Whoops! Tourist Trap!

Yesterday we took a shinkansen (bullet train) to the town of Himeji. Himeji is the home of the Himeji castle, a magnificent feudal-era castle. It’s the castle you often see in photos of Japan, and it appeared in both Kurasawa’s film Ran and the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. We had it in mind to visit the gardens near the castle, admire the building from the outside, maybe have lunch nearby. We knew that Tracie would probably not enter the castle because it’s full of steep flights of stairs, but that I might go on the tour.

What we didn’t anticipate was how crowded the area would be. The castle has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which apparently means Destined To Be Stomped Into The Ground By Tourists. The first foreshadowing of the horror that awaited us came in the train station, where police directed the flow of humanity into and out of the station. One even used a megaphone, something which I haven’t previously seen here. Outside the station we were confronted with more people with megaphones, apparently either drumming up business for tours or herding tours already in progress.

The town was thick with tourists in the area between the station and the castle grounds. The larger street intersections had a couple of police directing traffic; one nearest the grounds had six people keeping the herds in order. We made our way over the moat and paused to rest and assess the situation. It wasn’t pretty. Himeji castle seems to have attained a Disneyland-like status and huge throngs of tourists just aren’t our bag, so to speak. It didn’t take me long to decide against the hour-long tour of the castle; the mere thought of being herded along with whatever number of cattle people that the keepers of the castle had decided they could manage as a tour group almost made me panic. So, while Tracie rested on a bench I took a few photos of the castle (from a distance) and a nearby peony garden.

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After that we decided to retreat to a nearby set of gardens called Koko-en. We had hoped that the gardens would be less crowded than the immediate castle grounds, but we hoped in vain. After getting partway into the gardens, Tracie decided to wait outside while I went through the rest and we agreed to meet about an hour later. About ten minutes after we split up, as I watched several clods step over a KEEP OFF GRASS sign in order to walk on the grass rather than the rock path of one garden, I decided I was going to have to cut my visit short lest I lose my patience altogether and start pitching people into the koi pond.

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That frog was nearly within arm’s reach from one of the walkways, but nobody else was looking at anything closely enough to notice it.

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The gardens were nice, and quite beautiful in a few places, but I quickly gave up on trying to take pictures with any care because pausing even for a few seconds on the narrow paths meant someone either pushing past me or getting off the path to walk around me, both of which made me grit my teeth. Fortunately Tracie had arrived at the designated meeting point by the time I made a brief pass through the remainder of the gardens. We decided that we’d had enough of the crowds and headed back towards the train station, looking for something to eat along the way. I couldn’t quite handle the notion of standing in line at any of the food shops (the University of Colorado ruined my ability to tolerate standing in line) and I ended up grabbing a box of soba noodles at a convenience store to tide me over until we got back to the hotel.

The most exciting few seconds of the day happened at the train station. We were standing on the platform, enjoying the relative calm and cool air, when–without warning–a shinkansen ripped past at full speed. We were accustomed to stations in which they stop to load/unload passengers, but at this particular station there is a set of middle tracks which allows them to pass through without pause. It’s quite a sensation to have a train pass you by about 30 feet from where you’re standing, moving at 150mph or so. It doesn’t particularly make the ground shake because they run quite smoothly on their tracks, and there isn’t any smoke because they have electric motors, but there’s a very loud FOOOOOM sort of noise and the air moves first one direction and then the other as they push it aside on their way past. It’s moving so fast that your eyes can’t really focus on or follow it. It all starts without warning and it’s over a few seconds later. Another one went by a few minutes later and was only slighly less surprising than the first. Sadly I didn’t get my audio recorder running until after the second one came through, and no more passed before we boarded our train, which was one of these:

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Shinkansen really are rather cool, overall. Our hotel window looks down on the shinkansen platform at Kyoto Station and Tracie has become quite fond of watching them come and go. I’m going to have the little tune that the PA plays when they approach running through my head for weeks after our stay here.

Categorized as Japan 2008

By adam

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