Thousands of Miles from Home


Samurai House

Yesterday I got to spend some quality time with my host father, Masatoshi. First I would like to repeat that he works all the time, but seems to enjoy what he does. I enjoy talking/being with him because he always has good things to say and he and Shoko make a funny couple. When Tom Conroy (from australia) was here Masatoshi asked him "Are you a hobbit?" (he meant "what are your hobbies").

But, we left early yesterday to go to Himeji (the prefecture next to okayama) to visit some historical places. Driving in japan is a little different than what I was used to, especially Masatoshi's driving. He tells me that he does everything fast. Later in the day we stopped to get ice cream and before I had much of a bite he had gobbled up the whole thing. Also, most of the roads in japan are very very tiny until you get on the expressways, which are toll roads and cost money. But Masatoshi averaged about 120 Km/h which is quite a quick pace if you ask me. But we were rockin' out to Billy Joel on minidisc so it was all okay.

Our first stop was Himeji castle, one of the World Cultural Heritages of Japan (as of 1992). Himeji castle looks much like Okayama castle (and if you have been paying attention you will remember that Okayama castle is one of three castles in Japan with seawater moats) except Himeji is black and Okayama is white. It's construction began in the 16th century, but a previous fort existed on the spot in 1333. The final castle was completed in 1618, and to my knowledge was never taken by seige (or attacked at all for that matter). It has undergone many restorations throughout the centuries, and the family crests of lords who built or repaired the castle can be seen adorning the stone walls.

One of the main attractions of Himeji castle is climbing to the top, which provides a great view of the surrounding city from all four sides. There are also numerous ghost stories surrounding Himeji castle, including "Okiku's Well or Banshu Sara-Yashiki" which I found particularly interesting:

A long time ago, a servant named "Okiku" who served the lord of the castle discovered the lord retainer's plot to kill the lord and serve in his place. She warned the lord and the assasination attempt failed, but when the lord retainer discovered Okiku had interfered with his plot he purposely stole one of the ten treasure dishes that were under her custody. She was tourtured to death on the charge of missing the dish, and the chief retainer threw her body into the well. From then on, her voice could be heard from the well counting "one dish...two dishes...three dishes..." until the retainer's scheme was discovered and she was absolved of the crime. And her voice was never heard from the well again. Oooooo! Much better than the stories we told at Assateague.

Another exciting aspect of Himeji castle is the Oil Wall. While most walls are built with white plaster, this "abura-kabe" was made of clay and sand mixed with boiled rice water, and has stood for over 400 years. After further exploring the grounds of Himeji castle and taking plenty of pictures, we moved on to Koko-en which was built in 1992 to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Himeji municipality. It's composed of nine separate gardens on the site where old samurai houses once existed. It was beautiful to walk around the grounds.

After Himeji castle we has some lunch, then moved on to the town of Bizen which lends it's name to the famous Bizen pottery. I could tell we were in a pottery town because almost every house had a large smokestack for baking the pots. We stopped in some galleries which had pots as expensive as 800,000 Yen ($8000). I did end up purchasing some pottery, but at a much cheaper price.

After Bizen we drove back to Okayama to the city of Takahachi, which has various historical locations. The town is very small so walking around is quite easy. Many of the houses are very old and were sites where Samurai used to live. First we stopped in a preserved Samurai house, complete with various tatami rooms and some creepy mannequins that reminded me of the Bible walk (although in better condition). You should be careful not to confuse "Samurai House" with "Ninja House," which is sort of what I expected. Himeji castle had some secret rooms, but where weren't any special enclaves inside the Samurai houses. But nonetheless it was neat to see how people used to live, and see some very awesome armor and weapons (which were very small, I doubt I could have fit into most of the outfits).

Next we stopped in another Shoyu (soysauce) factory, much like the one on Shodoshima island (except in Shodoshima the soybeans were dried on grass sheets, which is very unique, while in Takahachi it was customary to use wood). But my favorite was our next stop, a collection of farming and daily tools used during the Meiji Era. The museum is in the old Takahachi elementary school and contains old clocks, telephones, flatware, books, fans, lamps, playing cards, shogi boards, boats, plows, looms, and anything else that might have been used by people during the town's history.

When Masatoshi and I came home I was pretty tired, but he was still ready to go. Shoko, Masatoshi, and I went to eat at a cafe which had very interesting seating. There was one of those egg-shaped chairs that reminds me of the 70's, chairs from Italy, stools, benches, and a table in the shape of a screw. We sat at one of the more traditional tables, but I couldn't help but try out the egg-shaped chair for myself. After dinner we went to another cafe for dessert with a great view of the Seto-Ohashi bridge at night. We came home and Masatoshi's father stopped by to give us some mushrooms that he had picked on a nearby mountain (supposedly very rare and therefore expensive). We talked about the stock market (off all things) in which he is very interested, and then he told me about a time he was in Italy and some gypsies tried to take his camera and he unleashed the "Samurai spirit," driving them away. He is old now but I don't doubt that he was telling the truth.


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