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Travelblog Gone with the Wine

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Tag: Himeji

Himeji - Japan's Most Beautiful Haunted Castle

Paula Gaston

After visiting Kyoto and Nara our plan was to go straight to Hiroshima. While planning our trip I noticed however, that there was an interesting city mid-way called Himeji. The main attraction in Himeji is their castle which you will be able to see right when exiting the railway station. We didn't expect to see much else in Himeji but we were pleasantly surprised how nice this town was.

We had booked a hotel from next to the railway station, so we stopped at the hotel to drop of our luggage. Then we walked to Himeji Castle, which was about ten minutes from the station. You will not be able to get lost on this walk since you will be able to see the castle the whole time on top of a hill. We were in Himeji during Japan's Thanksgiving Day so the castle was pretty crowded, but we did get tickets to go to both the castle and Himeji Kokoen garden which is next to the castle. We parked the baby stroller behind the ticket office and headed to the most beautiful castle in Japan. 

The current castle in Himeji dates from the beginning of 1600. Before that there were two castles. The castle today is the biggest castle in Japan, and is said to be the most beautiful. It is also the most visited of the Japanese castles. It was built mostly of wood and then plastered white inspiring it's nickname the "White Egret Castle". You should reserve some time for your visit since there are a total of 83 buildings. You will not be able to visit them all of course, but we did have to wait in line to get into the castle. Himeji Castle was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993.

When you enter the castle you will be given a plastic bag. It is for you to store your shoes during the visit. Be careful of the doorways since they are very small and you might hit your head if you aren't careful. There is no furniture inside the castle but it is nice to wander around to see different rooms. One room has some old artifacts on display, and the upper floor has a nice view over the city of Himeji.

The floor plan of the castle is very complicated, and it might be hard to navigate inside the castle unless you follow the marked route. Little alleys can be deceiving and the castle has many gates, secret rooms and tunnels. There are also about 1000 different holes in the walls. These were part of the defense system of the castle, and were designed so the residents could shoot the intruders. No one ever attacked Himeji Castle so the highly complex defense system was never tested. 

Watch your head!

Watch your head!

A model of the castle's framework.

A model of the castle's framework.

THE GHOST OF OKIKU
 

An old Japanese folktale tells the story of the beautiful maid Okiku who worked for the samurai Tessan Aoyama. Because Okiku persistently rejected Aoyama's romantic gestures, he fooled her to believe that she has broken one of his ten valuable porcelain plates. Normally there would have been the death penalty for that, but Aoyama promises to forgive her if she would be his mistress. Okiku declined, and disappointed by that Aoyama threw her into a well where she died. It is said that Okiku returned as a ghost and comes out at night time. She wanders around the alleys by the castle and counts the plates. After she counts to 9 she breaks into a horrible howl. 

There are many different versions of this tale but one of them is situated in Himeji Castle. You can find the well while touring the castle, but be careful if you end up here at night time! The horror movie The Ring which was released in 2002 has been inspired by this story. 

We got quite tired after travelling to Himeji and touring around the castle. We decided to skip the visit to the gardens and headed to the city center to find some food. We ended up in a shopping area which seemed huge, and we found a nice restaurant from there. We stopped in few little stores and also had some coffee at a Hello Kitty cafe. For our 4 year old daughter, that was the highlight of the day. I have to admit that it was pretty fun and I wrote about it earlier already in "Crazy Cafés of Japan". 

For once we arrived at the hotel before dark and got some rest before our trip to Hiroshima the next day. 

 

Taking a Train around Japan

Paula Gaston

The most convenient way to travel around Japan is by train. It is both easy and fun. We travelled by train daily inside Tokyo, but we also took a train to multiple different cities in Japan. Someday, I would love to do a longer trip around Japan by train, but on our first visit to the country, we also wanted to spend a lot of time in Tokyo. From Shinjuku, Tokyo we travelled to Kyoto, and from there we did a day trip to Nara. Then we took a train to Himeji and from there to Hiroshima. At last, we returned to Akihabara in Tokyo. We sat in many kinds of trains, and even stood one time when the train was totally full. 

WHY THE TRAIN?

When travelling by train, you can relax and enjoy the views, or even write your blog. You don't need to think about navigating, parking or road tolls. My husband is from the USA where people are used travelling mostly by car, so he asked right away, why aren't we renting one. After a little bit of research, I found out that going around the country by train is the easiest way in Japan. They sell a separate train pass, called Japan Rail Pass for travellers from foreign countries, which makes riding a train quite affordable. When travelling by train you don't have to worry about driving on the left side of traffic, or learning new traffic rules. It can also be quite expensive to park in the larger cities, and I figured that we would probably get lost quite often. Tokyo is huge!  Or we would get stuck in the traffic. The word "traffic jam" makes every Californian sweat since we fight against the traffic every day. So in the end, it was pretty a clear choice to travel by train in Japan. 

Sometimes we were wondering about the tiny parking spots in Japan. I´m so glad I didn´t have to try backing up a car over here!

Sometimes we were wondering about the tiny parking spots in Japan. I´m so glad I didn´t have to try backing up a car over here!

The bad side of travelling by train is that you will have to drag along all your luggage, but that can be overcome by bringing slightly smaller bags. I had read somewhere, that there is not much space to store your luggage in Japanese trains, so we made an effort to be among the first passengers when boarding. That was unnecessary. Our backpacks and umbrella stroller for our daughter fit just fine in every train. The only time we had problems with trains, was when we took a bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo on Friday morning. The faster train was fully booked, so we were directed to a slower train in which the Japan Rail Pass didn't entitle us to reserved seats, and then had to switch to the bullet train in the city of Kobe. The slower train was over it's capacity, and there were only two cars reserved for people without reserved seats. We survived by standing in the hallway by the doors, and in an hour we were able to change to the Hikari Shinkansen bullet train. If possible, I would recommend avoiding trains on Fridays and Sundays since they do get very crowded on those days, or at least make sure you get a reserved seat. 

HOW?

We used Google Maps to see what routes we should use, and what kind of trains are going to our destination. Google usually got the route correct, but it didn´t tell us what kind of train would take us there the fastest. And of course, it didn´t know that we had the JR Pass, so it often suggested other train lines first. We tried out a couple other train apps, but ended up using mostly only Google Maps. And we quickly noticed that visiting the JR office before travelling was worth it. They told us when the next available train leaves, and wether we can reserve seats with the JR pass or not. They also told us how to find the platform for the train we were taking. Some of the stations were huge, and it took some time to walk through the whole station to find the correct platform. The staff didn´t always speak much English, but they were very friendly and helpful. 

The trains usually run on time and there is plenty of them, so most of the time we didn´t even look at the time tables before going to the station. The longest time we waited for a train was 45 minutes, and even that went fast when we had to walk to the other end of the station to find the platform. We often also wanted to buy some snacks from the many stores that they had at the station. For the local trains or metros the wait time was usually only 10 to 20 minutes. A couple times we happened to take the train from its starting station where you had to wait for the train to be cleaned first. The cleaners literally ran through the train while cleaning. The trains in Japan were very clean. 

Japanese people talk very quietly or not at all in the train, since they don´t want to disturb other passengers. I also read from somewhere, that eating in the train is not polite. However, after we saw many of the Japanese opening their lunch boxes in the train, we ended up eating ours too. In the bullet train you can also buy coffee, tea and snacks from a sales trolley going around the train. Conductors were always very polite when talking to them, and they always bowed when leaving the car. 

THE JAPAN RAIL PASS IS WORTH PURCHASING

The JR Pass aka Japan Rail Pass must be ordered before traveling to Japan. If you plan on using the train in Japan, you should do a little bit of math before purchasing train tickets. Train tickets in Japan are not very cheap, so the JR Pass will be worth purchasing already if you plan to take the train a few times among the trips from the airport and back. 

The Japan Rail Pass is only sold for people entering the country with a tourist visa, not for example the citizens of Japan. There are passes with different durations, and you can use them in most trains around Japan, in JR busses and JR ferries. You can also use it on the bullet train (shinkansen). Using the JR Pass is very easy. When you want to activate your pass, you simply go to the nearest JR office and they stamp it. For example, we bought passes valid for two weeks which were activated in the Narita Airport. When activating your rail pass, you must fill out your information on it and show your passport. They also helped us to find a train to our destination and made seat reservations for us. Our 4 year old daughter didn´t need to pay for the pass but she didn´t get reserved seats on the train. In case of a full train, she would have had to sit on our lap but that only happened once. When entering the platform, you must show your rail pass to personnel who then let you in. The same goes when exiting the train. 

You can use the JR Pass in most other trains except for private lines and metros. You can also use it on the Yamanote Line which goes around Tokyo, so it is easy to go from one prefecture to another. When looking for accommodations we chose to get apartments and hotels close to this line, so we didn't have to use the metro so much. JR stations are marked with a big, green JR logo. 

There are two different kinds of passes for sale, and you can choose from several different durations. We purchased the regular pass, but there is also a so called "Green Pass". With the green pass you get to travel in more spacious first class "green cars", but you must remember to make a seat reservation before entering the train.

We got our JR Passes from here, but also some airlines and travel agencies sell them. 

BULLET TRAINS

The bullet train (shinkansen) looks quite futuristic from outside but from inside is like a normal train. Some of them had three seats on one side of the car, and two on the other side. Inside the train you don't really feel the high speed even though they go as fast as 320 kilometres in an hour. The fastest bullet train, Nozomi Shinkansen is excluded from the JR Pass, but Hikari Shinkansen, which we used often, is only a couple minutes slower than Nozomi. And depending where in Japan you are, there are also other types of bullet trains. 

OTHER TRAINS

Other trains in Japan that you might run into, and you can use with the JR Pass are Tokkyū (Limited Express), Kyūkō (Express), Kaisoku (Rapid) and Futsū (Local). We used for example the Rapid train and local trains, but we never quite learned which trains the JR Pass would allow us reserved seats. The local trains work the same way as the metro, so we didn't even ask for the reservations, but there are so many other trains and it got us a little bit confused. And of course, there are more trains that listed here, but at least for these you can use the JR Pass. 

METRO

In the biggest cities we mostly used metros to the places where JR trains didn't go. On the first day, we were a little bit confused how to buy tickets since there are different lines that require different tickets. Most of the ticket machines work in English, and the bigger stations have staff standing next to ticket machines ready to help passengers who are buying tickets. You can buy either a one time ticket, or if you think you will be using the metro often, you can load money on a prepaid metro pass. Surprisingly fast we learned how to read metro maps, and we used the metro in both Tokyo and Kyoto.

The busy hours for the metro seemed to be in the early morning and in the evening after 5 pm. In the middle of the day, we never had problems finding a seat in the train. Most stations had an elevator which we used since our daughter was sitting in a stroller, but otherwise you should prepare yourself for a lot of walking at the stations. 

Good luck purchasing a metro ticket from here! Well, luckily you can switch the language into English, and if you still have trouble, you can press the "help" button. Then that little door on the right upper corner opens, and a staff members head comes out... and Voila, soon you have a ticket in your hand!

Good luck purchasing a metro ticket from here! Well, luckily you can switch the language into English, and if you still have trouble, you can press the "help" button. Then that little door on the right upper corner opens, and a staff members head comes out... and Voila, soon you have a ticket in your hand!

Travelling by train in Japan is both fun and exciting!

 

Crazy Cafés of Japan

Paula Gaston

Japan - So strange, so funny, so exciting and so beautiful. It is hard to start unfolding everything we experienced on our two week trip, and put it into words. One thing that we remember the most, in a good way, is the Japanese playfulness. One example of this, is all the different theme cafés they have. We wanted to check some of them out, just to see what are they are all about. 

MOOMIN BAKERY AND CAFÉ

We had heard about the Moomin Café in Tokyo but were not sure if we would have time to visit there. Moomin characters are from my home country, Finland, and therefore well known in our family. We quickly realised that going around Tokyo by subway was actually pretty quick and easy. So we decided to visit the Tokyo Dome where the café is located. After all, we had a 4 year old with us, so we had a perfect excuse for it. The Tokyo Dome has a lot of other nice things for kids and the young at heart as well. 

Moomin Bakery & Cafe has a moomin themed menu, and you can buy some sweets from the bakery to go. The interior design looks very Finnish, and you can buy all kinds of moomin things from the souvenir store, like mugs, silverware or moomin pasta. Giant plush characters from the Moomin story are moved from table to table by the waitresses, so that no one is sitting alone in the café. We got to enjoy the company of Snorkmaiden and Little My.

Moomin Café can be found at Tokyo Dome City LaQua, 1-1-1 Kasuga, Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo 112-0003 Japan

HELLO KITTY CAFES

We came across a Hello Kitty Café in the city of Himeji, and since we can always appreciate a cup of hot coffee, we went in. You can find Hello Kitty Cafés in Tokyo in different kinds of variations also. The one we visited was called Café de Miki with Hello Kitty. The café was in two stories and completely pink. Decorations were of course Hello Kitty themed. Our little daughter enjoyed her visit so much, she didn´t want to leave. Partly because after over a week, she got to watch some cartoons at the cafeteria; Hello Kitty of course. The Hello Kitty Café has a variety of coffees and teas, pastries and Hello Kitty pancakes.

Café de Miki with Hello Kitty can also be found in Tokyo, but if you happen to visit Himeji, you will find the café we went to at Ekima-cho 309, Laboville 1F, Hyogo Prefecture, Himeji.

MAID CAFES

Maid Café are a common site in Akihabara, Tokyo, where they first were opened in 2011. After that they have spread not only around Japan, but also abroad. Waitresses dressed like maids, serve their customers, decorate their plates with funny figures, and do a show or sing. The idea for maid cafés came from Japanese anime and manga culture, and from video games. Later, different kinds of variations of maid cafés have been popping up. Some of them now offer karaoke, massage or hair removal from legs and ears. Some cafés have also written rules for customers of how to behave during the visit. They are not allowed, for example, to touch the maids, or ask for their personal contact information. They want to clear up the confusion where some people think that they offer more than just entertainment.

I wasn't very interested in visiting a maid café, and especially after I heard that they don´t allow photography inside. They do let you pose with the maids, and then you can purchase your picture from them. If you don´t want to visit a maid café, you can still see the maids on the streets of Akihabara, where they hand out fliers to people. 

CAT CAFES

During our stay, we saw multiple cat cafés around Japan. The idea is to go in, buy a cup of coffee or tea, and socialise with cats. Many of these cafés collect an entrance fee. The very first cat café was opened in Taiwan in 1998, where it quickly become known especially among the tourists. The cafés spread to Japan and all around the world. There are different kinds of cat cafés, some concentrate on a certain breed or colour, and some on homeless cats. They even exists in America and tend to concentrate on getting the cats adopted. Many people seem to think, that cat cafés are so popular in Japan, because due to large population the living spaces are very small, and most people can´t have their own pets. For those people, Cat cafés are a nice way to spend some time with animals. We on the other hand, have our own little fur ball kitty at home, so we skipped the visit to a cat café. 

OWL CAFES

The first time we ran into an owl café was in the city of Nara. We saw some signs on the street and an owl sitting on the window of the café. The attraction of an owl café is obviously the owls which you can pet and take pictures with. Some cafés let you hold them while you drink your coffee. We saw another owl café in Akihabara in Tokyo, when we met a girl on street dressed in an owl suit and carrying an owl on her hand. Many owl cafés offer owl themed foods, which actually is a nice idea, but keeping owls as pets isn't compatible with my values, so we skipped this one too. I have also heard that hedgehog cafés are becoming very popular now. Coming from Finland where hedgehogs roam freely in the forests, I was turned off by that one as well.  

MONSTER CAFE

On our last days, we had lunch at the Kawaii Monster Cafe. I had shown a few videos of the cafe to our daughter, and everyday she asked "when are we going there?" So we decided to go. We arrived right before lunch time and were able to avoid the lines. When the doors to the Monster Cafe open, you will get sucked into a whole different world. It´s crazy, corny, colourful and fun. Despite the name, there is nothing monster themed in this cafe. Instead there is loud music and colourful carrousels. The restaurant is divided into four rooms, and each of them is different. We walked around just to see what it looks like (don´t forget to check the restrooms too!), and our little girl got invited to a show with the monster girls. The entrance fee is 500 yen (about $5), and after paying you get to decide which room you want to sit in. The food is a little bit pricier than normal in Japanese restaurants, but the main reason to visit this place is not the food. I think that I should probably write a whole post about the Monster Cafe, it truly was something. I´m happy that we went there!  

The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo seems to have a little bit similar business idea. People mostly go there to see the show, not for a gourmet meal. I think the Monster Cafe is more suitable for kids though. 

You can find it in the Harajuku area at YM Square Building 4F, 4-31-10, Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokio.  

Visiting some of these cafés was a fun experience, and our little one enjoyed it a lot also. There was one place that we did not get to visit though, the Gundam Café. My husband was waiting for this visit but everytime we went there, the wait was over an hour and a half to get in. If you want to avoid the lines, don´t go during the busy lunch or dinner hours, except for the Gundam Café which seemed to be full at any time of the day. There so many crazy cafés in Japan, and you can get more café ideas from this TripleLights article

Have you been to one of these cafés? Or do you have a fun café or restaurant experience from somewhere else? Let me know!

Japan for the First Time

Paula Gaston

Last February I got very lucky and won tickets to Japan. So we started planning our trip. Because we never visited Japan before, I read many travel blogs and articles about what to see and do in Japan. My ex colleague from work, our Country Specialist for Japan, convinced me that in addition to Tokyo, we should also see at least Kyoto. So our trip soon started to look more like a cross country tour, which made me a little nervous since we were travelling with a 4 year old. But this was the plan we used, and it worked out well.

In a the middle of November we jumped into a plane and got to enjoy business class service at All Nippon Airlines. After we arrived at Narita airport in Tokyo, we stamped our JR pass (a train ticket sold only for foreigners) and took a train to Shinjuku in Tokyo. After some confusion at the metro station we finally found our apartment, and started our very first Airbnb experience. 

The most beautiful airplane meal I have ever seen. 

The most beautiful airplane meal I have ever seen. 

Gyoen Park in Tokyo

Gyoen Park in Tokyo

We stayed three nights in Tokyo before taking the bullet train to Kyoto. In Kyoto we visited some shrines and castles, saw many Unesco Heritage Sites and some geishas in Gion district. We got to experience the autumn colours of Japan, and enjoyed some delicious Japanese food. We also spent one day in the city of Nara. Then we packed our bags and moved on to Himeji and Hiroshima, and finally back to Tokyo again. 

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

In Nara you can find some friendly deer roaming around the park freely

In Nara you can find some friendly deer roaming around the park freely

Hiroshima gets one quiet.

Hiroshima gets one quiet.

Everything on our trip went surprisingly well. We were able to drag our bags and a baby stroller along, and our daughter seemed to enjoy the trip as well. We got to visit all the places we planned, and had no problems with our hotel reservations. The only blunder we had, was that on our way to the airport when leaving for home, we lost one small backpack. And of course, the one with some important things in it. We are hopeful that we will get it back. Other than that, we arrived back home to California both tired and happy. Now we have time to process what all we saw and experienced on this trip. So stay tuned!

All these pictures are from my Instagram account which you can follow @paulagaston. You can also follow my travels on Facebook, Twitter; @paulagaston or at Snapchat with username paulagaston.