I was ready to be pretty underwhelmed by Himeji. Its premiere attraction is the enormous Himeji-jo, a well preserved castle dating back to the 1300s, and currently most of the building is covered by a giant tarp, as it’s undergoing a multi-year facelift. I’d heard you could still go inside and check out some of the construction, so I figured as a bookend to my jaunt down the coast I would pay the castle a quick visit, wander the city a bit and then hop on an early train back to Kobe where I had dinner plans with Julie and Masae. Julie had even warned me that I might find the city a bit dull (however, she has a great little post on her blog with her own recommendations on what to do in Himeji).
I arrived quite late at night but found my accommodation, a “casual restaurant” turned hostel located in a shopping arcade, quite easily. The friendly woman working there even cleaned out the bath for me so I could have a soak, my muscles still aching after my two day ride over the Shimamani Kaido. Once again I was the only guest in the place, which was probably for the best as I was battling either allergies or a cold. I was sneezing so much the woman could hear me through the walls and yelled, “Rachel-san, daijoubu desu ka?”
Himeji has an excellent tourist information centre, located in the train station. Maybe to help stimulate tourism with the castle under wraps, the center offers free bicycle rentals, so I picked up a bike and pedaled towards the castle.
I started out in the lovely park surrounding the castle walls but found myself cruising down random roads and soon I was out of the castle area, sailing past homes and shops in the surrounding neighbourhoods.
I was exploring some smaller streets off a main road when suddenly a man in what looked like a diaper crossed in front of me. After a brief moment of surprise, I realised he was a wearing a festival outfit called fundoshi.
Down the street a group of children and their families were milling about a small, beautiful float. A few men stood nearby, sipping cans of Asahi, wearing the same skimpy loin cloths. I was so intrigued that I stopped and asked a nearby adult if it was okay if I took photos. She smiled and nodded, so I snapped a few pictures of the kids and the float and then hopped on my bike and carried on.
I was pedaling down another street when some teenagers yelled out “Hello!” at me, so I yelled “Hello!” back and smiled and suddenly on my left saw another small party down a narrow street. I turned down the street and stopped, smiling at the children in blue and white robes clambering all over the float. The adults were sitting on blankets, dressed in the same robes, and were finishing up lunch and tea, so I asked if I could take photos and they nodded. I heard a voice say, “Hello again!” and I turned to see the two boys who had yelled at me walking up, now dressed in the same robes as the other people around the float.
The boys spoke a good amount of English so I asked when they would be starting to move the float. They said they would be starting in about 10 minutes and said it was okay if I stayed to watch, so I lingered, taking photos and making friendly conversation with the curious children and the teenage boys who had spoken to me earlier.
Suddenly, it was time to go and next thing I knew, I was carrying a bamboo pole adorned with a starburst of red and white paper and marching down the street as the men pulled the float and four children inside banged out a beat on a taiko drum. One of the boys walked alongside me, trying to explain to me what exactly was going on, teaching me the chant that was being yelled as we progressed through the streets.
Earlier I had noticed a foreign man sitting with the adults and he came up to me to introduce himself as Simon. He was from Australia and had lived in Japan for many years, had a lovely wife and two adorable children, all of whom were there. He told me that this was a small, local festival called the Kuwabara Shrine autumn festival. Omikoshi (portable shrines) from several neighborhoods come together at the main shrine to receive Shinto blessings then head off around the streets to spread the ‘good spirits’ among the neighborhoods.
The omikoshi itself was beautiful, shaped like a small pagoda with space inside for a drum and for children to sit around it. Thick twisted ropes ending in large tassels hung from each corner of the pagoda, that swished wonderfully when the float was shook. On the back of the pagoda’s black lacquer roof was a gold emblem of a rabbit pounding a mochi (rice cake) and on the back was a gold emblem of a crow. The boy pointed out a man in the crowd and said that he had built the float. The float itself was built on a set of wooden arms that allowed it to be carried on shoulders, but while it was moved it was lashed to a wheeled platform.
We walked down the same street where I had been earlier, and came to the first float I had seen. Everyone excitedly pointed at the top of the float, where children in a long cloth dragon costume writhed and roared down at us. People were laughing and smiling to see me in the procession. One man in a loin cloth snickered naughtily and stuck his head under a tassel as though it were a Raggedy Anne wig, gesturing for me to take his photo, and then we moved on.
People started to become familiar to me. The boys who had talked to me earlier were in high school, one with a great face and a gentle smile, the other with small eyes and frameless glasses and a nervous demeanor, but who spoke English with great confidence. Simon’s daughter had a sprightly face and while she looked Japanese, she had captivating brown eyes with incredibly clear irises that belied her Australian heritage. She was especially lively, mugging for the camera and the men loved to tease her, for she would reply with enthusiastic comebacks. There was a man with a pale, pockmarked skin and a wide grin that narrowed his eyes to cheerful slits, and two girls, one quite young and perhaps her older sister, who held her hand the entire day. They constantly watched me and when I smiled at them, their faces would light up with shy pleasure.
We stopped at an izakaya and several men joined the group, with fluffy slicked back hair and hands that constantly held cans of Asahi. One of them, a tan-skinned fellow with rather orange hair, took a liking to me, holding my hand and proclaiming me his new girlfriend. I laughed and feigned modesty and then inevitably another man would run over and jokingly chop at our joined hands to save me from my gleefully tipsy friend.
What was going to be a brief spin around Himeji on a bike turned into one of the most special experiences I’ve had in Japan so far. I ended up spending all day walking around with the float, watching the men rush the float over small bridges and squeeze down narrow alleys, visiting businesses ranging from furniture stores to barbershops, to local residences where I saw three generations of men when a great-grandfather came out to greet his son and grandson in the parade, and where a woman with a tiny dog in a pink dress applauded with joy at the float shaking outside her front door. I was handed cans of cold beer and giggled at by children and if at any time someone looked at me in confusion, if I smiled it was returned with an equally warm expression.
Simon told me, “You’re having the real local experience!” and there was no doubt in my mind this was true. I deeply regretted that I had to return to Kobe that evening in order to catch an early ferry the next morning, as Simon told me once the float stopped moving, the drinking would begin, and I knew it would be great fun.
Around four, I realized I had to get going and we had come back to where I had left the rental cycle, so I told the group, “Minna-san, arigato gozaimashita!” and everyone shook my hand and waved goodbye. I biked past them on the way to the station and my “boyfriend” jumped onto the back of bike yelling “No!” until I lowered my eyes and said “Gomen nasai… sayonara.” and everyone laughed, the men especially amused.
Soon I was on a train bound for Kobe, thinking back on the amazing events of the day. Even better, I got to meet up with Julie, Masae and a new friend, Yuka, and we spent the evening in Osaka eating delicious Italian food and then drinking Guiness and fancy sake cocktails and eating natto curry in a tiny bar called Smile located under the train tracks. I asked the bartender for omakase, a term I knew meant something like “chef’s choice” but out of the sushi bar context, it just came off as hilarious, as everyone laughed when I said it. The result was an effervescent sparkling cocktail made with sake. Crickets lived in the walls of the bar, their soft chirping interrupted by the rattle and shake of the trains traveling overhead.
Traveling alone in Japan was really difficult at times. I’m currently in SE Asia, where the backpacker trail is a veritable smorgasbord of travel partners and instant besties, but in Japan there were many times where I was the only gaijin in the hostel. However, looking back at my photos and reading my journal entries from days like Himeji remind me how much friendship and camaraderie I was shown in Japan, especially because I was on my own. Spending the day sharing old traditions with locals and ending it with good friends from Canada and new friends from Japan– that is what travel dreams are made of.