hilltop fort in 1333.  Replacing the fort was first a castle called Himeyama  in 1346, which was then remodeled into Himeji Castle in the 16th Century.  In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the same Samurai that built Nijo Castle in Kyoto, awarded the castle to another feudal Lord, who happened to be his son-in-law.  He, in turn, completely rebuilt the castle in the early 1600s to what we see today.  For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained largely intact and well-maintained, even throughout the extensive bombing of World War II and the 1995 “Great Hanshin” earthquake, both which seriously damaged nearby Kobe and the surrounding area.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-climbing-steep-stairs-wmIn fact, the city of Himeji was specifically targeted for bombing in World War II because an important rail terminal and line was located there.  On July 3, 1945, 107 B-29 bombers took off from airfields on captured Guam, Tinian, and Saipan to bomb Himeji.  During the raid, 767 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Himeji, destroying almost 65% of its urban area.  Himeji Castle, however, remained remarkably unscathed, even after one firebomb, which failed to ignite, was dropped directly on its roof.  As word of this seeming miracle spread, the castle became to be known as divinely protected.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-on-the-way-to-visit-the-castleHimeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining martial function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance of white plastered walls, and in the subtlety of the relationships between building dimensions and the multiple layers of rooflines.  In 2015, over 2.8 million people visited, so the castle can be quite crowded.  Our recommendation is stay away during Japanese National holidays and the New Year, and arrive early before tour buses start to que for the afternoon.  On busy days, numbered tickets are issued to control access based on scheduled admission times.  At times, the castle will run out of tickets.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-under-an-internal-gate-wmHimeji Castle was abandoned during the Meiji Period in 1871 and some of the castle corridors and gates were destroyed to make room for Japanese army barracks in the ensuing decades.  The castle was next auctioned to a private citizen who wanted it destroyed in order to redevelop the land.  Demolition proved much too expensive, and Himeji was spared.  However, it’s fate still unsecured since Japanese castles had become obsolete and their preservation costly and not a priority during post-WWII recovery.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-smiles-at-the-castleThe 6-story main Keep has two massive supporting pillars, one standing in the east and another in the west, each originally single trees of fir and cypress with diameters over three feet.  The inside walls of the Keep are literally covered with weapon racks (武具掛け bugukake), originally for holding matchlocks (17th firearms in Japan) and spears.  Numerous openings below windows can be found in the Keep called “stone-throwing platforms” (石打棚 ishiuchidana) strategically situated over the winding pathway up the hill.   Similarly, angled chutes called “stone drop windows” (石落窓 ishiotoshimado) are found here too, enabling stones or boiling oil to be rained down upon the heads of attackers below.  Within the Keep are small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places” (武者隠し mushakakushi), allowing defenders to hide and attack by surprise.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-shinto-shrine-on-the-top-floor-wmOne of the castle’s foremost defensive strategies is found in the design of the confusing maze of narrow pathways leading uphill to the castle’s Keep, as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.  Unable to scale up or penetrate through the steep and tall castle walls, attackers are necessarily funneled into a long, spiral pattern around the keep, an approach covered by loopholes and murder holes the entire way.  Originally there were 84 gates to slow intruders, but today only 21 remain.  Roughly 1,000 loopholes (狭間 sama) in the shape of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles are still found throughout the castle today.  Partly due to this focus on strong defense, Himeji Castle was never even attacked.

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The castle has been featured extensively in foreign and Japanese films, including the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), and Ran (1985).  In the television miniseries Shōgun (1980) it served as a stand-in for the fictitious feudal-era Osaka castle featured in the series.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-wooded-view-of-the-castle-wmWhile the castle is exquisite from a distance, and impressive from the outside, touring the Keep’s innards is an exercising in climbing up and down steep staircases.  While a visit here is in no way something that should be skipped, just don’t expect much in the way of explanation…or interesting things to see.  In other words, from an architectural and design perspective, seeing a 400-year-old original structure is amazing.  However, the castle is culturally void, having been stripped bare…which is how it is presented today after an extensive rehabilitation earlier this decade.

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That said, Himeji Castle still remains the most spectacular example of an original Japanese castle still in existence.  Even for someone who is not particularly interested in castles or history, a day-trip from Osaka or Kobe to Himeji-jo can be fascinating and well worth the expense and effort.

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Even if there really isn’t a Bond-san ninja training school located there….

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Hemiji-jo

Hours:  Winter 0900–1700, Summer 0900-1800 (April 27–August 31)

Closed December 29-30

Address:  68 Honmachi, Himeji City

Phone:  079-285-1146 (Himeji Castle Management Office)

http://www.himejicastle.jp/en/

Access:  Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station.  The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit via a 15-20 minute walk, or five minute ride by bus (100 yen one-way) or taxi (about 650 yen one-way).

The Last Samurai’s Castle: Nijojo


“I’ll tell you how he lived.”  ~Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

A young Japanese Emperor Meiji is featured in The Last Samurai, surrounded by his court in an immense and minimally-appointed tatami-floored hall.  The palace is unquestionably Japanese, with sliding door panels adorned with gilded scenes of cranes in flight and tigers crouched for an attack never to come.  But his is no movie set; these scenes were filmed in the historic 400-year-old castle of Nijo, located in the heart of the ancient Japanese capital city of Kyoto.

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō) is a low-profile castle built on the flatlands of Kyoto, Japan.  Although nothing like a castle in the Western classic sense of tall turreted guard towers and heavy drawbridges, it does boast two concentric rings of fortifications and thick stone walls, substantial palaces and several gardens.  The complex is sizeable covering about 70 acres, but with only about 85,000sqf of buildings to explore.  It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, all which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogunates, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to Nijō’s construction, which was completed in 1626 by his Grandson after the former’s death.  Although Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was considered the country’s capital, this castle served as the Kyoto residence and Court of the Tokugawa Shoguns (basically military dictators).  It continued in this role for 260 years until the Shoguns surrendered power to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, and today it remains an eloquent testimony to a bygone era of Shogun power and prestige.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Jody and I really enjoyed the expansive, well-kept grounds and gardens, and spent much of our timeat the castle wandering slowly through their various paths.  Groves of plum and cherry trees are found here among peaceful ponds and carefully-placed ornamental stones, and the castle serves as a prime blossom viewing spot in the spring when the time is right in late March and all of April.

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Building as the Japanese did primarily out of wood and paper, though, has its drawbacks, as evidenced by a sad history of destructive fire at most old Japanese heritage sites.  Nijō’s original 5-story central Keep was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750; the foundations can still be explored around the inner ring’s southwest corner.  In 1788, the “Inner Ward,” the area encompassed by the inner moat, was destroyed by a city-wide fire and remained empty, more or less, for the next 100 years.  After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial rule, an Imperial residence was moved there where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Chinese Kamon Gate

Chinese Kamon Gate

After entering the castle grounds from the outer east gate, visitors will soon find the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru outer ward secondary circle of defense.  The castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located here.  This Palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun.

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Surviving in its original form, the architecture and artwork found at Nijojo are arguably among the best surviving examples of Japan’s feudal era.  The palace consists of a series of separate buildings that are connected by an interestingly clever defensive design, the castle’s famed “nightingale floors,” corridors with flooring specifically designed to squeak aloud when stepped upon, alerting guards and occupants to potential intruders.  The rooms are floored with tatami mats and feature elegantly decorated ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and beautifully painted screens on sliding wooden-framed doors (fusuma), all intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the Shoguns.

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These fusuma paintings, dating to 1626, include some of the most well-known masterpieces of original Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber (as featured in The Last Samurai).  These depictions were painted by artists of the Kano tradition, which employed rich colors and large amounts of golden gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers.  The look and feel of this particular palace is routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when there is a necessity to depict a wealthy Samurai, and were also replicated for our own Western-produced mini-series Shogun.

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But there is some fact to The Last Samurai’s fiction.  In 1867, Ninomaru Palace, located in the castle’s “Outer Ward,” served as the site of handover of power in Japan from Shogun to the authority of the Imperial Court in early January 1868.  That year also saw the installation of the Imperial Cabinet at Nijojo, and the castle was declared a “detached” palace for the Emperor.  Honmaru Palace served as the location for the enthronement banquet of the Showa Emperor (Emperor Hirohito) in 1928, and is not normally open to the public.  A scamper up the stone foundation of the former castle keep located nearby provides fantastic views of the castle grounds.

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In 1939, the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.

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There is a reason why The Last Samurai was shot on location.  Visiting Nijojo, one is transported back to a different time and place, one when powerful Shoguns and revered Emperors ruled Japan in opulence.  One can imagine, indeed, “how one lived…”.

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Nijojo

Address:  541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Phone: 075-841-0096

Access:  JR Kyoto Station/Hankyu Railway Karasuma Station, or Tozai Subway Line Nijo-jo-mae Station

Hours:  08:45-16:00 closing at 17:00

Closed:  12/26-1/4 and Tuesdays in July-August & December-January

Fees:  600 yen, discounts for school children