Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Exploring Kansai: Himeji & Kobe

Given my proximity to them once I'd arrived in Osaka, I figured I'd take a day to visit two of the most
popular nearby sites - cities really - Himeji and Kobe.

Himeji-jo, or Himeji Castle, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1580, has long been famed as one of Japan's absolute best. Unfortunately for visitors, the main keep has also been under renovation and restoration since 2009, and will continue to be until 2014. Still, I decided to check it out and see what I could (which turned out to be the Western Bailey and nearby garden of Koko-en).

Samurai suits on display in Himeji-jo. You can try some (costume versions) on for pictures at the nearby Hyogo Prefecturial Museum of History or at Osaka-jo in Osaka.
More than just the castle, I found that I quite enjoyed my morning wandering Himeji city with its relaxed feel, mix of old houses and newer buildings, wide tree-lined streets and narrow shopping arcades. For me it just sort of epitomised a lot of what I loved about the whole Kansai region (which encompasses Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Himeji, Kobe and many other well known locations - it's also the region most famous for its food). This all having been said, I wouldn't necessarily recommend Himeji as a must-see until after the restorative works have been completed.

Looking out from the open window to the courtyard from one of the rooms in the Western Bailey.

Having enjoyed my time wandering around Himeji, I decided to stop off in the seaside city of Kobe, located midway between there and Osaka, for the afternoon. While Kobe is famous in Japan for both its beef and cosmopolitan atmosphere (having played an important role in international trade throughout history), there was so much more than just those two things to love about it.

Almost like a mini laid-back seaside Osaka (given it's size and sprawl, its easy to forget that Osaka too is a port city), I thoroughly enjoyed my time wondering through the streets of Kobe and exploring its many nooks and crannies. And the food! There was so much of it! And it was so delicious! And cost so little!

Having heard mention of them before hand, I also decided to check out some of the many sake breweries that extend north from the harbour to the east of the city centre. Although confusing to find (I would have been lost had not a lovely dog-walker in the neighbourhood been willing to practice her English - in addition to being good cooks, people in Kansai were super friendly!), the breweries were quite fun to visit. Not only was there decent English language signage on many of the dioramas depicting traditional and modern sake-making techniques (and an explanatory English video to boot! Ask at the front desk for them to set it up), the free samples they gave out went down surprisingly smooth.

A diorama depicting 'kimoto zukuri', the traditional way of  making moto (sake rice mash), at the Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum. Now done using special steel mashing boots, the traditional kneading of koji (malted rice), steamed rice and well water to encourage the growth of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts for fermentation used to be done by men rhythmically pushing long wooden implements (resembling nothing more than wooden curling brooms) in time to chanting long into the night.
Some deliciously dry Kiku-Masamune Sake (left) and some equally delicious but somewhat biting chilled plum brandy (right).

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