My first ‘sightseeing’ trip took in the cities of Himeji and Kobe. I was meant to meet Carrie, Megan and Phil at 10am but I overslept loads! So I ended up going on my own, as none of us have mobiles and my landline was broken! I’ll try not to bore too much with my musings on what I saw, or my awe and wonder at the effeciency of the Japanese train system.

Rolling hills and fielded flatlands- a view from my local train going into Okayama City

The countryside around where I live is really beautiful- I can certainly see the draw of living in a village now! Having said that, being in a town and close to a city makes it really easy to explore the rest of Japan- especially as Okayama is a well-positioned base for exploring Hiroshima, Kyushu, Shikoku and the Kansai region. Japanese countryside seems to consist of very flat land– mostly converted into paddy fields- and steep hills, around which are dotted Japanese houses. The houses are a strange mix of modern and traditional- but on the whole a lot more attractive than the often ugly Chinese villages, towns and cities I saw last summer. Indeed Japanese countryside reminds me of Yangshuo– albeit on a less stunning scale. The land also reminded me of the Inland Sea– with swaying tall grasses and paddy fields replacing the calm waves from which the ‘island’ hills emerge.

Japanese Trains

…are amazing! Ok I’ll try not to go on for too long as I’ve already been mocked greatly by Carrie for my excitement over the Japanese rail system. Having said that, its amazing!! They run exactly on time, and a 1 minute changover at Aioi station on the way to Himeji was easily enough time to swap trains, as both were precisely on time. A train being 5 minutes late in the UK is greeted with a ‘well that’s not that bad really is it’, or maybe a resigned sigh. In Japan it’d be a national scandal! And this is not even mentioning the jewel in the crown of the Japanese rail network, the Shinkansen ‘Bullet Train’ , which goes at 300kph and gets you to Kyoto in an hour (normally 4 hours) or Hiroshima in half an hour (normally 3 hours)! So far we’ve got local trains as theyre a lot cheaper, but a 45 min trip to Kobe on Shinkansen means me and my mate Phil will be commuting to watch some of the closing games of the J League Season in the next few weeks (we were torn between supporting Kobe Vissel, who have Newcastle United-esque colours, or FC Hiroshima, who have purple shirts. The girls wanted us to go for the purple, but Kobe are fighting for promotion from J League-2 to the top division, much like the Blues!)

Himeji-Jó, ‘Japan’s Greatest Castle’

Ok so I guess the first thing to say is that the Japanese don’t do castles like we do in the UK. Himeji-Jo is a beautiful building, but it doesn’t match the scale or splendour of many of the castles in the UK and Europe. Having said this, it was still a great place to visit, although it was a reeeeally hot day! The building style is unique, and Himeji-Jo was much like Okayama-Jo, but on a bigger scale. Unlike Okayama-Jo, it’s the only completely intact castle from its time- it was built in 1580 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Modernity and Tradition- A View of Modern Day Himeji from Himeji-Jó

Contrasting modernity and tradition is a favourite pasttime of 90% of authors of books on Japanese travel and culture. Yet it is also impossible to do to some extent- how could it be in a country that contains both Shinto temples and neon tack, ancient cultural sites (Kyoto alone has more world heritage sites than sense) and Shinkansen bullet trains. There is a clear dualism that is unique to Japanese culture and historical development, in particular the rapid yet lopsided economic modernisation that accompanied the late Meiji period. The decades either side of the turn of the century are fascinating times in Japanese history, and a great novel set in the period is Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, one of Japan’s literary greats. Ok I’ll stop there, before I launch into a rehashing of my dissertation! Suffice to say the dichotomy is summed up in two icons of Japan- the kimono-clad Geisha and the work-obsessed, suit-clad Salaryman. This photo is a poor attempt at showing the modern and the traditional- I’m sure better examples can be found!


Kobe

From Himeji I caught an ever-efficient JR train to Kobe, passing the Akashi Kaikyó Suspension Bridge on the way, the longest suspension bridge in the world. In 1995 Kobe was the scene of Japan’s largest earthquake disaster since the famous Kanto Earthquake that struck Tokyo in 1923, resulting in the death of over 6,000 people. Yet in the decade since it has not only recovered but thrived, and is now an increadibly pleasant, modern city to stroll around- plus its got my new adopted footie team! I took the Cable Car up into the hills behind Kobe, and had a couple of well deserved beers at the top. After this there was just time to get stuck into some Kobe beef, which was really, really good, and cooked perfectly. Plus it was cheap at Y1,500!

After a fun day of exploring the coast east of Okayama-ken, I got back to Kojima just in time to listen to the Blues beat Crystal Palace 2-1 after a last minute winner- a great way to end the day!

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