Visit: 19th February 2016
This February Natalie and I went to Japan for a week-long trip to a part of the world neither of had really explored before. The land of the rising sun is 9 hours ahead of Britain in the winter, so we spent the whole trip adjusting to the jet-lag and as I write this, having returned home, I am jet-lagged again in the other direction. It was a wonderful trip, full of fascinating cultural differences. The four World Heritage Sites we visited were all located in the southern half of the country, but we began our visit with two days of general sightseeing in Tokyo, which I’ll tell you about before we go on. Skip to beneath the photo of the sea lions if you only want to read about the WHS of Himeji-jo.
We flew out on Turkish Airlines, stopping to change planes in Istanbul on the way to Tokyo Narita. Arriving late on a Sunday evening we activated our Japan Rail passes at the airport. The Japan Rail pass allows unlimited travel on JR trains. This covers most lines you might want to take, but there are many exceptions, making it a slightly Byzantine task to plan a rail journey. To compensate for that, the trains run with world-beating timeliness – in Japan a delay of even one minute is something the staff consider to be very shameful. We boarded a Narita Express train to the simply named Tokyo station – one of the world’s busiest. At this time of night, however, it was quiet, so we stopped off for a celebratory arrival meal before walking to our hotel in the Tsukiji district.
Tsukiji is famous in Japan as the location of the world’s largest fish market. An early-morning visit to the market is a popular tourist activity, but to see the famous tuna auctions you have to get there early. The tours begin at 5am, but to be sure of getting one of the 120 places you need to arrive as early as 3am! On our second morning there we were recipients of some inexplicable luck when we showed up at 5.15am to find tourists being told with evident relish by a Takeshi’s Castle-type guard that there were no places left that day. As we meekly turned to go back to our room and get some more sleep he motioned to me to come over and pulled out two visitor tabbards he had stashed under his coat, conspiratorially murmuring not to let others see them and to go through the door behind him. As we walked into the waiting room with 58 others awaiting the 5.40am tour I could see him gleefully informing new arrivals that they had arrived too late. I still have no idea why we were picked, but that is the story of how we got into the tuna market auction.
The tour itself is simply an opportunity to watch the auctions take place of the morning’s haul of tuna. Hundreds of the freshly caught tuna lay on the floor as buyers working on behalf of the world’s finest sushi joints walked between them, sampling the flesh and deciding the prices worth paying and which particular fish they were interested in taking back to the masters in the kitchens of Tokyo and beyond. Tsukiji Market has been getting a lot of press lately because in November it is due to be relocated (against most traders’ wishes) to a new, modern premises in a different part of the city. The current site clearly shows its age, and it was certainly not designed with tourists in mind. It is a challenge to avoid being knocked over by the pinball-style whizzing of electric carts here there and everywhere, presenting a health and safety hazard that would not be allowed to coexist with sightseers in the UK, I’m sure of that.
Around the market an array of stalls and restaurants are open from the crack of dawn. Their proximity to the market enables them to offer unbeatably fresh fish, making a trip to the market an opportunity to sample the joys of fresh sushi at rock-bottom prices. On both of our mornings in Tokyo we did just this. Below is a typical plate (from left to right: fatty tuna, medium-fatty tuna, lean tuna, seared fatty tuna, fatty tuna with green onions).
Often these sushi bars only have room for a dozen or so diners. It is exciting to see the chefs at work on the other side of the counter preparing your order.
Later on our first day in Tokyo we went for some more general sightseeing. From our home station of Tsukiji we took the Hibiya line west across town, changing onto the Yamanote circular line to go one stop north to Shibuya. This is the site of the famous ‘busy junction’ that might be what you think of when asked to think of Japan. The photo below was taken at 11.25 on a Monday morning – hardly rush hour admittedly, but we had expected more people than this!
From Shibuya we walked north to Harajuku, a district known for its teenagers and faddish fashion. We then caught another Yamanote line train north a stop to Shinjuku – a district of skyscrapers, offices, shopping malls and bars. We had been advised that a good place to get a view of the city was from the 202 metre-high observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t good enough to see Mount Fuji, but it did allow enough visibility to see most of the city’s urban centre.
Tokyo is by most measures the world’s largest city (it is often referred to as more of a group of cities that have merged together), with some 38 million people overall. We came down from the tower and sought out a the Taiwanese restaurant called Din Tai Fung – a chain of restaurants famous for its dumplings that only exists in Pacific Rim countries (and Dubai). I love the place, and I am sure it would do well in London – so I hope it comes to set up shop soon. The hot and sour soup is a personal favourite. Yes that is a mountain of pepper on top.
The food in Tokyo – and Japan as a whole – is excellent, and it is far more than just sushi. With the exception of Din Tae Fung we kept it Japanese the whole trip, mostly eating ramen and soba (noodle dishes with thick and thin broths, respectively, and slices of meat or tempura-battered seafood/veg atop). We couldn’t get into any of the hyper-trendy places I had read about, so satisfied ourselves with more ordinary but still excellent places. Ippudo is a ramen chain that we really liked – eating there in both Tokyo and Osaka. In writing this blog post I’ve just discovered that the chain has branches in London – win! The Japanese have a phrase for lovers of ramen – they call them Ramen Freaks. I might just qualify for that soubriquet myself soon.
Above is the Shiromaru Classic, with pork belly in classic Hakata-style ramen. This is from our second night in Tokyo, in the Ginza district. Below is a ramen with minced pork and eight types of spices, which I had in Osaka. This one doesn’t seem to be on the London menu – may they think we Englanders can’t handle our spice!
I wouldn’t say the ramen was noticeably better than what you can get in London’s Shoryu (which is a really good place), but it was a lot cheaper – meaning you can afford to eat it more often in Japan.
On day 2 in Tokyo (and our last there before moving on to Osaka that evening) we rode the Asakusa line north from Higashi-ginza, near our hotel, to Asakusa. This is a more historical part of Tokyo, and we had a look around the famous Sensō-ji temple.
On noticing banners declaring Tokyo possessed a building that was part of a serial WHS up for nomination I called in at tourist information to ask what it was about. The lady there told us that in nearby Ueno park there was a Le Corbusier Brutalist building housing a museum of Western art. The museum was unfortunately closed, but I thought it would be prudent to go over there and have a look at the museum in case the nomination ends up being inscribed at the UNESCO convention later this year. Like most people I’m no great fan of 1960s architecture, but I’ll let you make up your own mind.
To get to Ueno park we had ridden the Ginza line three stops west from Asakusa to Ueno. Fortunately there was another site of more interest, particularly to Natalie: Tokyo Zoo! I too very much enjoyed our visit there, and all the animals seemed far keener to put on a show than do the sulky residents of London Zoo. I hope that was just because of the fine weather that day, rather than any sort of unnatural behaviour induced by the keepers. The collection was impressive, for it included a panda and a polar bear, among many others.
After the zoo we took the Hibiya line from Ueno to Tsukiji to get our bags and catch the Hikari Shinkansen (or bullet train) from Tokyo to Osaka.
We visited Himeji-jo, known in English as Himeji Castle, on our third day in the west of Japan. The weather was very nice, making it a pleasant 20 minute stroll up from the station to the castle. Himeji was one of Japan’s first World Heritage Sites, inscribed on the list as “the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture”.
Himeji is nicknamed ‘the castle of the White Heron’. It dates back to the 14th century, though its most significant features – its innovative defensive measures – come from the 17th century early Shogun period. This period followed 150 years of conflict in Japan, in what is sometimes known as the Warring States period. It came to an end when power was unified in the hands of the first shogun, whose name was Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Tokugawa dynasty ruled for several hundred years, and it was they who introduced Japan’s Sakoku, or ‘Seclusion laws’, which cut the country off from the rest of the world (apart from very limited trade). The Sakoku – a reaction to the threat posed by imperialist European powers – ran from 1633 to 1853, and made it illegal for most people to leave or enter Japan. It is interesting to ponder the effect that this isolation had on the Japanese national identity, at a time when the rest of the world was exchanging ideas and trading as never before. I think it must account for some of how ‘different’ Japan is from other countries in a way that is difficult to describe.
We were fortunate in our timing because the castle has recently been through a period of renovation in which the whole main tower (or keep) was covered in scaffolding. Today it looks pristine, and fully deserving of its Heron moniker.
Himeji-jo has many ingenious defensive design elements. For example, the keep is built atop 15 metre sheer walls high up on the hill, and to reach it an attacking force would have to work its way through a maze of fortifications, breaching gate after gate as the route spirals up and around the hill. As the crow flies the distance from the first gate to the keep is just 130 metres, but attackers trying to reach it would have to travel a path at least three times longer. Attackers would be disorientated long before they reached the keep, arriving to face its steep walls exhausted and demoralised.
The walls are full of firing ports of different shapes. In the past there were as many as three thousand of these arrow slits. The route to the keep contains traps, such as holding areas containing hidden defensive warriors, who would wait for the enemy to break through one gate and advance to the next before attacking them from behind.
The structural core of the large tower is made up of two 25 metre-long wooden beams, which give the building great resilience against earthquakes. This is the same technique used in tall Buddhist pagodas. Above is a section of one of them.
The town of Himeji was heavily bombed in 1945, but the castle miraculously survived unscathed. In this regard it is similar to Cologne Cathedral in Germany. As you can see, of course, nowadays the rebuilt city sprawls far and wide around the castle.
After finishing our shoes-off visit to Himeji Castle there was time left in the day for some more sightseeing, so we picked up some bento boxes and Shinkansen reservations for the 30 minute journey from Himeji to Kyoto. I had a sushi roll filled with mushrooms and Tamagoyaki (sweet egg omelette) and Natalie had rice with beef. It is a great lunch for travellers (for whom the bento box was first developed), and I only wish we had decent bento available at British railway stations for the same purpose.