Chapter 3. Castles and trains obviously!

Japan – Oita to Osaka

The instigator for this trip to Japan was the Rugby World Cup and after a cramped ninety minute train ride from our hotel in Kitakyushu to Oita city we had finally achieved our objective with time to spare. England would be playing Australia and there was time to enjoy many beers. The reason I will not linger over the rugby is largely because I can’t remember much of it although England comfortably beat Australia. We also had tickets for the second quarter final in Oita the following day featuring France and Wales. Suffering from the previous days antics I remember much more of this game and I can safely recall that the stadium in Oita is beautiful with a fantastic atmosphere. Although located in the middle of nowhere it appeared that the Japanese had acquired every bus within 1000 miles to efficiently move 40,000 revelers to and from the stadium. The Japanese really know how to organise a big event which a dumb-ass thing to say because the Japanese know how to organise everything!

Our first objective was complete – get to Oita and watch the rugby. We now had a week to work our way back up the country at a more leisurely pace before the semi-final weekend in Yokohama. A return to Hiroshima was first on the ‘to do’ list and unfortunately the theme of over crowded trains continued as every other rugby fan followed suit. It’s starting to feel like Japan is one long luggage rack as for the past four days this is the only thing I have seen when travelling on a train. I hate standing on trains. That being said, it can’t be helped on such occasions and so I had to suck it up. However, when there is chance to look out of a window the view never really changes, in fact it never feels like you have left the city. Sometimes there will be a dash of green as you speed past trees or a few paddy fields but blink and you will miss it for you will be entering the suburbs of another city. Before I launch into a tirade of affection for Japanese trains I would like to make you aware that there are certain lines that are not valid on the JR Pass. No idea why, no one ever checked to see if we were on the wrong train or not, but technically some trains are not valid. Other than that, the bullet train is super easy to use. These inter-city trains are incredible with speed, beauty and comfort packaged into a single delight of public transport. They make British inter-city trains look and feel like a horse and plough. And I mean a plough, not a slightly more comfortable cart. What can only be described as the cabin crew will bow whenever they enter and leave a carriage. I’m not sure what other purpose they have as they don’t appear to check tickets or serve food but I have little doubt that they will assist with any troubles you may have while aboard. But you won’t have any troubles other than trying to figure out where to put your legs. The amount of legroom is not only epic but borderline ridiculous for a country whose population has an average height equivalent to that of a meerkat. The luggage racks are the same. Bigger than the airlines and providing plenty of space to set up a bunk and lie down should you wish! Nothing like UK trains that offer just enough space for a dull vegan sandwich and the Guardian above your head. 

It’s hard to write about Hiroshima without saying what has already been said a million times before but I’ll give it a go while also giving it the respect it deserves. I want to say it’s a lovely little town but it’s not due to a population of a million people making it a city, yet it wears the look and feel of a lovely little town! The trams are super easy to use with a flat rate ticket that can be easily purchased on the tram with all the coins you will undoubtedly collect or, I believe a day pass can be purchased. There’s little need for trams though because the city is nice and flat with a lot of the main sights easy to get to on foot or bicycle. It’s geography is one of the reasons why it was flattened so easily back in the day. What rose from the ashes cannot be described as stunning but as with all Japanese cities I have seen thus far they are relatively spacious, clean, tidy, welcoming, perfectly functioning, well mannered and remarkably relaxed. Our first stop was Hiroshima castle which was an exciting event being our first Japanese castle of the tour. Close to ground zero it had to be completely rebuilt and is certainly a masterpiece that commands its attention as all good castles should do. Other then being made of chunky wood and topped with chunkier roof tiles, there is little else that gives this castle a look of menace. It oozes far more romance and beauty than violence and defence. A whopping £2.64 will get you inside which is rammed full of artefacts about the castle’s history and life of the samurai. Once again we were liberated from out shoes as we entered and should I have been a year or two younger I could have happily ran around pulling off skids on the shiny wooden floor. The castle is made of several floors that slowly rise with the rooms getting smaller. Follow these upwards and you will eventually end up at the top floor which will offer exceptional views of the surrounding area. In this instance we could see our next stop directly in front of us, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

A short walk and we had arrived at one of the most iconic sights in the world and as we had come to expect in this country there wasn’t anything too crazy going on. Sure there were people about but not hoards of tourists, in fact it could have been beside any number of beautiful rivers running through a city on a warm blue sky day. Obviously the one thing that sets it apart from the rest is the Atom Bomb Dome. Formally the city’s promotion hall, it lay almost directly below the atomic explosion of 1945 yet miraculously wasn’t completely flattened. Now it serves a constant reminder of the devastation that we can casually cause to one another whenever we feel like it. The thought of what happened over this spot is horrifying when you stand back and actually think about it. But, what is even more horrifying is that little has changed other than the shock, awe and sheer imagery of such a terrifying event. The amount of suffering that continues around the world is testament to the fact no matter how many memorials we honour they will change little. Even so, such memorials as with Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Kigali, Phnom Penn, and the millions of others around the world will always touch the conscience of the people who visit them. You cannot understand these places from a book at school, you must visit them to truly appreciate what each and everyone means. They unfortunately will not change the world, but they will most definitely change the way you feel about the world. A short walk along the river, past some small but pretty gardens takes you past an eternal flame and a modern memorial in a space that opens up into large lawns overshadowed by a large concrete building on stilts. This is the museum with Hiroshima’s tragic history and one that on this occasion I did not visit. Two reasons. The first being it was busy and the second being that I always leave such places angry and pissed off with everyone and everything. I didn’t want to feel like that for I was happy enough in my sombre and completive mood. Besides, the day was drawing to a close, we had walked many kms and a nap was required before we returned to our 7th floor dining hall for large amounts of okonomiyaki and beer.

Nowhere is far from anywhere in Japan with the bullet train and so an hour after leaving Hiroshima we had arrived at our next destination, albeit for only a brief stop. Himeji is blessed with two things. A stunning castle and, a position on the Shinkansen that makes a day visit to the castle super easy when heading between the main sights of Hiroshima and Kyoto. It is well worth the stop and don’t fear if you have all your luggage with you for this is a tried and tested itinerary with ample lockers available at the train station for a ridiculously small price if I remember rightly. As soon as you depart the train station Himeji castle can be seen dominating the skyline in the distance and so don’t fear about getting lost! Just aim for the big white Japanese castle. Our aim was a little off as we got distracted by some delicious burger stall down one of the back streets but once we had fuelled up we made straight for the castle. The castle is original and underwent a huge restoration project a few years back which has left behind something in style you are unlikely to see anywhere else. Huge in size, the castle dominates the area yet is surrounded by beautiful and fairly peaceful gardens with the crowds surprisingly small in number. We made the most of it and spent several hours exploring and being particularly impressed with the two giant pieces of timber that provided the central support for the castle. Once again it was a shoes off job and we were given a plastic bag to carry our shoes around. Don’t fret, the bags were handed back and reused! I would like to say so much more about the castle but the pictures do far more justice and I’m afraid I am no history teacher. For me at least, this was the number one sight I would see on my trip in Japan.

Satisfied with our trip around Himeji, we jumped back on the train and made the one hour trip over to Osaka. To this day I don’t know why we stopped in Osaka but during my research it kept popping up as the place to be for evening entertainment and a lively night life, just what two old farmers are looking for. As per usual, finding these areas is hard work unless you have some inside knowledge, never mind the fact it was the middle of the week. We did promise ourselves sushi though and so we headed out to find a place. During our quest we happened upon hell-on-earth, one of Japans grim habits, slot machines. We had a look inside this huge hall lined with the damn things and the noise inside was deafening with everything going on. It was the complete opposite to what we had seen of the country so far and in double quick time we moved on, found a delightful little sushi restaurant and tucked in. I opted out of the raw horse but the crab, salmon and other bits of fish goodness was really quite nice. The wasabi was a particular highlight, tasting a bit like horse radish on steroids!

Next up….. Kyoto.


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