A short ride from Osaka, just past Kobe, is Himeji.
I arrived at around lunch time on a cool, cloudy day, the rain just starting to drizzle. Stepping out of the train station, I could see Himeji castle dead ahead, looming over the town.
I walked through the park, stopping only to eat a hot dog for lunch (along with a delicious vanilla cookie which the vendor gifted me) and listen to a live band. Even in the grey weather, that Japanese summer heat was strong.
Himeji castle is enormous, raised above an impressive moat. Doing a lap of the outer moat and tour of the grounds was certainly worthwhile, with gorgeous sights in abundance. It was quite pricey to enter, however, and didn’t seem to offer anything within which I couldn’t have experienced at Osaka or other castles.
Besides, I had another destination in mind.
Around a 6km walk from the castle is Mt. Shosha. I made my way along the increasingly wet and dreary roads, along the banks of a river and past warm, inviting restaurants and cafes, to the mountains which surrounded the town.
Mt Shosha is famed for a complex of temples which are nestled at the top. Ancient in origin and design, they have been used in a number of films. I recognised them from Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai which, despite a problematic obsession with the Top Gun star, featured undeniably gorgeous scenery and architecture. I would happily sit and watch a blu ray with two hours of The Last Samurai’s soundtrack, establishing shots and costumes.
I had the option here of taking a rope bridge to the summit, but that felt too much like cheating. Temples on the tops of mountains are supposed to be climbed to. I followed the signs, through quaint neighbourhoods and side streets, to the base of the hiking path.
What started out as a very manufactured and deliberate set of stone steps soon devolved into a rough path hewn from natural rock formations. I found myself clambering through occasionally quite difficult and slippery sections, enjoying the climb all the more for it.
It wasn’t very long at all before I was deep inside the cloud. Around me, I could no longer see or hear any signs of modern civilisation. Cars and buildings’ lights couldn’t penetrate the thick fog. I was on an empty, green island in a rolling sea of white cloud. Looking out from the mountain, all I could see were other hills and mountains rising from the whiteness, covered in trees and dirt paths.
Climbing further, this illusion of having stepped back into history was rarely broken. I passed the top station of the ropeway, a beautiful glass building with a slightly mood-killing vending machine, and kept going. A small kiosk stood at the entrance of the shrine, where I paid the entrance fee and was very kindly loaned an umbrella.
Once I stepped through, I was completely alone. The height and weather meant there were no tourists or worshippers to see, just myself and the ancient buildings, high atop the mountain.
Enormous halls, forests and valleys, the constant trickle of rain, Japan’s oldest bell tower. These were my companions. It was beautiful and serene.
It was Japan.