April 5, 2008

Cherry Blossoms at Himeji Castle

Saturday was the first of what were two glorious weekend days; the sun was bright, the weather in the mid-high 60s and everyone in Japan was out for Hanami. Saturday, we took the train ride out to Himeji and met up with our friends Hitoshi, Hiromi and their 3 year old son, Deiki. Hitoshi had grown up in Himeji, and his family graciously invited us out to enjoy this day with them. Lauren and Jacob had spent some time with Deiki in the past and were very excited to see him again. We picked up o-bento and drinks for lunch and walked about 10 minutes from the train station to the breathtaking Himeji Castle, which is probably Japan's most beautiful surviving castle from its time. Before heading into the castle, we stopped for our own hanami celebration - a picnic under the cherry trees. The cherry blossoms were in absolute full-bloom and there were hundreds and hundreds of these surrounding the castle, which rose in the background.

It seems that the requirement is that Japanese people must sit on a blue plastic tarp (or a cutely decorated plastic tarp) while lunching (but more importantly drinking) under the sakura. It is like a tailgate party but with more nature; there are some tremendous spreads. Japanese children put fallen blossoms in their parents hair, and people spontaneously break into traditional songs. We did ask Hitoshi if there was a religious/spiritual/cultural significance to Hanami. His answer was that it was basically just an excuse for Japanese people to drink a lot. And drink they did - we observed many bottles of Asahi, Sake and Shochu being polished off while we sipped our tea and lemon water in our more family-friendly version.

After we finished lunch, we headed for the castle. It was extremely crowded, so it was very slow going up the 5 stories in the castle. As is customary in Japan, we had to remove our shoes at the entrance and wear slippers or our socks. There was no electricity and some very steep ladder-like stairs to climb, but we made it with the kids in our arms. We got to see the old storage areas where the guns/gun powder and cannons were stored. Displays of armor and swords, and paintings of the battle scenes lined the walls of the (very dark) rooms. From there top there were terrific views of the town, the cherry blossoms, and the castle grounds. After finishing our tour at the top, we began the descent. By this point, the kids were ready for a snack and the grown-ups needed a break from carrying the kids.

So, we went to grab a spot on the great lawn in front of the castle, which was filled with people. There was a huge stage set up with tea ceremony demonstration, music and Japanese treats for sale. Several inebriated specimens approached us and tried to get the kids to pose with them for pictures. What were they thinking? Lauren and Jacob are way too smart for that - they knew better than to get too close to these guys. We saw people dressed up like horses and ninjas and listened to some terrific Taiko drumming.

Once the festival ended promptly at 4 PM, we headed back to the train station with Hitoshi and his family. We recharged our batteries with "cream sodas," i.e., melon sodas with vanilla ice creams and some other sweet pick-me-ups. (Our kids completely housed Hitoshi's French Toast and ice cream...poor guy).

Spending the day with our friends and our family visitors, with the weather, the scenery, this was easily one of our best days in Japan.


Melissa said...

I love that within the same series of photos, Lauren is wearing pink pearls AND brandishing a sword.

Lisa said...

Peace to you Hitoshi!
Well, I just want you to know that i'm back....not working can be very busy and I haven't been great about the blog..seems like a great, beautiful, fun-filled visit from what i've read thus far.