Leaving Osaka, compared to the expectations we had about biking through the city to Kobe, was a breeze. The primary barrier was now people and not cars; the sidewalks were generally crowded with humans and we were trying to be considerate as we rode along the sidewalks. Getting to Kobe happened rather quickly. We stopped in at a Sushiro in Amagasaki before continuing on to Kobe.
Arriving in Kobe as the daylight faded afforded us a chance to see the insanity of Sannomiya and Kobe proper for all of its neon glory. We checked out a couple of parks without much luck: one of the parks had us climb uphill for a while to discover that it was surrounded on all southern sides by a rock wall. We found ourselves at a proverbial and literal dead end in the city without any options. Tired from the long day, we opted to stay in a hotel. The free camps of the great northern michi-no-eki stops were long behind us. The Kobe Luminous hotel would have to house us for the night.
I had arranged to meet up with a dear old friend of mine when I discovered that he couldn’t make it to a gathering in Himeji. David Gradie and I used to work together in Himeji for Peppy Kids Club. Dave’s first daughter, Hana, was born the year I arrived in Japan. She’s now eleven and I’m feeling old. Dave and I met up at Sannomiya Station and explored the city while we recounted old war stories from the Japan we both knew in 2005-06. It is great seeing old friends.
The next day, we grabbed some pastries and coffee at Vie De France beside Hyogo Station before we repacked our panniers and bikes, and set out to find the elusive and reputedly wonderful Akashi to Himeji Cycling Road, which would be keeping us safely separated from car traffic as we made our way back to my old stomping grounds. We made a quick stop in Akashi to see the great suspension bridge and watch a children’s taiko drumming team perform.
After finally finding the so-called Cycle Road, we pushed through to Himeji to meet up with some of my old friends. Ai and her husband Naoto were generously hosting us in their place to the west of Himeji castle, so we rode past the great white palace and arrived in the dark after stopping to pick up some treats and drinks.
My wonderful old friends Dai and Ai were waiting for us outside of her house, worried that we might have been turned around. We were actually just distracted by the children’s matsuri taking place in Himeji Tsuji and were trying to ride through it. Another dear friend of mine, Take, was waiting for us downtown so we quickly freshened up and got changed to meet him. Ai’s husband Naoto had worked all day and was feeling pretty tired so he elected to stay home and watch Ai’s two Yorkshire terriers.
Downtown we met up with Take, another friend who has since become a father of two since my time living in Japan. Ai took us to a sushi bar near the station that offered all sorts of different types of high-end sushi dishes. I’ll never forget the fugu tempura.
Fugu is the Japanese name for the famous puffer blowfish dish; it’s considered a true Japanese delicacy. The detail that most foreigners know about fugu is something many of learned from an early Simpsons episode: it’s deadly poisonous when not prepared correctly. I gave my Japanese friends a hard time about trying to kill me after surviving the trip all the way down to Himeji, but Ai (in her gentle way) reminded me that in order to serve fugu you needed a license and there was nothing to worry about.
It was incredible. It was – all at once – some of the best fish and best tempura I have ever tasted. It might have been the endless beer that Take kept ordering, but I was emphatically thrilled to have discovered this dish. I can’t believe I went this long without eating it. I need to find a registered fugu chef wherever we end up at the end of this journey. Wow.
After dinner we went to visit another old friend, Yayoi, at her bar Nobu. Yayoi used to run and own the infamous Tiger Pub in Himeji back when I lived there and it was a famous stop in for gaijin expats and travelling foreigners alike before she closed its doors in 2007. She later opened Nobu as a standing bar and it was as popular as ever. Hanako, another friend I used to know from hanging out at Tiger Pub arrived on her bicycle screaming and raving as she saw me in the distance. Instead of giving me a great big hug right away she accused me of not remembering her. Hilarious. She and Bronwyn really hit it off. Many nama chu beers later, we decided to call it a night and head home. Bronwyn and I would have another full day of sightseeing to do the next day and we needed to rest.
After our year of teaching in China, Bronwyn and I had visited Japan for a six-day whirlwind tour and made Himeji one of our primary stops to see old friends and visit the great Himeji-jo, arguably Japan’s greatest castle. At the time, the castle was undergoing a huge reconstruction effort and we had to pass on seeing it. It felt crucial that we visit it now in 2016 after the incredible renovation effort.
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The castle was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it. We made the mistake of going on a Sunday afternoon of a national holiday long weekend. I have visited Himeji-jo six or seven times and I’ve never seen it so packed with people.
Bronwyn was a trooper, and after a couple of hours at the castle she still was interested in seeing Shoshazan and all of its majestic old temples.
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They used this location to film The Last Samurai and all anyone ever talks about is Tom Cruise visiting Himeji. It’s a remarkable little spot just a short gondola ride away from the busy streets of the city. Another stop at Sushiro that night rounded the day out nicely.
The next day, we decided to make Ai a special Canadian birthday breakfast using the apple pancake recipe we had honed during our michi-no-eki camping experiences before we left Himeji. We arranged to meet Dai and Take for some okonomiyaki before we headed off to the port and Take brought his two kids.
Ai came along with us and they wished us a wonderful bon voyage as we set sail for Shodo Island.
Himeji sits in a special place in my heart and memories, mostly for the awesome people who live there and made those days in Japan so special so long ago.
Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com