7.13.2006

Himeji: soaked

Day three of Chuck and my trips around the Kansai area. Today we took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Himeji, the site of the best preserved feudal castle in Japan. The city (sister city with Phoenix, AZ, complete with an amusement park, zoo, stadium, and about 450,00 people) shows up in the Lonely Planet guide as a small entry only featuring Himeji Castle. But I'm sure to its citizens, Himeji has a lot to offer. Chuck recently completed his assistant pastorship at St. John Vianney Catholic Church located outside of Phoenix, so I thought he'd be interested in the connection.

Anyway, I'm digressing about the bullet train ride. The high-speed train is one of icons of Japan, so naturally Chuck wanted to experience it to get a well-rounded view of Japanese life. I've been on it a few times before: Osaka-Tokyo and Kobe-Hiroshima. The most important thing I learned is that you need to line up well before the train arrives and be prepared to board and egress quickly. You can literally set your watch by the arrival of the Shinkansen. Recently, it's on-time performance has improved to within a 1/10th of a minute. That's right folks: 6 seconds. No airline in the USA can touch that with a 10-mile pole. Yet we're pouring miles of concrete and billions of dollars for airport expansion while California's high-speed train initiative gets postponed yet again. And the trains stop at the exact place where you are supposed to board for your assigned car. Nevermind that it requires rigid operating procedures and mind-numbing repetition for train operators to achieve this predictablity, it makes for great customer satisfaction.

As Chuck and I blazed the 55 km in 16 minutes, we watched the whizzing megalopolis of Kansai, with its high-rise apartments next to bucolic rice fields, through the large windows. Once we were in Himeji, we took advantage of a little-known service for tourists: free bicycle rental! We found the underground bike parking lot and checked out our bikes. Most people ride fixed-gear, front basket, granny-style bikes in Japan. When I first got here, I was baffled by the fact that no one rode with a helmet. A friend explained to me that they don't ride as fast and as crazily as I do to merit wearing one. Well said. And most bike riders stick to the sidewalks, avoiding a losing battle with a car. So we did the same. With Chuck at 6'3" and me at 6'0", the seats wouldn't go up as high as we needed them to. But we weren't out for a performance ride, just a leisurely coast around the gardens of the castle. We followed the moat road around the castle, finding some refreshing breeze and shade from the hot sun. Just before we came back to our starting point, we ran into one of my old students from school. He lives in Himeji. I knew that he made the 150 km round trip commute to school everyday, but never in a city of 450,000 people would I imagine to run into him on the one day I was visiting! Silly me I didn't take a photograph:(

The self-guided tour of the castle is quite extensive, speckled with English here and there. Unfortunately for us, there was no English guide available that day. We would around the castle's outer walls before going inside the Keep. It has six floors before you reach the top, where there is an interesting little Shinto shrine. The castle replaced the shrine when it was built on a hill. When the townspeople started experiencing some bad harvests, they essentially said, "it's payback for removing the shrine!" So they put the shrine at the top of the castle. To my knowledge, there are few examples of this kind of cooperating between military and religious institutions in Japan. Please correct me if I am wrong.

The view allows you to see far and wide from the town. It also allows you to see the approaching storm! Minutes after I took this photo, the heavens opened, pouring rain down on us for the next 2 hours. We'd evaded the weather for the past two days, but now it was time for us to pay up. We played a game of "wait and see" with the skies, hoping that it would stop long enough for us to make it back to the train station without getting soaked. No such luck. Riding our bikes back to the garage, our pants and shoes were drenched. It sure was nice to cool off, but I think this was overdoing it! You could hear the "squish-squash" of the water being pressed from our shoes as we made our way back to the station.

We decided to take the rapid regular train back to Nishinomiya, thereby saving 2000 yen or so. The air conditioning of the train helped to dry us out a bit, but we sure were relieved to make it home and change our clothes for good. Although the later part of it wasn't high on the feel-good scale, our day certainly was a memorable one!
Tomorrow, the grand finale of Chuck's visit: a Hanshin Tigers game!

2 comments:

Bonny said...

Hi Jeff.
Good t hear from you get a glimpse of your adventures. I've just started reading your blog - and yes, I do remember you ... cheers to you -- keep in touch
Bonny
http://spinningb.com/
http://spinningb.com/Blog

Bonny said...

Hi Jeff.
Good t hear from you get a glimpse of your adventures. I've just started reading your blog - and yes, I do remember you ... cheers to you -- keep in touch
Bonny
http://spinningb.com/
http://spinningb.com/Blog

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