New Year Feature (Part 1) – Ringing in the New Year at Chayamachi Station

I promised to get out of Japan in my previous (and last post of the year) in 2018 but seems like there are still a few stories left in my shelf that I haven’t been able to pull out. In the words of the great Italian-American actor Al Pacino “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

And so I present to you this post, which was inspired by a fellow blogger’s comment (Do check out her travel exploits in Japan. Jennifer has probably covered more places in the Land of the Rising Sun than me, and her photos are so gorgeous your eyeballs will be glued to her blog).

But first things first…

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!

Here’s wishing all my readers a Prosperous Year of the Pig in 2019!!! (Excuse my Chinese-ness. Chinese people love prosperity above all things). *sings* Money, money, money… Must be funny… In the rich man’s world…

Of course, prosperity is not restricted to money and fortunes. So here’s wishing you prosperity in all areas of your life, be it health, family and career!!

I spent my New Year in 2018 at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

The reason?

My friend and I had intended to catch a train from Okayama Station (岡山駅) to visit the celebrated Kibitsu Shrine (吉備津神社) of Momotaro fame for hatsumode (初詣, a tradition observed by my Japanese on the first day of the new year to pray for safety, peace or well-being in the new year).

But… we ended up taking the wrong direction.

A quick check with the few commuters on board after our gut told us that something was not quite right about confirmed our initial suspicions.

We had taken the wrong train!!

Instead of taking the Momotaro Line (桃太郎線), we had hopped onto the Seto-Ohashi Line (瀬戸大橋線) bound for Shikoku (四国).

So we hastily got off at the next random station, and found ourselves at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

When the clock struck twelve, we could hear temple bells ringing from different directions (each temple bell is supposed to ring 108 times by the way, to symbolise the cleansing of the 108 worldly desires of the flesh according to Japanese Buddhism) at the station, creating a discordant symphony of sorts.

It was a surreal experience, given our original intention was to catch the ringing of the bells live at the temple itself.

Midnight at a deserted train station, just my friend and I. We didn’t kiss in the New Year, unfortunately.

When the return train to Okayama Station came, after having waited for almost 2 hours, we were so excited (and relieved) that we jumped for joy on the platform.

When we finally got off at our desired station, which shares the same name as our destination temple (吉備津駅), it was almost half past three in the morning.

However, to our pleasant surprise, we found ourselves in good company. No need for Google Maps as all we had to do was to join in the steady stream of Japanese making their way to the temple from the station.

There was still quite a queue up to the main hall of the temple but it could have been worse.

I offered to buy us some snacks (piping hot sweet potatoes) from one of the food stalls that have been doing brisk business next to the temple’s car park.

We soon found ourselves moving at a steady speed up the stone steps, and soon we were standing before the main altar.

We clapped twice, whispered our prayers, and bowed.

I prayed that I won’t take the wrong train again in 2018.     LS

P.S.: This post is dedicated to Alicia Loh, who counted down 2018 with me at Chayamachi Station, and also braved the freezing morning chill to queue for our first omikuji of the year.

Spiritual Sojourns (Part 3) – ‘Power’ Up in Ise

It’s impossible to talk about spiritual spots in Japan without including a discussion of Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) or Ise Grand Shrine. After all, this shrine is widely acknowledged by many Japanese as one of the most scared Shinto shrines in Japan.

I have known about the shrine from Lonely Planet and various travel blogs on the Internet. I have also heard a fair share of stories from my friends in Japan. One recounted that her mother insisted they make a pilgrimage there when she was plagued by a series of nightmares. Another gushed about how she met her fiancé while on a solo trip to Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). The shrine holds different meanings and experiences for different people I spoke to, it seems. But all agree that this shrine is one of the most powerful spiritual spots in Japan.

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Therefore, while planning my last hurrah of sightseeing around Japan (before moving back to Singapore for good), I deliberately reminded myself to pencil in a day trip to Mie Prefecture (三重県), even though the journey was an inconvenient four hours to and fro from downtown Kyoto, where I was based at that time.

A few months prior to the trip, however, I received a message on Facebook from a friend, who asked me where exactly this spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) is, and how to feel the energy. I was stumped by the question, because I haven’t been to the shrine up until then.

“What do you mean where is the spiritual spot? Isn’t it something you feel naturally while you’re there?” I asked her.

Well, apparently, no.

My friend felt nothing at all, and complained that the shrines were swarmed with people, and how it was almost impossible to take a clean shot of the shrines without having strangers ‘photo-bomb’ you left, right and centre.

She even said she was a little disappointed and felt ‘cheated’ because the shrines looked very simple and ‘nothing special’ in their design.

That’s really missing the whole point about Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). Because, what distinguishes Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) from all other Shinto shrines in Japan are the clean, down-to-earth lines, devoid of ornamental carvings or decorations. This minimalist design is the defining characteristic of Ise Jingu!dsc08149_blogDSC08120

A few facts first before we proceed, Ise Jingu actually comprises two shrines. There’s the Geku (外宮), or Outer Shrine and the Naiku (内宮), or Inner Shrine. “外” is the Japanese kanji for “outside” while “内” is the kanji for “inside”.

The former is about a 5-minutes’ walk south of the Ise-shi (伊勢市) train station while a bus from the stop opposite the Geku (外宮) takes you to the latter.

The Geku is dedicated to the goddess of food, clothing and housing, Toyouke (豊受大神), while the Naiku is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (天照大御神様), the most important god in Shinto.

That should give you a clue as to which of the two shrines is the more “powerful”, spiritually speaking.

Except that, it doesn’t.

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When I finally made my pilgrimage there, I recalled the question my friend had asked me about where exactly this famed spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) was. And I realised what she had meant by that question.Because both shrines are immensely popular with both Japanese and tourists, they are often swarmed with people. Now, whether you believe this or not is another matter, but I would like to propose an answer to my friend’s question. In crowded places teeming with people, you are highly unlikely to feel any spiritual energy.

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Does that make sense?Spiritual energy is diluted or negated by the presence of humans (who carry with them an energy called “yang” in traditional Chinese beliefs) while spiritual energy is “yin”. These two types of energy are antithetical to each other.

In addition, spiritual energy is not a hot spring. It’s not something that gushes out from a single point / location / source / cave / aperture, like in an onsen. So don’t go looking for these places when you are in Ise Jingu.

So, what about my personal experiences? Did I feel anything there?

The short answer is yes, but only in pockets.

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What does that mean? You must know that both shrines cover an extensive area, and there are several smaller shrines housed within each area. In other words, in those smaller shrines, where there are fewer tourists, you are more likely to feel this energy.dsc08174_blogdsc08269_blog

Perhaps, that’s why many tourists choose to visit the shrines near closing time, when the crowds throng the exits. The catch is that there are possibly hundreds of other Japanese who think the same way.My personal take when you visit Ise Jingu is not to go searching for this energy, but instead just do the normal “touristy” things – take pictures at the entrances (and try your hardest not to be “photo-bombed”), sit at one of the benches at the pavilion near the entrance of Geku (外宮) and gaze at the beautiful pond, or wander the busy shopping street just outside Naiku (内宮).And while ambling around the various shrines on the grounds, feel free to roam and explore the smaller paths when you spot one. Follow your gut, instincts, sixth sense (whatever you call it) and ‘dive’ right in. And there, you will definitely feel this energy you are looking for.

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One tip I will give you though, look for the miniature ‘shrines’ while you are there. I found myself inexplicably drawn to them when I was at either of these shrines.     LS

I’m in the midst of preparations for a major trip (about 3 months) to another part of the world in the coming year, and I’m so pumped up for this upcoming trip! Stay tuned for updates!!

P.S.: This post concludes the last of the series on Spiritual Sojourns for 2018, and while there are definitely hundreds (even thousands) of other spiritual spots that have not been featured but worth visiting in Japan, I’m going to take a short break and leave Japan for a while.

In the meantime, continue to travel and explore the world out there. Stay healthy and bubbly. Here’s wishing all you guys out there Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in advance!!! 😁

Spiritual Sojourns (Part 2) – Bewitched in Chikubushima, Lake Biwa

“Chi ku bu shi ma” (竹生島).

Now, say this again more quickly: “Chi-ku-bu-shi-ma”.

Repeat this five times.

竹生島! * 竹生島! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!!!

This tongue twister of a name is NOT a joke. Not only is it a real island, but also one that happens to be one of the top three spiritual spots located in the mysterious yet enchantingly beautiful Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture.

Measuring only two kilometres across, the first thing that you will notice as your ferry from Nagahama (there’s also another ferry that goes to this island from Imazu Port in Takashima City) approaches the island is this ashen-white torii gate, called the Ryujin Haisho (龍神拝所), dedicated to the Dragon God or Ryujin (龍神). For me, this torii gate exudes an inexplicably strong aura of energy, and its cliff-like perch over the emerald waters resembles a gateway for the spirits.DSC08609To get here, however, you would need to ascend a long flight of stone stairs – 165, to be precise – which make up what is called the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), or literally translated “Stone Steps of Prayer”.

Thankfully, there’s a right fork midway up the stairs that leads straight to the island’s main Shinto shrine, Tsukubusuma Shrine (都久夫須麻神社). Built in AD420, the shrine’s main hall (本殿) is a designated National Treasure. DSC08607DSC08608Directly opposite (or facing) the shrine is a wooden pavilion that houses the Ryujin’s miniature altar, and the lookout onto the Ryujin Haisho, littered with thousands of clay dish fragments.

The myth goes that if you are able to toss two dishes (one with your name written on it while the other bears your wish) through the torii gate, Ryujin will grant you your wish.

I didn’t buy or toss any clay dish, however but it was just as enjoyable watching others try their luck.

A wooden corridor, called the Funa-roka (舟廊下) because it was supposedly constructed from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s boat, leads to the Kannon Hall and Karamon Gate (#30 spot on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage 西国観音参詣), now undergoing major restoration.dsc08634_blogEmerging from the hall, you will be greeted by the imposingly massive Hogon-ji (宝厳寺), whose construction dates back to AD724 upon an imperial edict during the reign of Shomu (聖武天皇) after supposedly having received a divine message from the Sun Goddess.

The temple is thus dedicated to the Benzaiten (弁才天), God of wealth, music and eloquence, who according to the divine message, descended on the island. It’s only one of three temples in Japan dedicated to the Benzaiten, the other two being Itsukushima (厳島神社) in Miyajima (宮島) and Enoshima (江ノ島)  in Kamakura (鎌倉).dsc08630_blogIf you haven’t tossed your wish at the Ryujin Haisho earlier, why not jot it down on a piece of paper and then encapsulate it in one of these adorable red darumas (達摩). It’s tempting to bring one of these home but unfortunately, you would have to leave it at the altar for your wish to come true!!

And just to make sure no spirit follows you on your way back to the ferry jetty, do not look back over your shoulders as you descend the stone steps of the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), past this massive eroded torii gate.    LSDSC08642

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Spiritual Sojourns (Part 1) – Lake Biwa, Shiga

DSC03788Fall is almost over in Hokkaido, although you wouldn’t know that here in sunny Singapore. (To be honest, me neither. It’s almost two months since I moved back for good from Japan).DSC03819Fall is the best season to visit Hokkaido or anywhere in Japan in my opinion, because the islands (save for Okinawa) will be slowly clad in a mesmerising patchwork of crimson, mandarin and golden hues from north to south, beginning with Hokkaido. With Halloween round the corner, fall is also the best season for ghost stories (although some believe summer to be the best).

Whatever your seasonal/spiritual inclinations, this post is a discussion of neither.Rather, it’s the second series of a feature titled “Spirited Away” that I first penned this April. Just a quick recap, that feature seeks to introduce some of the so-called “power spots” in Japan, places where one can experience a spiritual energy. However, in place of “power spots”, I have proposed the term “spiritual spots” because although these sites do exude a particular energy, said energy may not be the positive or zen-like calmness expounded in other sources.

I would also like to reiterate the disclaimer that experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are purely personal, so if you are an atheist, just read it with a spoonful of salt.Continuing from my summer trip around the Greater Kyoto area in Japan, I spent the last one and a half weeks circumnavigating Lake Biwa or Biwa-ko (琵琶湖), as it is locally known. Now, if you’ve never been to Lake Biwa or Shiga Prefecture, please seriously consider it for your next itinerary in Japan.Covering an area of 670.3 square kilometres – that’s almost the same size as the whole island nation of Singapore – Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It’s also possibly one of the most beautiful places in Japan to enjoy the sunset. Its name came from the lake’s resemblance to a traditional Japanese/Chinese stringed instrument of the same name.Lake Biwa also happens to be one of the top spiritual spots in Japan, from my experience.Not surprisingly, there are many folklore associated with the lake as well.

One such story tells of fireballs being spotted at the lake, and that used to destroy fishermen’s boats in a bygone era. Another tells of a girl who drowned while carrying out her vow to sail across the lake on the 25th of February (apparently, that’s when the lake is at its most choppy self) in a bathtub to meet his lover – a priest!!DSC08685_blog.jpgOne of my main reasons for visiting Lake Biwa is the Shirahige Jinja, or Shirahige Shrine (白鬚神社), and its enchanting floating torii gate. In Japanese shinto, torii gates mark the entrance to the sacred, or holy grounds.

Most visitors to Japan are familiar with the floating vermilion torii at Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) in Miyajima, off Hiroshima. However, the Shirahige floating torii is probably the least known of the three, the second one being Hakone Shrine’s touristy showpiece in Lake Ashinoko, Hakone. Shirahige’s relative obscurity also means that unlike Kyoto’s Fushimi-inari (伏見稲荷大社) or Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine, there’s no well-trodden path that leads to it.dsc08715_blogIn fact, if you do not have your own set of wheels, the trek to this lakeside temple might even be a potentially life endangering affair.While making my way there on foot from Omi-Takashima Station (近江高島駅), I had to tread carefully along the side of an expressway, staying as close as I could to the fenders. And even so, I had to admit, I was intimidated by the speeding cars and my heart skipped several beats when container trucks thundered past me.Notice that the entrance to the temple opens straight onto the expressway (please see photo above). The safety cones have been strategically placed there so that visitors do not walk straight into oncoming traffic. Compared to the floating torii gate, the main shrine actually felt like an abandoned relic.

On the day I visited, there was no beautiful sunset, unfortunately. In fact, ominous black clouds blanketed the evening sky, and I sensed a storm brewing over the lake. Thankfully, the weather held up well enough, and only a drizzle accompanied me while I was there.

Even amid the darkness, I couldn’t help but sat there gazing at this for a good one hour.   LSdsc08693_blog

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 5) – N(onsen)se in Kinosaki

DSC06717_editIt’s 35 degrees just after three as the train slowly chugged into Toyooka, pronounced Toh-yo-oh-ka (豊岡). If I’m being honest, I didn’t have much of a choice in Toyooka as my base camp for the next three nights. Ideally, I would have snagged a room in one of those atmospheric ryokans lining the banks of the scenic Kinosaki River.

The original plan was to do some onsen hoppin’ in Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) and use it as a base to explore the surrounding locales. However, most ryokans were already fully booked half a year in advance by the time I was looking for accommodations back in March this year. Hence, I had to re-route my plan to Toyooka (豊岡), only two train stops away.DSC06748The idea actually sounds absurd if you think about it. In the simmering Japanese summer heat, who in their right minds would wanna soak in an onsen?

Apparently, plenty.

There are many crazy Japanese out there, and even crazier foreigners.

DSC06778The day involved a lot of moving around, so by the time I checked into my basic but adequate business hotel in Toyooka, I took a quick nap for half an hour after downing a can of Asahi (a much appreciated welcome drink from the hotel’s reception). With not much daylight left, I was just glad to check myself in to Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), the oldest onsen in this vicinity, and soak my fatigue away. It didn’t make sense to go onsen hopping given the approaching twilight.

Maybe tomorrow, I reasoned…

After a good night’s soak at Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), I checked into an izakaya and treated myself to some sushi and local sake.    LSDSC06798DSC06793

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Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 4) – Ine Beauty

DSC07232As the ferry left the somewhat makeshift dock, the birds started circling round us. And I realised that’s why packets of prawn crackers are being sold for 100 yen per packet at the dock. People were holding prawn crackers aloft for the birds to swoop in for the ‘kill’.

Obviously, some got scared before the claws could reach out and ended up nervously throwing the crackers into the water, inevitably causing feathers to ruffle (literally) in the aftermath of their actions. These birds must have been conditioned to depend on these crackers for their daily feed.

I wondered if we are slowly killing them.

DSC07243The birds swirled around us all the way as we took in the sights of the funaya (舟屋). Only about 200 of these traditional “boat houses” remain in the sleepy fishing village of Ine (伊根), about 5 km north of Amanohashidate (天橋立) in the northern coast of Kyoto.

A little note on Amanohashidate (天橋立) before we return to the funaya or boathouses.DSC07438Amanohashidate (天橋立) is a narrow sandbar at the mouth of Miyazu Bay (宮津湾) in the northern coast of Kyoto Prefecture. Its name means “the bridge that connects the Heavens”.

With more than 7,000 pine trees dotting either side of the sandbar, it ranks as one of Japan’s top three most scenic views. This 3.3 km strip of sand makes for an ideal leisurely stroll at sundown or the perfect place for a summer camp anywhere along the whole stretch of sand.DSC07167I actually made Amanohashidate my base camp for the 3D2N that I was there, in order to explore the surrounding coastal region.

The fishing village of Ine can be explored as a day trip from Amanohashidate. Hourly buses ply the route from Amanohashidate to Ine, and takes you there in about an hour for 400 yen (one way).

DSC07361Most of the boathouses in Ine are “live-in” residences, although some have been converted to guesthouses and restaurants to serve the increasing wave of tourism to this area.

I saw two boys do back-flips as they plunged into the crystalline waters from their backyards. One of them started waving at us when he spotted our boat cruise by.

I wondered how it feels like to have the Sea of Japan as your personal swimming pool. Wouldn’t it be amazing to greet every sunrise and sunset like this, sipping coffee or beer in your own backyard?

DSC07382Luckily for me, I chanced upon one with an amazing view, a converted café, selling coffee at Starbucks prices. I sat there with my iced Americano, watching the birds circling the pint-sized sightseeing boats, watching the skies darken and the heavens pour. I realised that, just like the birds, we are slowly killing this village with our presence.

Time stood still that day.     LS

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Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 3) – Tottori Off-Track

Leaving Himeji, my next destination was Tottori (鳥取). Frankly, there’s nothing much to see or do in Tottori, a friend once told me. You only go to Tottori to see the sand dunes, and that’s about it.

However, the name “Tottori” kept appearing on the news two winters ago, when it registered the heaviest snowfall in all of Japan that year in more than 50 years – so much so that the accumulated snow threatened to swallow houses and vehicles. My irrational mind was made up that day – I had to visit Tottori one day!

Spanning about 16 km along the Sea of Japan, the Tottori Sand Dunes (鳥取砂丘, Tottori Sakyu) are the result of thousands of years of sand deposits from the nearby Sendaigawa River (千代川). Today, they are the main tourist attraction in Tottori City.DSC06548_editIf I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed the trip to the Sand Museum (砂の美術館) more than the dunes, the sweltering summer heat being one of the main reasons! The Sand Museum is situated one bus stop away from the main entrance to the dunes. I was a little skeptical of the Museum at first, which looked really tiny from the bus as I passed it on the way to the dunes.

However, stepping inside, I was blown away!

Think really massive sand sculptures – so huge that I struggled to get every single sculpture into my camera frame. Each year, the Museum features a different theme and this year happens to carry a Scandinavian flavour – from Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid sculpture (representing Denmark) to the Vikings (Norway) and Alfred Nobel (Sweden).

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The next day, I decided to do a day trip out of Tottori (since I practically ticked all the boxes of “things to see” in Tottori with that trip to the dunes). I was intrigued by a photo of this temple that looked as if it was carved into the side of a cliff.

I only came to know about the Mitokusan Sanbutsu-ji (三徳山 三佛寺) because I got bored on the train to Tottori and decided to browse the travel pamphlet in my seat pocket. To get to the temple, I had to take a train out from Tottori to Kurayoshi Station (倉吉駅), from where a 35-min bus ride would take me to the entrance of the temple grounds.DSC06620Never did I expect that I was in for some serious hiking that involved climbing over tree roots and clinging on to metal chains for dear life. However, the sight of the temple itself was enough to take your breath away, and convince you that it was well worth the hike (or hype).  How was this temple even built in the first place? Or was it really an act of the gods, as the legends would have you believe.

I rounded off the day trip by exploring Shirakabe (白壁), so named because of the characteristic whitewashed walls of the storehouses in that district, and said to date back to the Edo and Meiji periods. It’s one of those nostalgic old towns that get tagged / burdened with the “Little Kyoto” moniker. It’s possible to walk to Shirakabe from Kurayoshi Station (倉吉駅). However, the earlier hike up to Mitokusan had taken the stuffing out of me, so I settled for a bus ride that whisked me there in less than 10 minutes.DSC06688Unfortunately, Shirakabe turned out to be pretty disappointing for me at least, as the buildings were not only poorly preserved, but also, the streets were deserted and the shops closed. Oh well, at least I bought myself a bottle of local sake as a present.     LSDSC06692

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 2) – The Last Samurai

DSC06416Himeji was an excellent way to kick-start my final sojourn around Japan before I bid farewell and head home. My next stop in Hyogo was Mount Shosha or Shoshazan (書写山). Interestingly, this mountain did not feature in Lonely Planet’s coverage of sights to see in Hyogo Prefecture.

The mountain is more prominently known as the site of the temple where a portion of the movie “The Last Samurai”, featuring Tom Cruise, was shot on location. Engyoji (円教寺) is a sprawling temple complex located on top of Mount Shosha (書写山), and supposedly dates back more than a thousand years.

DSC06412A hike up Mt. Shosha takes only about an hour. Alternatively, as with every temple, park or castle built on top of a hill or mountain, the Japanese have constructed a ropeway (or cable car) to make it easy on your legs, and even easier on their pockets.

The hike up wasn’t difficult, but in the sweltering Japanese summer heat (it was 35 degrees when I made my ascent), I was drenched in perspiration by the time I reached the 8th station.DSC06407So imagine my reaction when I was told at the shabbily built admission booth that I had to walk a further 20 minutes before I reached the main temple entrance, Nio-mon (仁王門).

Of course, you could opt for the easier option – pay another 500 yen (on top of your admission ticket) and have a mini-bus whisk you up to the foot of Maniden (摩尼殿). No pun intended!DSC06418Although Engyoji features about a dozen temples spread over the mountain top, the main ones to devote a little more time are Maniden (摩尼殿), Dai-ko-do (大講堂), Jiki-do (食堂), Kaizan-do (開山堂) and Goho-do (護法堂).

DSC06419Some of the smaller temples are built slightly off the well-trodden paths and require a foray into the woods to get there. One, in particular (Hakusan Gongen 白山権現), struck me as pretty creepy – even during the day.    LSDSC06432

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Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 1) – Majestic Himeji

I’ve finally said goodbye to Tomakomai and JET. Bizarrely, I feel somewhat relieved. Maybe, I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. However, before I leave Japan for good, I have one last hurrah. I call it my “Farewell Japan Summer Trip”.

At the time of writing, I’m about two-thirds into my trip, and approaching the final few stops in my itinerary. However, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, because I have so many photos I want to share from this trip. I’m not sure how many parts this travel series would work out to, so please bear with me.

Therefore, the main feature of this travel series would come in the form of short snippets and random musings, rather than a thoughtful (and lengthy) prose. In other words, less text and more images!! So enjoy!!

DSC06324Mounting Himeji

In my bucket-list of things to accomplish in Japan, one of them is to visit at least one place in each of the 47 prefectures in Japan, from north to south. My current record stands at 28, but by the end of this last trip, I hope to hit 30.

My first stop takes me to Himeji, a city I’ve always wanted to visit because of my fascination (read ‘obsession’) with castles!!

Known as the White Heron Castle or Shirasagi-jo (白鷺城) due to its elegant, white appearance, Himeji Castle (姫路城, Himeji-jō) is one of Japan’s most elegant and beautiful castles. It is also one of the first sites in Japan to be listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

However, I have one regret.

I shouldn’t have chosen summer of all seasons to visit Himeji. In general, August is the month you should do well to avoid Japan (maybe except Hokkaido, because the mercury seldom crosses the 30-degree mark).

This year, however, even Hokkaido was not spared from a massive heat wave that seared the rest of Japan.

Daily temperatures hover in the early 30s. And in Himeji, I was braving 35 degrees and sweating like a pig as I trudged up the uncountable steps in Himeji Castle.

For your info, the castle is six stories high and perched on top of a small fort. Imagine the number of stone steps you would have to climb just to scale this white bird!!

And those were not the only steps I climbed that day. The set of photos featuring Himeji Castle at sundown were taken from a knoll called Otokoyama (男山), a short walk from the park behind Himeji Castle.

After ascending a flight of about 200 stone steps, I found a spot that offered an excellent vista, waited for the sun’s dipping rays to fall on the castle and fed myself to the mosquitoes. Thankfully, the pictures were well worth the sacrifice.     LS

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