All of a sudden, time started to fly. A couple of friendly backpackers had lent me their Lonely Planet (it turns out that Aster Plaza is listed after all), and I ended up with four or five destinations to choose from, discounting Mount Fuji which is neither snow-capped at this time of year, nor visible in the cloudy weather.
After spending the morning Flickring (I have to grab my opportunities where I can), I settled on Himeji first, which the LP describes as a good base for day-trips as hotels are not too expensive there. Apparently most people don’t stop over; the Shinkansen means that everything is within close reach. If there should be no vacancies in Himeji itself, I could press on to Nara. Best of all there was no need to trudge around for hours to seek shelter: I could simply put my pack in a coin locker, see the sights and move on.
What could possibly go wrong?
I was smiling when the train rolled into the station.
Ah, the Shinkansen. Get this: Japan’s super-fast trains run more frequently than the Northern Line. I have never waited longer than ten minutes for one. And you can set your watch by them, except for the one occasion when there was a four-minute delay.
Well, people get sick and accidents happen, but here’s the secret behind Japanese efficiency (aside from expert engineering): there is plenty of staff around to assist with every eventuality. I’ve seen evidence of it in the footage from the Tokyo Typhoon: lights were flashing and the clear-up was underway while the storm was still going on. So if anyone should have a heart attack on a train, help is at hand immediately and no doubt he/she will be whisked away at the next station, speedily and without fuss. That must have been what had happened.
I was in a good mood. I’d received an email from the editor of the Intergalactic Medicine Show that a story of mine is under consideration, one of the ten per cent or so that make it through the slushpile.
Nothing could go wrong today.
My run of luck continued when I spotted the Toyoko Inn from the station. It was more expensive than the LP implied (by about 20%, but then what’s new) and rooms were not available until 4 p.m., but the receptionist offered to look after my luggage so I made a snap decision to stay for the night.
This turned out to be just as well, although by the time I had walked a few hundred paces down the street I began to have my doubts about Himeji’s attractions. It had to be one of the ugliest towns I have seen, and not just on this trip (but read on!).
The whole place had the charm of an industrial park, and while I’m all for urban wildlife, the way it was overgrown was plain ugly. Aside from the weeds that were sprouting from cracks in the pavement and hiding the footpaths and benches in ‘green spaces’ under hip-high growth, the place was almost completely lifeless. This was probably because the residents had closed shop where they could and got the hell out of there for the weekend.
I couldn’t blame them.
By contrast, Himeji is home to the most beautiful castle in all Japan. A must-see for every visitor. If only I could find it.
I had spotted it from the Shinkansen (that was what had made me come back), but it was nowhere visible from street level. So I ended up trudging for hours anyway—in the wrong direction.
That would explain it: as I gaped at a sign I realised that the Toyoko Inn is at the back of the station, not the front, and I had been further confused by another hotel that was called the ‘Castle Hotel’ although it was about as far away from the castle as you can get and still be within Himeji’s city limits.
I had ended up in the equivalent of the ‘burbs.
Once I turned back, things improved rapidly, but it was a two-hour walk before I caught my first glimpse of the castle.
I got there ten minutes before last admissions.