Castles, Canteens and Polar Bears

We pulled into Himeji station in the glorious sunshine and as we exited the train we were greeted with a magnificent view of Himeji Castle. Himeji itself is a large city stretching from the inland sea all the way up to the mountains. The centre of the city is tiny, consisting of only a couple of shopping arcades and the castle complex, our hostel was squashed right into the middle of one of the arcades. We arrived way to early to check into the hostel so just threw our bags inside and headed for the castle.
Himeji Castle imposes itself over the skyline of the city, a beacon of white perched majestically a top a rocky outcrop. To get into the castle complex we had to cross the huge carp filled moat and pass through a pair of enormous wooden gates. Once inside the castle grounds we were confronted with one of the most spectacular views in the world, all around us were immaculate lawns and gardens interwoven with countless paths that all lead up to White Heron Keep.
The blazing sun only served to make the entire experience more impressive, from the outside the white walls of the castle blazed proudly against the blue sky. Our first stop was the west bailey of the castle, an area once filled with the homes of Himeji’s nobles but that now offers an incredible glimpse into Japan’s golden age.

There are few views as spectacular as Whit Heron Keep on a perfectly clear day

After wandering around the west bailey we began our final climb (or so we thought) to the keep itself. The path we took was ridiculous, steep slope after steep slope separated by doorways barely big enough for Frodo. When we finally reached the entrance to White Heron Keep we were just excited to have a rest…alas we were wrong as per usual. We quickly realised that to get to the top of the Keep we would have to climb 8 flights of ‘stairs’.
Now stairs is a strong word for these gravity-defying death traps the ancient Japanese built. The ladders, which is a much more apt name, were basically vertical with a 3 foot gap between each step and each one was half as wide…as I said, a death trap. Now I’m tall and these were a real struggle, how the crowds of 4 foot elderly women did it I don’t know, but as we panted and gasped our way to the top these women whizzed around like Wonder Woman.

The size of the castle complex means that are countless from which to see The Keep

Two seconds at the top of the Keep and all the pain and tears were forgotten. The first thing that hit us was the beautiful view, 360′ across the entirety of Himeji and the surrounding countryside. The second, and most astounding thing to hit us was the realisation that this entire complex was built almost entirely out of wood and almost entirely without the use of machinery (barring the flimsy wooden cranes available at the time). It took us a few minutes to really take in the enormity and the beauty of Himeji Castle, and then to realise that the purpose of this wonder had been altogether darker.
The climb back to the bottom of the Keep was filled with slips, near death experiences and yet more embarrassment in front of the incredibly nimble old ladies. Our next stop was the zoo…yep they have a zoo in the castle now too! Being the childish people that we are, we were beyond excited to see all the animals…sadly this was short lived.
It was less than Β£2 to get into the zoo, so we were only expecting a couple of chickens and maybe a zebra but boy were we wrong. As soon as we walked through the gate we were face to face with a group of kangaroos and a flock of flamingos. Sadly neither of these gave us much to smile about. The kangaroos were stuck in an enclosure with barely enough room for one let alone four, and the flamingos were packed into a tiny enclosure with no room for them to walk so forget about flying.
However it was the next stop that broke our hearts and made us stop in our tracks. Pacing around an enclosure of about 5x5m were two huge Polar Bears. At this point many would leave the zoo but we felt the need to see how the other animals were being treated. Neither myself or Yianna know who to contact or what to do about this but we welcome any advice.
The whole zoo was a disgrace to animal conservation, especially in a country where nature is revered and respected as much as it is here in Japan. There wasn’t a single animal that looked the slightest bit okay, brown bears and lions sat in tiny cages without anything to do and a fully grown hippo sat motionless in a pool slightly bigger than a bathtub. The whole experience soiled our experience of Himeji, however it also made us realise that something had to be done. So please if you are reading this and know of anything that can be done to help the animals at Himeji Zoo please leave a comment.
All we wanted to do after the zoo was go to bed and move on from Himeji but it was still too early to check into the hostel. Luckily the castle is also home to a collection of quiet gardens that are open to all visitors. It was hard to take in the beauty of the gardens knowing that literally next door was the awful zoo. How could somewhere so beautiful and natural be so close to something so cruel.

Once again Himeji highlighted the care and skill of Japanese horticulture

It was in this garden that we took part in our first tea ceremony, a complicated and beautiful experience. Luckily for us the ceremony is quiet and thoughtful, and it allowed us both time to think and to temporarily forget about the zoo. The ceremony itself required us to respond in Japanese to the lady giving us the tea and sweet as well use designated hands at designated times to pick up the cup from a clearly defined place…as I said complicated but beautiful.

Everywhere you look inside the gardens of Himeji there is beauty, even the waterways are filled with every colour of carp imaginable

After meandering through the remainder of the gardens we headed back down the street to our hostel. We decided to grab dinner in a little place just down the road from our hostel, a place that turned out to be very strange.
From the outside it looked like any other restaurant but as soon as we stepped through the door we were transported into what looked like a school canteen. As we glanced wearily at one another and picked up our plastic trays the first (for lack of a better word) ‘dinner lady’ asked us what we wanted then handed us tongs to pick up our sides. The food turned out to be delicious but the empty restaurant, strange ordering style and memories of school dinners did keep us on edge.
Full from dinner, still slightly hungover from Osaka and emotionally drained from the zoo we headed to the hostel and settled down for an early night.
Himeji is a wonderful place, the castle and gardens are beautifully beyond comparison and the experience is incredible. It is a shame that the zoo ruined our day the way that it did but equally it opened our eyes to something I have certainly been guilty of ignoring. I don’t want to put anyone off from going to Himeji, it is well worth is it, but I also don’t believe in sugar coating something for the sake of things.
If you get the chance then please do go to Himeji…maybe just skip the zoo until something changes.
See you soon,


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