Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) Day 2 (19 May 18) – The Majestic White Heron Castle: Himeji Castle and The Ancient Temples Of Mt Shosha: Engyoji Temple

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The Majestic Himeji Castle

Onwards to Himeji

Our journey in Kansai region takes us to the city of Himeji today, home of the first UNESCO world heritage site in Japan, Himeji Castle. To get to Himeji, we can either take a local bus to Sannomiya Bus Station and transfer to JR twice to reach Himeji or we could alight at Shin-Kobe from the same bus and catch a Shinkansen from Shin-Kobe station to Himeji. We caught the bus at the bus stop just a stone’s throw distance from the hotel and soon we were on our way to Himeji. Riding the Shinkansen for the first time was an interesting experience, watching this part of Kansai zooming pass our eyes, we were in Himeji station in 30 mins from Shin-Kobe station.

The White Heron Castle – Himeji Castle(姬路城)

As soon as we arrived at Himeji JR Station, my friend and I left our luggage in the locked found in the JR station. One cannot miss Himeji Castle as one stands at the entrance of the JR Station. The white castle is standing at the end of the road and is visible from the station. It took us 20 mins to get to Himeji Castle by foot. Like most castles around the world, Himeji Castle is surrounded by a moat which functioned as the first layer of defence for the castle in the olden days. A large stone signage placed before the wooden bridge to the grounds of Himeji Castle proudly announces to visitors that Himeji Castle is Japan’s number 1 national treasure.

The old wooden bridge that seems to exist together with the castle over its 600 years of existence. Crossing the bridge, pass a wooden archway that welcomes visitors into the grounds of Himeji Castle, I was able to adorn the glory of Himeji Castle perching on top of a hill. There is a large open space in front of the castle, which makes a great photo spot for visitors with the castle. Himeji Castle also affectionately known as the White Heron Castle by the locals, as it resembles a white eagle perching on top of the hill, protecting the citizens of Himeji from harm.

Main Keep of Himeji Castle (天守閣)

The distinctive feature of Himeji Castle is its white walls and roofs, which gives the castle a very pure look. The main keep of Himeji Castle has 7-storeys, comprising 6 floors above ground and 1 basement floor. From the outside, the main keep of Himeji it appears as if the castle has only 5 storeys. Before we enter the main keep, there is a small building (which can be easily missed despite the signs around pointing to it) at the base of the castle displaying the original West Pillar which was replaced, due to the decaying core, after supporting Himeji Castle for 350 years.

A little further up the hill from the building that displayed the West Main Pillar is the ticketing and entrance to Himeji Castle. Passing the ticketing entrance, we walked pass road that resembles a maze passing through another 7 doors before reaching the main keep. The pathway towards the main keep of Himeji Castle is a pleasant walk. The buildings here are all clad in white, forming a harmonious scheme with the main keep, yet not stealing the limelight from the main keep. I was able to spot the main keep sitting majestically at every twist and turns on the way to the main keep. The pathway to the main keep is designed to slow down intruders with tons of holes where defenders of Himeji Castle can shoot intruders from.

Soon we found ourselves at the entrance to the main keep. All visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering the main keep. I guess this is done for preservation purposes. There are designated pathways that visitors should follow while inside the main keep. Inside the main keep, I can see the entire Himeji Castle is made of wood. We passed by numerous empty rooms, which must have served as barracks or places where the soldiers of Himeji Castle stationed in even of attacks to the castle. Occasionally we spotted signs that attempt to explain what these rooms are used for. On the 2nd floor of the castle, I spotted some racks on some of the walls by the windows inside Himeji Castle, which served as storage for weapons for the faster reaction to attackers.

On the 3rd floor, I saw some trap doors spotted in corners of the main keep. These trap doors served as an ambush point to surprise invaders to the castle should they have made it this far into the castle. There are separate stairways that lead up to the top of Himeji Castle. These stairways get steeper and the headroom gets shorter as I climbed up the floors in Himeji Castle. The floor size of each floor seems to get smaller the higher I go up the castle.

The East and West Pillars can be spotted on the 5th floor of Himeji Castle. These pillars are the backbone of Himeji Castle and supported the main keep from its basement some 6 floors down.

I climbed a small flight of staircase to the 6th floor of the main keep. There is a staff member stationed at the staircase welcoming visitors to the top floor of Himeji Castle. The 6th floor has a rather small floor space. There is a shrine located in the centre of the top floor in Himeji Castle. The Osakabe-jinja shrine seems to serve to protect visitors these days. The view from the top floor is stunning. I can see the entire Himeji City from the top floor of Himeji Castle Main Keep. Visitors stayed on the top floor the longest to take in the views of the city and to rest before walking down the steep staircase to exit the castle. My friend and I enjoyed the breeze and the scenery from the top floor of Himeji Castle.

My friend and I climbed down 6 floors and exited the main keep. There are some exhibits in the rooms before the exit to Himeji Castle’s main keep, these exhibits explain the roofing and titles that were used in the construction of Himeji Castle. There is also a display on the structural framework of Himeji Castle.

The West Bailey (西の丸)

We found spots in front of the main keep that allows us to admire the grandeur of Himeji Castle. This is also a great spot to take pictures of the castle up close. As we were walking towards the exit of Himeji Castle, we spotted a sign that points to West Bailey. Since we are already here, we decided to follow the sign and check what is in this West Bailey.

The West Bailey is a 2-storey building that seems to snake around the parameters of Himeji Castle. There are few visitors to the West Bailey, which makes it a great place to wind down from the hordes of visitors coming to see the castle. There are displays on the lords of Himeji Castle. The West Bailey is essentially a long corridor that served as sleeping quarters of the occupants of Himeji Castle. Some of these rooms are bigger than the others, we can only assume that the occupants of these bigger rooms must have been someone important. At the end of the corridor on the 2nd floor of the West Bailey, we spotted a large room with a female figurine in it. This is the figurine of Princess Sen. After walking through the corridors of West Bailey, my friend and I exited Himeji Castle grounds and headed to our next destination in Himeji.

The Backyard of Himeji – Mt Shosha (書寫山)

Mt Shosha is home to the ancient Engyoji Temple and is a mere 30 mins bus ride from Himeji Castle. To get to Mt Shosha, we took a bus from the bus stop in front of Himeji Castle to the end of the line. The Mt Shosha ropeway station is just behind the bus stop. We made it in time for the next gondola going up to Mt Shosha. The gondola up to the 371m Mt Shosha takes around 5 mins. As the gondola ascends the mountain, the view of Himeji city becomes apparent. At the top of Mt Shosha, we were greeted with crisp fresh mountain air. There are not many people at the time we visited Mt Shosha (let alone foreigners).  There is only one gravelled pathway that leads to the 1,000-year old temple. Statues of various Buddhas are placed along the sloppy (upwards) path towards Engyoji Temple. A short distance from the ropeway station, we came across a bell pavilion. As we were walking along the path,  we arrived at an open area where we are able to catch the sight of Himeji City below, thank goodness it was a clear day which allowed us to catch a glimpse of the city.

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View of Himeji City from Mt Shosha

The Ancient Engyoji Temple (圓教寺)

Engyoji Temple was founded about 1,000 years ago in A.D.966 by a holy priest. The locals believed that one will get purified both in body and spirit when one climbed Mt Shosha. Engyoji Temple served as an important training centre for priests in the Himeji region. Engyoji Temple is made up of several buildings, some of which are constructed since the temple was around. Most of the buildings we see today are reconstructed.

Niomon (仁王門)

After walking for around 7 mins upslope, we arrived at Niomon. This wooden gate serves as the main entrance to Engyoji Temple. The gate, though simple, looks as if it has been survived through the years. This version of Niomon has been reconstructed and stood to serve as the entrance to the Engyoji Temple since 1665. The area after Niomon is considered sacred. There are a few buildings that seem to serve as living quarters in Engyoji Temple as we were walking towards the first ancient temple building. The peace and tranquillity, as well as the absence of hordes of tourists, made walking on Mt Shosha very pleasant.

Maniden (摩尼殿)

Another 5 mins walk later we arrived at one of the ancient Temples in Engyoji. The Maniden was first built in A.D970, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. However, Maniden was burnt down in 1921, the present building was completed in 1932 and stood strong since then. The entire building is made of wood, on top of a hilly part of Mt Shosha. A staircase leads to the entrance of Maniden. From the bottom of the staircase, I can see part of Maniden is being built into the soil of the hill, and part of the temple protrudes out into the air, supported by numerous thick pillars which looks as though it has been there for ages. Once at the top of the staircase, Maniden comes into full view. The entire Maniden is made of wood that seems to stand the test of time. I did not see any nails or any metallic pieces that were used in the construction of this magnificent temple building. Despite not clad in bright colours and still reminding in its wooden finish colour, Maniden still looks magnificent owing to the intricate carvings on the front of the temple. Maniden has a balcony-like structure outside the prayer halls, handing over the cliff side of the hill it is built on. After my friend and I paid respects to the Goddess of Mercy installed in Maniden, we wandered around the parameters of Maniden on the balcony. Perhaps due to the low in human traffic, looking out into the greenery spring forest of Mt Shosha gives me a sense of tranquillity.  As Maniden was not too big, we continued the pathway and headed towards the next group of 3 temple buildings.

Mitsunodo Hall(三つの堂)

About another 5 mins walk from Maniden, we arrived at Mitsunodo Hall. Mitsunodo Hall is made up of 3 building complexes, namely the Main Hall (Daikodo (大講堂)), Dining Hall (Jikido(食堂)), and Training Hall (Jogyodo(常行堂)). From the entrance to Mistunodo Hall, a large square surrounded by the 3 temple buildings. This is also the filming grounds for Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai. The nearest to the entrance is Jogyodo, an elevated single storey elongated wooden building that has a section protruding out in the middle of the building. As with Maniden, Jogyodo is made entirely out of wood with no traces of nails used in its construction. Jogyodo served the function as a training that also doubles as a ceremonial hall. The exact date of the original Jogyodo was unknown, however, this hall was reconstructed in 1965. The simple Jogyodo has its doors closed at the time of our visit.

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The Square at Mitsunodo Hall

Opposite Jogyodo is the Daikodo, which functions as a Main Hall. The original Daikodo was built in A.D986 and was reconstructed in 1956. Compared to Jogyodo, the architectural design of Daikodo is a tad more elaborate. The single storey, double roofed Daikodo also appears to be constructed entirely out of wood with no traces of nails being used. Peeking inside the Daikodo, I can see statues of Golden Buddhas being placed inside, however, we can only offer our prayers outside the Daikodo as the interior of the building was sealed up.

Connecting Daikodo and Jogyodo is the Dining Hall, known as Jikido. The 2 storey building has an open concept. This is the only building here that is opened to visitors. The original Jikido was built in 1174 and was dismantled and rebuilt in 1963. On the first floor of Jikido, a large section has some tables placed on it. This is a place where visitors can practise the art of zen through Japanese calligraphy. Behind the tables, a small section displays the roofing titles of the temples in Engyoji. The second storey of Jikido displays the artefacts of this temple, amongst it are some millennium old Buddha statues that were made out of wood. I like the balconies of Jikido on the 2nd level. The balconies stretch the entire length of the building. On one side, the square that the 3 temple buildings can be seen from a height, while on the other side, one can see the forest. I prefer the view of the forest as it brings peace.

As it was getting near the time when the Mt Shosha ropeway ceases operations, my friend and I did not explore the rest of Engyoji. We made our way back to the ropeway station and subsequently back to Himeji JR Station. We headed for Osaka to check into our accommodation for the rest of our stay in Kansai.

The Kitchen of Japan – Dotonbori (道頓堀) At Night

After settling into our accommodation, my friend and I headed to Dotonbori, the famous food street in Osaka. Dotonbori at night is a display of neon lightings and gigantic 3D signs that tell visitors what the shop sells. Dotonbori is very crowded despite late into the night. We strolled along the street and bought whatever street food we see. One of the must-try is the takoyaki balls, which is invented in Osaka. There are some medicine shops that still open late at night in Dotonbori. At one part of Dotonbori, a bridge that is always crowded with visitors especially at night. Visitors come to this bridge to take pictures with the icon of Osaka, the neon light display of the Glico running man. After some street food, my friend and I headed back to our accommodation to rest for the night as we have a 3-hour train ride the next day to our next destination – Amanohashidate.

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The Iconic Glico Man neon display in Dotonbori

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