Travels Thus Far: Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle was built in 1333. Since then, it has never been burned down, and it survived the bombings of World War II, even as the city of Himeji himself was leveled twice, leaving it as one of only twelve “original” castles left in Japan. Apparently, at one point over 5,000 existed. Fret not, the Allies did not destroy exactly 4,988 castles. A lot of them were lost in, you know, regular war between shogunates in Japan back when that was en vogue, and utterly bizarrely, many were just straight-up intentionally destroyed as part of the Meiji Restoration, that period of modernization following Japan’s opening itself to the world again. Then, though yours truly has visited the area and park several times, this past Saturday was the first time that I actually went inside the castle.

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First off, the way up the castle is winding and rather steep– a way to force attackers to have to take as convoluted a route as possible, while at the whole time keeping them in clear/open sight from inside the castle. Those holes you see in different shapes are sama, their being different shapes for different ways to shoot at invaders: oblong for bows and round/triangular/square for different types of guns. I wonder if way back when, Tanaka-Samurai ever tried to fire a blunderbuss out of a arquebus hole or something and his friends made fun of him all day at work the next day. Just another day at the office!

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Said ventilation windows are on the right.

I also forgot to mention that Himeji Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. The all-wood interior is still intact, and you have to take your shoes off before traversing up all six floors to the top. Which, by the way, you are given a plastic bag for to carry in until you reach the other end, a pretty common practice in shrines, temples, and other such historical places. Even inside, you can still see how invader-centric the construction and layout is. Stairs are very steep and narrow, and there’s even rooms with “high windows” designed for the express purpose of allowing gun smoke to escape should there ever be such a melee. I hit my head on a low ceiling going up one of the floors, so I guess that’s where I would’ve died had I been invading. Much better than my unfortunate friend Stanzi, who had foolishly stopped to take a picture around one of the sama holes. Well, I did too, but I was much more ninja-esque about it of course.

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It’s finally cooling down from summer in Japan, so that may have contributed, but there was just amazingly refreshing, constant wind flow through the windows at the very top. It was definitely a lot more pleasant a temperature compared to outside, and I find it really fascinating to think about how things like summer climates affect architecture and building design, as well as what passive/electricity-less solutions existed before A/C was invented, such as the windcatcher towers of the Middle East. Re: the other point, older Japanese apartments and schools, for example, all doors directly communicate with large sliding, screen-less windows to create channels for airflow. I really couldn’t tell what exactly made the air so refreshing in the castle aside from us being so high up, but I’m sure there was more to it than just there coincidentally being a breeze that day.

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The interior was, again, all-wood, and pretty barren. Obviously, none of the original furniture or whatever else that may have decorated the inside remains. Just a lot of big, flat, empty wooden rooms. I really do wonder what this castle would’ve looked like in its heyday– there’s just so much usable space. What were the entertainment rooms like? What would most of the castle rooms have in them/be used for anyways? The only relic that remained was an incredibly well-preserved flat screen TV.

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One of the only rooms I saw for whose purpose was obvious was this armory.

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Another, located in the “west bailey”, another section of the castle devoted to living quarters, contained the only tatami room to be seen, and this very creepy statue of Princess Sen, famous resident and wife of the original owner of the castle, Honda Tadatoki.

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Besides the history, the castle is also amazing from an architectural standpoint. Above is the interior framework of the castle. And also, did you know, Japanese castles are built without nails? Instead, they’re completely made out of interlocking wooden beams. If I’m not mistaken, it was borne out of necessity because the quality of Japanese metal was pretty poor. I must admit, high quality woodwork is a lot more impressive than high quality metal… existing.

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I also wondered what the actual surrounding area of the castle would’ve looked like in its time, and there was a nice miniature scale model to answer that question, and a map as well. Neat!

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Anyways, at the very top floor of the castle had been a small shrine, which I totally forgot to take a picture of. It was apparently moved from somewhere else on site. For modern times, our tour ended with the prospect of making a wish to the protector of Himeji Castle, who’d kept it safe for nearly 700 years. In less modern times, who knows what awaited a plucky samurai who managed to make it past the moat, gunports, stairs, and ambush rooms and made it to the top?

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A Japanese Disaster Drill

A massive earthquake has struck Akashi. Or perhaps, a tsunami. Evacuate! To your nearest disaster center! And this area’s happens to be my very own Higashi-Harima High School. Today* was a mass disaster drill, where students gathered in the gym and practiced things like using blankets as stretchers, getting a taste of hinanshoku, or disaster food, and how to make platforms out of boxes, I guess. Green-jumpsuited members of the Nihon Bousaishi (Japan Disaster Prevention) Society were also present to look cool and show us the proper way to do things.

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“Everyone’s dead, hooray!”

 

It started in the morning, with all the kids running onto the school field to line up and take attendance. The atmosphere was very lively, kids were chatty and laughing, and we even had a few photographers there as if this were a really exciting, commemorable event. Everyone was in their athletic clothes, except for me in a shirt and tie. Opening ceremony was supposed to be the same day but it got cancelled for some reason.

After that, we went onward to the gym. Several members of the community had also shown up, mostly the elderly since this was a weekday morning. The good Bousaishi people (whose logo is the photo atop this post) gave us a peppy lecture about proper disaster practices. I couldn’t pick up much, sorry to say, so far all I know they could’ve been saying “cleanse the sinners with tsunamis” or “ALTs should jump into earthquakes” and I would just be nodding vigorously.

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Despite this being a drill, we were still given real disaster rations and encouraged to consume them. It was a bottle of “Postonic Water,” basically like unflavored Gatorade, and some incredibly bland fried rice. I think there was some chicken, vegetables, mushrooms? But almost no flavor at all. Even plain Japanese rice has more flavor– the Bousaishi people explained that disaster food should be easy to digest and as inoffensive as possible. Looks like the only disaster that day was the food, haha! Really, I appreciated it, of course. It was homemade by volunteer moms, and they had to have made hundreds of these for all the students and community members attending.

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After the distribution of blankets to each row of kids, the bousaishi members demonstrated how to make them into improvised stretchers– lay a kid in the middle, and roll it up on both sides towards them. Wow!

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Then, how to make platforms from cardboard boxes. Put together, they are surprisingly capable of supporting several schoolgirls, or schoolboys. Perhaps it’s for an impromptu hospital bed. Whoaaaa!

Anyways, that’s pretty much it. Stay safe out there!

* This actually took place a month ago, but I hadn’t published it till now.

Undotaikai: Japanese Sports Day II

Read about last year’s Sports Day here!

Since I’m here a second year, I also got to experience my second undōtaikai, or Sports Day, which, by far, has been my favorite Japanese high school tradition I’ve experienced. From the students marching in to military cadence, to 40-student dance routines choreographed completely amongst themselves, it’s an entire day filled with spectacle, fun, aesthetic, and of course sports. I’m also glad that I can finally give it proper justice, as ours occurred just less than a week ago while last year’s post had been written nearly two weeks after the fact.

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Clockwise from top left: red team, yellow, white, and blue.

Sports Day kicks off around 9 AM with the student council members marching onto the track with the flags of Japan, of Hyogo prefecture, and of the school itself. The entire school is divided into four teams– for us, it was red, yellow, white, and blue, and each team is made up of at least one or two classes from each of the three grades. They all, of course, sport matching bandanas and flags made by the classes themselves. Everyone lines up in formation, and the principal opens the event with a speech. We all rise for the national anthem as the same three flags from earlier are raised on their poles.

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Note: the color on the back of their PE shirts indicate their years, not teams. First-years are red, second-years green, and third-years blue.

Following that is rajio taisō, or radio calisthenics, all done in unison. It’s to this exact track and this exact sequence, of a man counting with some classical-sounding piano music in the background. You’ll find that military discipline will be a common theme running throughout the event– and speaking of running, there will be a LOT of relay races throughout the day. I still have no idea whatsoever how the brackets work, how points are calculated, or in fact, anything at all about this event that I’m supposed to be explaining to you. I just know there’s a lot of moving around involved.

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I’m the black blur passing all the pathetically slow tiny schoolgirls.

The first few events are regular baton-passing relay races. There’s also mixed relay where for the first 50 meters, they have to skip rope while running, for the next crawl under a net, carry a heavy sandbag, and finally link up with five other students for an epic six-legged race finale. There’s also teachers versus students, which I got to run 50 meters in. I was told that it would be at 3 PM, but when I went to the bathroom around 2ish PM a teacher came running up to me to tell me that the schedule has suddenly changed and I have to run NOW. I was passed the baton pretty much as soon as I got to the track– it sums up what it’s like to be a JET/ALT pretty well, in that last-minute changes and heads-ups will be the bane of your professional life. In fact, the official motto of the Japanese school-ALT relations is “Haha WHOOPS!”

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Before lunch is the dance competition, for which the third-years from each team has prepared their own choreographies to their own chosen playlists, performed in their own chosen matching outfits. I thought red was the clear winner, and naturally I was so mesmerized I didn’t take any pictures or videos of it. The music is usually a mix of J-pop and American pop, though re: Western music I feel like Japan is just around a decade behind. Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” showed up twice. And nightclubs here still play “Shots” by LMFAO really often.

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Anyways, now it’s lunch time. On special school-wide event days like this, the school will have bento lunches delivered to the office. So here’s what a typical, but also slightly fancier, school lunch looks like. Tempura and rice, just arranged more aesthetically than usual.

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After lunch, each of the club activities (sports) teams march onto the track in their uniform, from aikido to basketball to kendo to table tennis. The sports teams also competed against each other in relays, in uniform. Track & field obviously won, although soccer did sometimes come close. The worst runners were the martial artists, but that was mostly due to their uniforms. Since they were so clearly last in every race, they would put on a little demonstration after each lap, like flipping their teammate over with a judo throw as a way of passing off the baton. Pretty cool.

After putting to rest the age-old debate of whether track & field kids really can run fast, the students then change back to their regular PE clothes and now the non-relay stuff (interspersed with more relays) begin!

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Tug-of-war with ship’s rope. The team that manages to knock the flag down toward their side is the winner. This one’s one of the few co-ed events.

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For some reason a girls’-only event, it’s the return of tug-of-pole. Nine large metal poles lie in the middle of the field. When the starting pistol fires, two teams run onto the field and fight each other over them. Once a pole is taken past their own team’s side/endzone, the people who won that pole are free to run back onto the field to help with the stealing of another. This would have been even more badass if they somehow combined it with kendo, or maybe incorporating land mines and robots in some way.

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Kiba-sen (cavalry fight), which I had mentioned before, but now I have slightly better pictures. Three boys form a horse, one sits atop as a rider, and he either wants to knock his opponent off his horse, push his horse out of bounds, or snatch his opponent’s hat off inside a very small (maybe 6 feet/2 meters across) circular ring. Teachers stand all around to catch anyone in case they fall. Besides running in the teacher’s relay, it was the only other time I felt like I was actually part of the event. Everything looks so fun you can’t help but want to participate in all of it.

There is no grand finale, really. The final event is the final relay race. But again, I have no idea how the heck the whole thing works. Every team participated in every event; it didn’t look like there was any elimination, and I noticed the same students doing multiple events regardless of whether they had won or lost the previous ones. During the ending ceremony, during which all teams line up again in formation, and sit on the field, the student council announced the team winner of each single individual event. There were so many winner announcements that I really, truly, have no idea who actually won overall. I know, this is not Sports’ Day’s fault. I just don’t speak Japanese. It probably is an accumulated-points system. Either way, I asked the next day and it turns out white team won. Nice!