New Years In Japan
It's hard to explain what New Years is like in Japan. On the one hand, it is a holiday of great religious significance, much like Christmas in the West. However, it is also a shopping day, like Black Friday in the US. Not all stores have bought into the shopping side, choosing to stay closed. Most of the major stores, however, were open. And it is quite an experience, one that everyone who goes to Japan at that time of year needs to understand and participate in.
First things first. Himeji Castle is free on New Years Day. I went online and read that the first 500 people get a free towel, so I rushed my family out so that we could be there by 9:00 when the castle opens. There was a line of maybe a hundred people, but I felt confident I would get a towel.
Problem: the free towel day is January 2nd.
I didn't know that until later, so I was curiously giddy about the possibility of getting a free towel. I don't know why. It's just a towel, and I can probably buy one any time from the many souvenir shops nearby. Maybe it was the “free” part that had me so excited.
Himeji Castle is one of my favorite places in the country. Maybe it's because I lived nearby and spent many hours either in the castle or in the park surrounding. I've walked around the ancient structure countless times, and I can practically blindfolded draw an accurate map of how to get from the station to the castle, identifying the inner moat area, outer moat area, Senhime walk, and Otokoyama, a small hill just west of the fortress.
A couple of years ago, renovations on the castle started, and it is covered by an amazingly complex structure. Inside of that structure is an elevator that takes visitors up to the top of the castle's exterior. You cannot go inside the castle itself at the moment. That has kept many visitors away. And Himeji Castle is something to see, with many points from which you can take some spectacular photographs.
However, in my lifetime I will never again get the chance to see the renovation process on such an ancient structure. Certainly, the interior of the castle is beautiful and very stark. But there are other such buildings in Japan that visitors can go inside of. Where else can you see a centuries old building being restored? Looking at the roof of the castle was in itself worth the cost of admission (which I didn't pay, but I digress). It is truly the chance of a lifetime, and while, as a Trip Advisor travel expert on Himeji, I've encouraged foreign visitors to see the castle at all costs, my feeling is that the number of visitors has dropped off. I saw very few, compared to other times I've been to the castle.
The elevator up reveals the exterior of the castle, and it is sobering to think that I'm looking at parts of the building that, for hundreds of years, very few saw from such a perspective. The exhibits show the old roof tiles and explain the process of putting the new ones on. There are two floors with things to look at. Plastering was never something I thought of, but I now have a greater appreciation for what goes into creating the exterior walls of such ancient structures. There is also a timeline of the restorations over the centuries, as well as the many problems the castle has faced, including nearly being destroyed by both time and human progress. And the quarters inside the west bailey are open, and that is in many ways my favorite part of the castle.
One small criticism is that the military history of the castle is reduced to one room of samurai armor. It is a castle, built with a single purpose: to be the biggest, strongest stronghold in the region. It was never attacked, so formidable were its walls. I believe that is worth explaining, if not flat out bragging about.
From Himeji we went to Sosha, a shrine near the castle (not to be confused with Shosha, a mountain temple/shrine complex several miles northwest of the city). Many merchants had booths open, selling everything from airsoft rifles to sweets to baked corn. (I blinked a little at the airsoft rifles; it's not quite a part of the image I have of Japan.) We bought some small baked cakes called Castella, a favorite of ours. We wanted to see the actual shrine, but there was a long line to get in, and since none of us are Shinto followers, we didn't see the need. My wife's sister was in line with her family, so we said hello to them and then moved on.
On the way to the shopping street we passed an elderly lady and her son. We happened to hear her mention that she was ninety years old, so we stopped to talk for a minute, complimenting her on her energy to get out and walk to the shrine at such an advanced age. Then I said she didn't look a day over seventy, and as we walked away she was still laughing about that, saying that I had made her day. That made mine, too. If we can bring even a little joy into someone's life, then we should.
Here's the deal. Most stores will have bags of goods for sale at certain prices, usually in the 10,000 yen range. Usually you don't know what's inside. The store might give you a general idea; for example, they'll say that there's a jacket, sweater, scarf, and gloves, but you have no idea what colors or designs. If the product is something that is dependent on size, the bag will say L or M, and will tell you what gender the products are for.
I wanted to get the Mont Bell bag, but they didn't have my size.
On the way home we saw bags at most stores, including the eyeglass stores and coffee shops. We didn't think to go by Mister Donuts.
Later that day we went out again with my sister-in-law and her family. Other than some bread, we didn't buy anything.
Back home, we decided to go to the Sports Authority store a couple of miles up the road. It was crazy crowded, so I stayed in the car while my wife and son went inside. They came out, took my credit card, then went back in and came back a short time later with an Under Armor bag. My son loves Under Armor. It was a pretty good deal He did the math and decided that, for 10,000 yen, he got about 30,000 yen worth of goods (and that was using the sale price, not the full price). It was his money, and it was well spent.
That evening we again ate okonomiyaki, this time prepared at home by my father-in-law. He had a couple of bad illnesses in the past year, and I think it has made a change in him. He no longer smokes, and is much more active in cooking and cleaning. Life works out that way sometimes. We need reminders of why we live.