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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Japan Trip Day 7: Life is a Bitchū (or O Castle, Where art Thou?) 日本旅行6月6日

After four days in Matsue 松江, it was time to move on, so on Friday morning just before 7, I boarded another slow, local train, back across the center of Honshū 本州 and towards the Pacific Ocean side of Japan. 3 1/2 hours later, I got off the train in the small city of Takahashi 高梁 (population 50,000) in Okayama Prefecture 岡山県, and commenced another morning/afternoon of checking out the local attractions.

Takahashi is not on any of the main tourist tracks despite the area called Ishibiya-chō Furusato Mura 石火矢町ふるさと村, home to several old buildings and temples. The best of these is Raikyū-ji 頼久寺, a ten-minute walk from the train station, and home to one of the nicest small gardens I’ve been to in Japan. On this Friday morning, I was the only visitor, and I was able to sit and able to enjoy in peace and quiet, with only the sounds of bees and frogs to break the silence. One aspect of this garden that is a common feature of traditional Japanese landscaping is the use of “borrowed” scenery, in this case Mount Atago 愛宕山 in the background. I’m not much for travel cliches (you won’t find me meditating at a Zen 禅 temple, or trying to track down geisha 芸者 on the streets of Kyōto 京都, for example, or for that matter taking pictures of the cosplay コスプレ girls in Harajuku 原宿), but this was one hackneyed experience that was anything but.

The real adventure came after leaving Raikyū-ji. Bitchū Matsuyama-jō 備中松山城 has got to be the most unusual castle in Japan, hands down. One of the dozen original castles still standing in Japan, it’s no doubt the hardest to reach, and not just because the city of Takahashi is somewhat off the beaten track. The castle sits on top of Mount Gagyū 臥牛山, 430 meters (1411 feet) high. In fact, Matsuyama-jō is the highest castle in Japan. Whereas most castles were situated on low hills in the centers of towns, serving as symbols of power, while allowing the daimyō 大名 to keep an eye on their holdings (and having the surrounding town buildings act as a defensive perimeter in case of attack), Takahashi’s castle can’t even be seen from the city. By car, it takes 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) on a winding road to reach. On foot, it’s only half as far, but the trail is all uphill through a forest, and it took me about an hour to get to from Raikyū-ji. You can read about the castle here.

The sushi bentō 寿司弁当 I bought in Takahashi, and had for lunch on the castle grounds. The pieces shifted somewhat in my backpack during the long hike up the mountain!

So was Bitchū Matsuyama-jō worth all that effort? Despite its small size, and lack of interesting displays, I would have to say yes. One of my guidebooks suggests not paying to go inside (while still recommending the walk up), but to me it seemed a shame not to complete the journey. After all, the relative inaccessibility helps limit the crowds (even from the parking lot, it’s still a 15-minute walk uphill), and the views of Takahashi to be seen on the descent were magnificent in places.

Back down from Mount Gagyū, I paid a visit to another Buke-yashiki 武家屋敷. This one was much more interesting than the samurai house in Matsue because a.) you could take off your shoes, and walk through the different rooms; b.) you could visit two homes with one ticket; and c.) I got to chill with the samurai 侍, his wife and son.

Before returning to Bitchū-Takahashi Station 備中高梁駅, I checked out the Local History Museum 郷土資料館, housed in an old, wooden elementary school building that dates from the Meiji-era 明治時代. Often such museums aren’t very interesting, but this one had a lot of neat stuff on display – lots of old appliances from earlier times, interesting photos of how Takahashi looked long ago, and these dancing doll models made from cigarette packets (it seems there’s a Japan Tobacco 日本たばこ産業, aka JT, factory in town).

I left Takahashi on the 3:48pm local train, and was in Okayama 岡山 an hour later. Okayama is noted for its famous garden, Kōraku-en 後楽園 (one of the big three in Japan, the other two being Kenroku-en 兼六園 in Kanazawa 金沢, and Kairakuen 偕楽園 in Mito 水戸), and a castle 岡山城 (though mostly a reconstruction), but as I had spent several days in the city back in 1996 or ’97, and had seen all the sights there (plus Kurashiki 倉敷 and Kojima 児島), this time it was to be just an overnight stop on my back to Ōsaka 大阪. After checking into my accommodation (the Matsunoki Ryokan まつのき旅館, which gave me a tatami 畳-mat room larger than some apartments I’ve lived in!), I went out after dinner in search of a place to have a drink. I walked around in vain looking for a branch of the Hub chain of pubs, vaguely remembering I had drunk at one in Okayama the last time I was there, but either my memory wasn’t as good as it used to be, or the place was long gone. In any event, I ended up instead at an establishment called the Aussie Bar オージーバー, an expat pub run by one Jason Scott Hunt from Down Under. Jason was very friendly, and a great bloke to chat with (as was his friend Rick, a regular who originally hails from Canada). I would’ve liked to have stayed late, but I had plans to get up early the next morning, so several draft beers later, I staggered out into the streets of Okayama, and found my way back to my ryokan, and after a long, hot bath, into my futon 布団.

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