2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour
TOUR REPORT: Part 2 – Himeji to Osaka (19-23 Nov. 2019)
Updated: 26 October, 2020 | by Julius Pang
Part 2 of our Tour Report covers our time from Himeji to Osaka during the 2019 Classic Japan Autumn Tour. Read Part 1 here.
Japan is well known for its castles with their unique architecture and historical significance. There used to be thousands of castles in Japan, with many of being built during the Sengoku Period (戦国時代, Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States”, 1467-1603).
Japanese castles were built on areas of strategic importance and served both military and political purposes. They acted as fortresses for military defence and would often feature numerous features to improve their defensive capability – it was very difficult to take down a castle. They also served as centres of governance and often ended up being the homes of daimyos (feudal lords) as they used them to impress and intimidate rivals with their size and architecture.
Though castles were built to last longer than most Japanese buildings, they were still constructed primarily of wood, and the vast majority of castles were destroyed over the years. There are 12 recognised original castles in Japan, with Himeji Castle being the most well known of these.
Himeji Castle is widely considered to be Japan’s most beautiful castle and has survived for over 400 years. It is also the largest and most visited castle in Japan. We visited Himeji Castle again this year and it was as impressive as ever.
- The front view of Himeji Castle is best viewed from afar as it gives a better sense of the scale of the castle. Within the castle complex as shown here, the main keep doesn’t look that big nor too far away. However it is deceptively close – it actually takes a good 15min walk from here to the main keep thanks to the uphill and convoluted path – typical features of good castle defence design! The stone in the foreground here features an engraved UNESCO logo, recognising Himeji Castle as a World Heritage Site.
Mount Shosha (書写山)
Moving on from our visit to Himeji Castle, we then headed to Mount Shosha located in northwest Himeji. This is a new destination for our tour this year and features the wonderful Engyoji Temple complex.
Mount Shosha is at an elevation of 371m and provides panoramic views of Himeji City below. It is accessed by cable car and from there, a mountain trail leads to Engyoji.
- Mount Shosha Ropeway was opened in 1958 and takes you up most of the way to the top of the mountain.
- From the top of the ropeway, there is a trail leading up to the top of Mount Shosha where Engyoji Temple is located. There are wonderful panoramic views of Himeji from the trail. The mountain in the left middleground is Hachijoganzan and Himeji Castle is just visible behind it on the left side.
- Our tour members at the Mitsunodo (“Three Temple Halls”) in the Engyoji temple complex. The three buildings have different purposes and are (L-R): the Jogyodo (gymnasium), Jikido (lodging and dining hall, now exhibiting temple treasures), and Daikodo (main hall).
- Mount Shosha and Engyoji are frequently used as filming locations for historical movies and TV dramas due to the beautiful surroundings and minimal presence of modern infrastructure. The film The Last Samurai was partially shot at the Mitsunodo – click above to see the scene!
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park （広島平和記念公園）
On 6th August 1945, Hiroshima became the first city in the world to experience an atomic bomb attack. It is estimated that between 90,000 to 140,000 people in Hiroshima (up to 39% of the population) died in 1945 either as a direct or indirect result of the atomic bombing; the number which died in the immediate aftermath of the bomb is unknown.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park commemorates the victims of the atomic bomb attack on 6th August, 1945, and is located around the bomb’s hypocentre. Prior to the bombing, the Park’s area was the location of the city’s busiest downtown commercial and residential district.
A visit to the Peace Memorial Park is an important opportunity to learn about Hiroshima’s atomic bombing and to reflect on what happened and the lessons the world learned from it. There are numerous memorials in the park, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, dedicated to educating visitors about the bomb.
- The A-Bomb Dome was originally the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Hall and was the only structure left standing near the atomic bomb’s hypocenter – Little Boy was dropped from the sky over Hiroshima and exploded 150m horizontally from, and 600m vertically above the dome.
- The Children’s Peace Monument is one of the most popular memorials in the Peace Park. It commemorates Sadako Sasaki and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bombing. Sadako’s story is well known throughout Japan. Children on school trips here will often stop to sing and pay their respects at this memorial. The memorial also features thousands of paper cranes sent in from all over Japan and around the world, wishing for peace and a world free of nuclear weapons.
- A school group paying their respects at the Memorial Cenotaph. The arch represents a shelter for the souls of the victims of the bomb. Directly under the arch is a cenotaph containing the names of all the victims of the atomic bomb. This monument has been designed to frame the Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome, and also aligns with the Peace Memorial Museum located at some distance behind the students here.
- Our tour member Shelly here is at the Hall of Remembrance. This memorial features a large panorama image of the Peace Park area during the aftermath of the bombing. The image is made up of 140,000 tiles, representing the number of victims of the atomic bombing.
We would normally visit the famous “floating torii” at Itsukushima Shrine after our time at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. However due to renovations on the floating torii we headed to Iwakuni City instead, where we find the beautiful Kintai Bridge (錦帯橋, Kintaikyo).
Kintaikyo is a wooden arch bridge dating back to 1673. It spans the Nishiki River with five arches. Over the years many bridges have existed and been destroyed, usually due to flood. From 1673 to 1950, the bridge remained intact (276 years!) thanks to regular maintenance which involved replacement of the various arches. That version of the bridge was notable for not using any metal nails in its construction.
In 1950, Typhoon Kijia destroyed the bridge with a replacement completed in 1953. This is the bridge we see today; while it was reconstructed similar to the previous one it does feature nails now.
- We spent the late afternoon through to twilight at Kintaikyo. The cloud formations together with the still water provided great elements to our bridge images. The river was quite shallow here when we visited; you can only imagine how bad the flooding must have been when Typhoon Kijia destroyed the previous version of this bridge.
The halfway point of our tour was spent in Koyasan (高野山). As the mountain home of Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan has many temples (over one hundred) with the most important of these being Kongobuji, head temple of Shingon Buddhism, and Okunoin, where the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi is located.
As in previous years, we stayed overnight here in a temple, a unique experience on our tour called shukubo. A temple stay gives an insight into a Buddhist monk’s life, including eating vegetarian monk cuisine (called shojin ryori), and joining in the early morning prayer rituals, including the dramatic fire ritual.
The following morning was spent exploring Koyasan’s main sights including Okunoin, the Garan temple complex, Kongobunji Temple, and Banryutei Garden. Normally in mid-November, the autumn colours are almost gone at Koyasan, but due to the unseasonally warm weather across Japan this autumn, there were still some amazing colours on display around town.
- Banryutei (蟠龍庭) is the rock garden of Kongobuji Temple and is the largest rock garden in Japan with an area of 2340 sqm. In contrast to the temple which dates to 816, Banryutei is much newer, being built in 1984 with rocks sourced from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi. There are 140 rocks arranged here to represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.
- Shojoshinin is the closest temple to the start of the Okunoin cemetery and has recently completed some additional buildings to their temple complex. It’s rare to see new large scale woodwork like this and these additions took several years to complete. In Japan, the carpentry trade has a few specialisations; here we can see the work of miyadaiku (宮大工) – carpenters who specialise in building shrines and temples. Really beautiful craftsmanship on display with both the woodwork and the metalwork.
- Okunoin (奥の院) is the temple where the mausoleum of Kukai is located. Surrounding it is the largest cemetery in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones lining the 2km approach to the temple. This is also a very old cemetery as Koyasan is over 1200 years old; the older graves here have become one with nature with decades-old, or even centuries-old moss covering them.
- The Goma fire ritual is a spiritual cleansing and prayer ritual characteristic of Shingon Buddhism and one of the highlights of a temple stay at Koyasan.
- Hi-tech Buddhism! Koyasan is a very traditional place but that hasn’t stopped Sekishoin Temple from adding some modern innovations to their temple gates! These LED displays show mandalas next to the Nio (仁王, “benevolent kings”), the guardian dieties of Buddha. The left statue is called Naraen Kongo, and the right statue is Misshaku Kongo – these figures are always depicted as very muscular and fearsome looking!
- An evening stroll through Okunoin Cemetery is one of the best ways to enjoy this sacred place. Along the 2km path leading to Okunoin Temple both old and new tombstones are mixed together and there are also many little statues with red bibs in place. These statues represent Jizo Bosatsu, the protector of children, expectant mothers, firemen, and travellers.
Jizo statues are often decorated with caps and bibs and while they look quite charming, most tell a sad story, representing a child that has passed away.
Bracketing shots with night photography and combining them later in editing is a useful technique to maximise dynamic range and avoid blown highlights. I think this works well for images of Okunoin.
We finished our time in Koyasan and made our way north to Osaka. The return journey from Koyasan to Osaka by train takes a significant amount of time so for this year we decided to cut our travel time down a bit by staying in a different part of the city compared to previous years. Unfortunately some unexpected problems with our hotel meant we had to make alternative accommodation arrangements – not easy during the peak of the autumn colour season.
I consider myself very lucky to have had great clients over the years and our tour members this year were no exception. Louise, Shelly, and Antonio – thank you very much for your patience and understanding during our time in Osaka.
- Dotonbori is one of Osaka’s main tourist attractions and is well known for its food options. The centre of activity here is around Ebisu Bridge which crosses over Dotonbori Canal, with the massive illuminated signboards on the buildings in the area. The most famous of these signs is Glico Man who represents the Glico confectionary company. Originally installed in 1935, the Glico Man sign has undergone several iterations with the current LED version dating back to 2014. As for the signs here, in the past the majority of the signs here were all based on neon lighting but most are now LED. One of the remaining neon holdouts is the enormous Asahi sign which wraps around the corner of a building and is intended to represent a beer glass filling up as it animates.
- Shinsekai (新世界, lit. “New World”) is a district in southern Osaka that was created in 1912 and modelled after Paris on its north side, and New York on its south side. In its heyday it was a popular tourist attraction due to its modern image and the presence of Luna Park, which was modelled after the original Luna Park in Coney Island, New York.
The northern half features Tsutenkaku Tower, inspired by the Eiffel Tower when it was originally built in 1912. The current tower was built in 1956 and was designed by architect Tachu Naito, who later designed Tokyo Tower.
Shinsekai is located in a working class neighbourhood and is considered somewhat “dodgy” by Japanese standards. In recent years there have been efforts to redevelop the whole area with new buildings and shopping complexes such as the Abeno Harukas 300 building just a few blocks away.
- Shinsekai is a real treat for foodies, being the home of kushikatsu, which are deep fried skewers of various ingredients. There are numerous kushikatsu restaurants here, some operating 24/7. The area also is known for fugu restaurants, with the most famous being Zuboraya – very easy to spot thanks to the huge pufferfish lantern hanging outside and which is a famous feature of the area.
- Update: Sadly, on 15 Sep. 2020, Zuboraya closed down after having been in business since 1920. The restaurant had been closed since April 2020 due to the COVID19 pandemic. The famous fugu lantern was also taken down at an even earlier date. There is hope that the lantern will be preserved and displayed again in the area in future, with the nearby Spa World offering to take the iconic fish.
Kobe is 30min west of Osaka by train and is perhaps best known for Kobe beef. This meat comes from Tajima cattle that are raised in Hyogo Prefecture according to strict rules. The end result is beef that is highly marbled, making it incredibly tender and flavoursome. Kobe beef is a delicacy and is often considered the “Rolls Royce of beef”.
Kobe beef is very expensive, but it is possible to enjoy this amazing meat at an affordable price at a number of restaurants in Kobe. We took the opportunity to enjoy a Kobe beef lunch in Sannomiya, the downtown area of Kobe. You can see in this image the intense marbling of the beef – it is A5 grade which is the highest level. We each spent between 5000-7000 yen for our meals at this restaurant. Kobe beef is a great example of the law of diminishing returns in action. I’ve had a much more expensive Kobe beef meal many years ago at the original restaurant that served teppanyaki Kobe beef steak. I remember it cost around 12000 yen. It tasted better but not 5000 yen better!
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