One of the rare (nay, only) annoyances about Japan was that entire cities suddenly seem to get booked up for no apparent reason. All of a sudden, there would be no accommodation to be found in a city despite our best efforts. We’d found that in Kyoto (ending up in Nagoya) and appeared to be in the same situation in Hiroshima for our final night in Japan.
Once again, hurrah for the shinkansen bullet trains. We (Craig) found a decently priced hotel an hour or so away from Hiroshima in Himeji, which meant we could also pay a visit to the famous Himeji castle before making the final 125km journey to Osaka airport the following morning in a mere ninety minutes. In comparison, the same distance took us fourteen hours in Burma. I’ve said it before, I’ll probably say it again. Train travel in Japan is awesome.
We made it to Himeji just in time for an hour stroll around Himeji Castle. The “White Heron” (as the castle is also known) sits atop Himeyama Hill, giving a great view back over the city. A castle has stood here since the 12th century and the present incarnation – famed for its stunning white walls and wooden frame – has been around since 1601 and (impressively, for a castle) has actually never been damaged by an act of warfare. In an uncharacteristic display of good timing, we arrived just a few days after the castle reopened following a long refurbishment.
The outside of Himeji castle is stunning – a wide open lawn with toddlers waddling around and a windy path that leads through the complex which was littered with cherry blossom trees. As with other Japanese castles we’d come across, even the murderous details were thoughtfully considered and so attractive they formed part of the decor. The holes for archers were in circles, triangles and rectangles, which formed a pretty pattern in the thick stone walls.
We made our way to the entrance of the main castle – panting our way up steep cobbled paths lined with high fortress walls. This would have been far more stressful had we had any hostile ambitions. Hidden inside the walls intermittently were “murder holes” – handy trap doors for sending rocks, boiling oil and other unsociable debris down onto unsuspecting armies below. Other details were exquisite – the intricate carving of some of the roof tiling as well as the wrought iron bolts carved in to flowers. Himeji castle certainly is handsome.
Inside was rather more plain – six floors of immaculately polished dark wood and not a lot else. If you are pushed for time, the joys of Himeji Castle (in my humble opinion) definitely lie in the exterior and the grounds.
Alas, the day had caught up with us and we ran out of time to explore the castle. We did, however, make some new friends on the way out!
It was time to make our way to our final hotel to see the results of Craig’s hotel-searching efforts. Upon arrival, it transpired we’d be getting the opportunity to try out another unique part of Japanese culture that I’d been intrigued about: the love hotel. Yip, the only affordable room between Hiroshima and Osaka airport happened to be a sex den.
Actually, Japan’s “love hotels” are – like many things Japanese – actually far less bonkers than first meets the eye. I admit, they sound either incredibly sleazy – conjuring up images of intriguingly stained bedding and hidden cameras – or camp as Christmas if you go down the themed route and fancy spending a night in a room decked out in homage to Hello Kitty.
I’m sure both of these happy realities can be found with a short but specific google search, but the bog-standard Love Hotel is really just a pragmatic solution to a common Japanese problem. Japanese homes can be on the small side, and often house more than one generation of family – especially in cities with high property prices. In a land where internal walls can – quite literally – be made of paper, a bit of couple time can be hard to find. Cue the Love Hotel – an ordinary hotel with a few added extras to ensure maximum quality time together.
Our room was decorated in a routine palette of beige. Not quite the tawdry image I’d conjured up in my mind at the check in desk.
Aside from a few minor details, we could have been in any hotel room really. I mean, aside from the giant mirror behind the bed. Aside from the, ahem, “massaging device” provided for your convenience. Aside from the light-up panel of “mood lighting”.
And aside from the in-room vending machine offering an array of somewhat flammable-looking outfits.
And the rather-1970s bath, complete with tv and bubble bath, as modelled by my beautiful assistant.
And aside from the hatch where food and drinks orders were left so we didn’t even have to leave the room.
Aside from that, totally normal.
And so we spent our final night in Japan – decked out in fluffy towelling robes and eating pizza delivered via a hatch. What a wonderfully, unexpectedly bizarre way to end an immense few weeks.
If you want to visit Himeji castle
- Himeji is conveniently located between Osaka and Hiroshima. It can also be reached from other major cities such as Kobe or Tokyo.You can plan your visit here
- Himeji castle is an easy fifteen minute walk from the station. You should allow at least a couple of hours for your visit to properly explore the grounds as well. Free English tours may be available from volunteers at the castle, which take about ninety minutes.
- The castle is open from 9am, and closes at either 4pm or 5pm depending on the time of year. It is closed for a few days at the end of December.
- Admission to Himeji castle is ¥600 (about £3.90) for adults.