After staying in Osaka for a few days the original plan for our Japan trip was always to go travelling. Our Japan Rail Passes were burning in our pockets, ready to take us from city to city in Japan, unlimited train travel for seven days in Japan, no reservations necessary. Thus we had only a slight idea about the next days. We did though have a hotel in Hiroshima for New Year’s Eve, so on the 31st of December, we checked out of our capsule hotel and donned backpacks, ready for a day of travel.
I say travel, even though trains in Japan are quite fast and frequent. The Shinkansen travels at up to 300 km/h between cities, and Express trains connect most other cities with the Shinkansen network. But first, we had a final bit of sightseeing to do in Osaka: the castle.
Osaka-jo (literally, Osaka Castle) is to the east of modern-day central Osaka, but still easily accessible by suburban railway. We took the train from Namba station, and got off at the eastern edge of the park surrounding the castle. The castle itself is large, protected by moats and ramparts, and looks very pretty. Never mind the fact that it was destroyed during the 1800s, and only rebuilt in the 1960ies. Our primary reason for coming here was that Himeji-jo, next stop on the itinerary, is currently covered by scaffolding until 2016, and thus this was a good opportunity to see the outside of a Japanese castle.
So after having taken in Osaka-jo, we made our way to Shin-Osaka station (literally New Osaka station) to board a Shinkansen to Himeji. These trains are sleek, fast, and comfortable, to the extent that the novelty wears off very quickly, and you just enjoy the ride, reading a book, forgetting how fast you are travelling.
Getting off in Himeji, it was slightly snowing. That was an unexpected surprise, when going south, we had expected it to get warmer. But there was no snow on the ground, the earth was still too warm for that. Himeji, like Nara, has an efficient tourist information counter at the station, where we picked up a map. We put our luggage in a locker at the station, and walked up the main street to the castle. As earlier mentioned, the castle is currently undergoing restoration/conservation. But only the main donjon (the central keep) is covered by scaffolding, so there was still plenty to see inside the moats. We also went inside the fabric scaffolding to see the restoration process up close. They are removing and checking all the roof tiles, before putting them back, replacing broken ones with new ones to preserve the watertightness of the roof. They are also redoing the plastering on the walls. All of this using traditional techniques, as explained very well by their posters.
After the castle, we picked up some bento boxes for the train journey, and continued our journey. Arriving in Hiroshima, we took the tram from the station to our hotel (Sunroute Hiroshima), checked in, and realised our room overlooked the Peace Memorial Park. This was surprising. The room was in reality very spacious and nice, a good deal, since I got it through an online sale at around 40% of the list price. We lounged about a bit, and then decided to go exploring, to discover what was happening in town for New Year’s. The streets were almost empty, but nonetheless, we walked up to near the castle, where we had heard there was a temple, which is an interesting place to be for the stroke of midninght. At this hour, around nine pm, the only people there were setting up food tents, and preparing ingredients for later. But it seemed like there were lots of food tents, so we decided to return later. Walking back to the hotel, we came across a very impressive “Winter Lights” collection on Peace Avenue, a photo is attached of one out of the perhaps 15 scenes they had built.
At around 11, we left our hotel again, and walked back up to the temple. Getting there, many more people had now arrived, and we joined the queue for the temple itself, which would open at the stroke of midnight. We developed a system where one person would keep our position in line, and the other would go off tasting food from the stalls, which kept us active in the cold. It was a clear night, with no clouds, meaning the temperature had dropped quite a bit.
There was no central countdown, but we were counting down, and so were a few other groups around us. Intriguingly, to within a second, we all agreed on when the actual stroke of midnight happened. Just shows how pervasive automatic clock syncrhonization has become. They now started letting people into the temple up ahead, but it wasn’t until around half past we were let in. We followed the flow, in the best style of amateur anthropologists, and observed that at this temple, custom was to go to the railings, throw a monetary donation across into the room where some priests were handling some scrolls, bow two times, clap two times, and then move to the side. Here you could collect your fortune, buy a large good luck charm (which a lot of people were doing) and a small sip of sake (Japanese rice wine) was also available for free. Quite a different way of celebrating the new year. We returned to our hotel after this, happy to get some sleep after the cold night time excursion.
Next update (the first to cover 2013), we stay in Hiroshima to visit the peace memorial museum, and then continue our travels south.