April 4, 2015
Despite Japan’s long standing status as the most beloved destination among Hong Kongers and Taiwanese, traditionally it has not received much foreign visitors due to its high cost. As recently as 2013, tiny Hong Kong received 2.5 times more tourists (granted most were Mainlanders) than Japan. To drop a casual Game of Thrones reference, that’s a massive upset on the scale of Tyrion chopping off Jamie’s hand in a hypothetical duel between the Lannister brothers. (Note: GoT references will be a constant. I am pumped for season 5.)
All of that turned in a dramatic way since the sharp drop in the value of the Japanese yen in late 2014. Over 2015’s first quarter Japan has seen a huge increase of foreign visitor, with the key growth coming from China (80% increase vs year ago). As with everywhere else which has received a sudden spike of traffic from China, this development is greeted with mixed response in Japan. Retailers and hotels welcome the additional revenue, even if all this money comes with some well–documented nuisances.
We too found the cheap yen (¥100 to 6.5 HKD; ¥100 to 0.84 USD) too tempting to pass up so we were back to Japan for the sakura season for the second straight year. We headed west this time to Okayama and Kagawa Prefectures to avoid the anticipated huge crowd in Kyoto.
To properly kickstart our hanami road trip was the just-renovated Himeji Castle. Without other towering landmarks, Himeji Castle dominates the skyline of this rather drab city. The white-walled castle is one of the “Three Famous Castles” of Japan and the epitome of Japanese classical castles. Known as the “White Heron Castle”, the castle was regrettably covered by grey smudge when we first visited the castle back in 2008 in its pre-renovation phase. In its compromised state, I didn’t find Himeji Castle to be particularly impressive.
Designed as both a royal residence and a fortress, the current complex, located atop Himeyama Hill, dates back to 1333 and has undergone several extensive expansions. Behind its formidable central moat (the outer moat is now buried) is a complex of 83 buildings including a three-story castle, storehouses, gates, corridors, and turrets. Traps, archers stations and gates form a substantive pre-firearm defensive system, one that stayed untested as the castle was never attacked. The interior of the residence is dark and unventilated, just like any other Japanese castles.
My personal impression notwithstanding, Himeji Castle is an important representation of Japanese heritage. Given its fame and location in the heart of a mid-size city, its status as one of the twelve surviving Edo-era castles is possible only due to an improbable chain of events, including but not limiting to — the determination of Nakamura Shigeto, a Meiji-era colonel who opposed the government’s policy of demolishing Himeji Castle; sheer luck when a firebomb failed to detonate during an air raid in World War II; geography when much of Himeji was destroyed by the Great Hanshin earthquake yet somehow the castle remained virtually unharmed.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the 5.5-year-long restoration had given the castle a fresh start and allowed it to once again live up to its moniker. We didn’t go inside this time — we mostly lingered in the adjacent Koko-en Garden, home to 1,000 cherry trees. With a freshly-painted Himeji Castle in the background, this park was superior to any of the spots I visited in Kyoto last year.
I have a much better impression of Himeji Castle this time around. This is the most complete of the twelve Edo-era castles, even though my favorite remains the relatively little-known Inuyama Castle where I spent an afternoon wandering around the complex without anyone else in sight.