Sakura Hunting in Kansai (Part 3)

As the train entered the outskirts of the city, I slowly opened my eyes after having dozed off. Half asleep, I looked out the window; a sea of city lights met the dark night sky. In the distance an unmistakable sight immediately got my attention and any tiredness I had felt from the previous couple of days quickly vanished.

Perched on top of a hill overlooking the city was a blinding, pure white vision, like an angel descended from heaven. Lit up from all angles, Himeji Castle seemed to float above the city. It looked like an illusion, and a little out of place in a modern city. Then again, the castle has been around in its original state for over 400 years, so perhaps it’s the city that doesn’t match!

My sakura trip so far had taken me to Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and the countryside around it, and Osaka, before bringing me to my final destination. I was super excited to be visiting the country’s most famous castle, especially since it had been closed for so long to undergo renovations. I was still a couple of days early for the peak of the cherry blossoms, but I knew I was in for an awesome experience regardless.

I was up early again the next day. I had heard of the long queues to get into the castle, and the congestion inside the castle itself due to narrow and steep staircases, so the plan was to get there as early as possible. During the cherry blossom season, the gates open earlier than usual, and at 8:45am it was already busy.

One thing that intrigued me about the castle was all of the defence mechanisms. From the castle grounds entrance, you follow a confusing, winding path that goes through about half a dozen gates before you actually step foot inside the main keep. In fact, there used to be 84 gates throughout the complex. The castle appears to have five floors, but actually has six plus a basement within the stone base. The different floors are full of secret hiding places, special lattice windows and stone drop hatches, and the walls outside are lined with gun and arrow shooting holes. Also, the white exterior is made of plaster to protect the castle from fire and bullets.

I finished my visit at midday with a quick walk around the central moat only to stumble upon the most gorgeous view ever! I had seen the castle from this angle on postcards but didn’t know exactly where it was. Cherry blossoms in the foreground, the red bridge in the middle ground and the castle in the background – amazing. I ended up sitting here with my lunch taking in the view for as long as I could.

 

What an incredible few days. Kansai is a special region full of iconic locations and a lot of history. This was my sixth spring in Japan and rather than thinking I’ve done everywhere worth going, I just keep discovering more and more places I want to go! Talking to the locals of a particular area, you find out so much that you’ll never find in guidebooks. But for now, the cherry blossoms have departed and it’s back to normal life, for a short while at least :P

 

Sakura Hunting in Kansai (Part 2)

No trip to the Kansai region is complete without seeing Nara. So, after 24 hours sakura hunting in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, I hopped on the train and moved an hour south to another of the former capital cities.

From 710 to 784, Nara was the centre of Japan. Remarkably, some of the world’s oldest surviving buildings are found in Nara Prefecture, like the pagoda at Horyuji Temple. Up until the 700s, Shintoism had been the main belief system in Japan. But the Emperor, a devout Buddhist, changed that. Buddhism spread across the country from China, and with it came the earliest known works of written literature produced in Japan. Also under the order of the Emperor, Todaiji Temple was built and inside it, the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.

Surrounding Todaiji is Nara Koen, a park full of free-roaming, wild deer! They came from the sacred hills behind Nara and were once considered messengers from God. They were protected by the government so much so that harming a deer would have resulted in heavy punishment. Today, the laws are a bit more relaxed though they are still recognised as a national treasure of Japan. People can buy special deer crackers to feed them and I think after so many years of being hand-fed, they have become one of the bossiest animals I’ve ever come across! They will grab anything out of your hand – so hold onto your food, maps, brochures and handbag tightly if you don’t want to lose them!

I was up early on day two of my trip and headed to Nara Park before the bus loads of tourists arrived. It was so peaceful and I got to witness the deer coming down through the forest and into the township. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a migration! They didn’t take any notice of me or the other people around, nor of the traffic that was starting to get busy. The funniest thing was seeing them cross the road. There was a special deer warning sign and somehow they all stopped right in front of it, then proceeded like children at a pedestrian crossing.

Starting from the edge of the town, a long, wide path serves as the entrance to Kasuga Taisha, a shrine tucked away in the woods. The shrine grounds were completed in 768 and some original structures exist to this day. Kasuga Taisha is registered as a World Heritage Site and is known for its 3,000 lanterns which have been donated by worshippers over the past 1,200-odd years. My favourite part was a pitch black chamber full of glowing lanterns. It was eerie but mesmerising.

I didn’t go to Nara just to see Todaiji and the deer, though. I wanted to get out of the city and explore the countryside. My original plan was to visit a place called Yoshino-yama, which is considered by many as the best sakura spot in the country. For 1 or 2 weeks a year, the entire mountain is covered in pink trees. But I was about 4 or 5 days too early and if I’d gone, I would have only seen a few flowers here and there. Not worth the 2-hour, multiple transfer train trip. Bad timing! Anyway, there’s always next year. So instead, I turned to some locals’ advice and continued my sakura hunt to Koriyama Castle, known for its cherry blossoms; Yakushi-ji Temple, one of the Japan’s oldest temples; and Toshodai-ji Temple which along with Yakushiji is a World Heritage Site.

Can you imagine what life would have been like back in the 700s? It was surreal to be walking around all of these ancient places in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It didn’t really feel like Japan, to be honest. I was in another world.

The day was drawing to a close and I was pretty exhausted after what felt like an entire day of walking. I got back on the train and headed towards my third and final destination, the home of the White Heron Castle. Part 3 to come.