Jer woke with the alarm at 6:00 and got in the shower. Jess awoke a few minutes later and was momentarily perplexed at how she could lose Jer in such a small room, before finally noticing that the shower was going. After dressing and packing, we headed downstairs to the breakfast buffet. Again, Jer went for the Japanese foods, including spicy konyaku, miso soup, salmon spaghetti, green salad with a lovely sesame dressing, natto (fermented soybeans) and green tea. Jess went for safe Western foods, like scrambled eggs, croissants and fruit salad, washed down with black tea and lots of juice.
Once we finished, we checked out of our hotel and headed to Shin-Osaka station. As we made our way there with ease, Jess noted that since we had mastered the subway system, it was clearly time to leave. At Shin-Osaka station, we got reservations on the next shinkansen (bullet train) for Himeji. The train was very zippy, and dropped us off in Himeji a mere 30 minutes later. Along the way, we were surprised to note that we didn't see any sizable open spaces other than the mountainsides — the plains were packed full of houses, factories, office buildings, etc.
We left our luggage in lockers and headed off to Himeji Jo (castle), a 15-minute walk. We were lucky enough to find that the cherry trees were still blooming around the Castle. Many, many photos were taken. Before entering the main castle, we toured the West Bailey, where a Japanese princess once lived. We were required to remove our shoes and wear leather slippers, which made the going a bit difficult, especially on the stairs. It was worth it, though, to see the second-floor gallery made of rich red, wood, with tons of windows overlooking the Main Keep, and the princess's third-floor rooms with their tatami floors, large windows and life-sized models of Princess Sen and one of her maids.
We wandered around the grounds a bit, admiring the architecture (especially the rooves), poking our heads into storerooms for rice and salt and peering down wells (most of which have dried up), before entering the Main Keep. Again, we were required to remove our shoes and wear slippers, but Jer was pleased to discover that here they had a variety of sizes, including ones large enough for his whole feet. The lower floors of the Main Keep were quite dark and were used for storage, particularly stockpiling food and weapons in case of siege. The middle floors were mostly guard rooms (which doubled as living quarters), but are now a museum detailing the history of the castle and its various rulers. Among the notable exhibits were art and poetry written by the lords of Himeji, as well as their swords, armor, portraits, etc. Some of them were clearly quite artistic, and one wonders if they had the same degree of military skill. The sixth (and top) floor of the castle was largely taken up by a shrine — legend has it that the shrine stood on the hilltop before the castle was built, and when they moved the shrine to erect the castle, bad things happened, until they moved the shrine into the castle. The view from the sixth floor was lovely, if anachronistic, as the town of Himeji is thoroughly modern.
We proceeded back down the stairs (Jess accomplished this by removing her slippers and holding tightly to the railings). As there is no eating permitted in the castle or on the grounds, we headed out into the park, where we had a snack consisting of Jess's Belgian waffle from the AM PM, a bag of airline snacks, a packet of nori that Jer snagged at breakfast, and some spree. Jess successfully used a Japanese toilet (an accomplishment of which she is quite proud, but not one she wishes to repeat).
Next, we wandered over to Kokoen, a traditional Japanese garden. (We had bought a combination pass for the castle and the garden.) The garden had a number of different areas, each with its own theme. Our favorite was the first, with a flowering cherry tree, waterfalls and a bridge over a pond filled with sizable koi. We also enjoyed the pine garden and the bamboo garden.
After leaving Kokoen, we headed back to Himeji station, where we reserved seats on the shinkansen back to Shin-Osaka, and then on a later shinkansen from there to Tokyo. After reclaiming our luggage, we stopped by an eki-ben (train lunchbox) vendor. We attempted to get pressed eel sushi, but unfortunately they were out. We settled on aji (a kind of mackerel). Ordering sushi in Japan is easy! Jess got a steamed chicken bun, as she’s not a mackerel fan.
We had planned on getting off in Osaka to have a late lunch and get an eki-ben in place of dinner, but we were too tired and not hungry enough, and couldn't face the two hour layover. Instead, we hopped off the train, badgered the conductor lady to tell us which cars were unreserved, and hopped back on again. Unlimited rail pass to the rescue!
The trip from Osaka to Tokyo was fast, they don't lie when they call it a bullet train. Still, it was dark when we arrived in Tokyo. Tokyo seemed, unexpectedly, to have far less English than Osaka. This, combined with the byzantine nature of Tokyo rail stations, made finding our train quite difficult. Once we accomplished that, getting to the ryokan (Kikuya Ryokan) was cake, owing largely to the superb map that Jess (being so wonderful) printed off the web site.
Our proprietor, who speaks English charmingly mixed with Japanese, was waiting to check us in and show us to our room. (Jess was thrilled to be addressed as "Jessica-san".) This is the first Japanese-style room we've stayed in. We leave our shoes in the footwell, there are special slippers for the bathroom, and futons on tatami mats in the sleeping area. Everything is visibly worn, but this may be the cleanest place we've stayed. We dropped our bags and headed out in search of MOS Burger. No problem, it's clearly marked on the map. Except the map is a little old, and the MOS Burger was gone, replaced by a karaoke joint. Dismayed, we wandered the streets of Asakusa looking for mutually-agreeable food. We did find a place that served fresh squid (they were swimming in a tank in the window), but nowhere with anything we actually wanted to eat. Eventually we happened upon another MOS Burger! Jess ordered a cheeseburger (which, in addition to a burger, cheese, onion, tomato and the ubiquitous Japanese mayonnaise, also had a sloppy-joe-like topping. Jer ordered a spicy burger, which was similar, but also had jalapenos; his was a combo, with green Fanta, fries and onion rings. Everything was tasty, if a bit wacky.
After dinner we headed back to our ryokan and crawled onto our futons.