Sunday, January 28, 2007

Finally-some sightseeing

Last Friday night I told Bonnie about a Japanese castle in Okayama and she seemed interested in it so on Saturday I asked her if she wanted to go see it. After making sure she understood this was not a Cinderella type of castle but a man's kind of castle for fighting battles, we put on our walking shoes and caught the train to the heart of Okayama.

After a short ride on the trolley down the center of Okayama's main street, we hopped off and walked past Korokuen garden (one of the three most famous gardens in Japan, but not so great to see this time of year) to the outskirts of the castle.

Okayama Jo ("jo" means "castle")is one of only two black castles in Japan. The rest of them are white. In fact, one of the most famous castles in Japan is in Himeji, about 40 minutes east of Okayama by local train. Himeji Jo (White Egret Castle) belonged to Ikeda Terumasa, who was a rival of Ukita Hideie, feudal lord of Okayama. For Japanese history buffs, Ukita was an adopted son of Japan's first Shogun,Tototomi Hideyoshi, who united the whole country under a single authority in the 1600s. When Ukita built his own castle in 1597, he painted it black and called it Crow Castle (U-Jo) as a joke. The castle has also been called Kin-u-jo (Gold Crow Castle) because it's top roof tiles were gilded in real gold. Today there are some golden fish topping the turrets (something Bonnie noticed right away) which are really spectaular to see. At night, the castle is lit with spotlights and since it stands on a hill overlooking the Asahi River, it is a breathtaking sight if you happen to be taking a train over the water(which we have done many times).

While Himeji castle still stands, the original Okayama Jo, which had been recognized as a national treasure in the 1930s, was destroyed by U.S. bombs in WWII. In 1966 it was rebuilt using reinforced concrete and is an almost pefect replica of the original (something the Japanese seem very proud of). The only buiilding which completely escaped the air raid and subsequent fire was the Tsukimi Yagura (Turret for Moon-Viewing). This kind of turet is extremely rare anywhere in Japan. In addition to moon viewing, the turret was used to protect the castle from raids so it has peepholes ringing the bases of the walls. These are also quite unusual among Japanese castles. Bonnie was fascinated by them, as well as the natural stone walls made with round stones, one layer on top ofthe other (called "nozura-zumi). The corners are filled with smaller pebbles. She was surprised that the stones were real and wanted me to take a picture. Showing her discriminating eye, she later asked if she could play on the original foundation stones that were brought to a garden inside the castle walls during the 1966 reconstruction. Since I saw some guys using them as benches while they stopped for a smoke break, I told her to go ahead. She had a good time jumping from stone to stone and the only way I could convince her to stop was by pointing out that it was getting late if we still wanted to go inside.

After paying a noiminal $3 (half price for Bonnie) we got to see the museum inside. Unfortunately it was all in Japanese so we had to content outselves with climbing to the sixth floor to look out the topmost turret (right above a gorgeous golden fish) at Korakuen garden, which I'm sure would be beautiful if it wasn't winter. We also saw some the old samurai armour (which scared Bonnie) and pictures of the old castle and the reconstruction. Bonnie got to ride inside a replicated palanquin and pretend to be a Japanese princess, but I couldn't convince her to try on a kimono and wig and pose for a picture. When I lived in Okayama before, the castle had been closed for remodeling so this was my first chance inside. I really felt that Bonnie was finally getting some exposure to the culture of Japan and I was pleased that she seemed to enjoy it. Ever since we got back, she has been drawing pictures of the castle so I guess she liked it. She has even promised me that when my friend comes to visit in April, she will show her how to get to the castle while I'm at work.

Most of all, it was a nice day for us to bond as a family and share some of the culture. It was one of the best days I've had in Japan since we got here in June. Hope some of you can come visit us and see the castle for yourselves. I have to admit, I hope I have piqued some interest. We would really love to have some friends share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with us.