Thursday, February 17, 2011

Now hold on just ONE Shi-mo-no-sek-ond!

I broke my land-speed record the other day. I'm going to have to go faster than 200 mi/hr if I ever want to do THAT again.

That's right, I rode a shin-kan-sen (speed train) all the way down to Shimonoseki in Western Japan. These intense trains are expensive, but they are a super-smooth ride that feels sort of like you're riding a ground airplane. It looks something like this when you really get going.

It's a 5-hour shin-kan-sen ride from Tokyo to Shimonoseki, but we stopped at a very special castle along the way.

It's called Himeji Castle, the White Heron, or the White Eaglet. The castle gets its name from its many It was build in the 1300s by feudal warlords, and has been expanded upon and gifted to various shoguns ever since. By the time of it's glory days in the 1700s, this place was MASSIVE, and it looked something like THIS:

Three layers of gigantic walls and moats line the fortress. The ramparts are lined with hundreds of tiny holes for archers to shoot down, and offered a commanding view of the countryside.

There is only one path up to the keep. Gatehouse after gatehouse protected this winding path from attackers. As we walked up the winding pathway to the top, crows circled overhead, cawing at sightseers below. It definitely added to the warlike menace of the place.

Every inch of the castle was inscribed with elaborate and artistic designs and emblems. Each roof tile was made of clay, and actually had its own insignia engraved on it. The elements of design were astounding and artful. 14th Century Japan was way ahead of 14th century Europe in technology, sanitation, and organization.

It was truly breathtaking. Unfortunately, in the most disappointing tourist event of my life, the main keep was actually closed off. Yes, they build a scaffold around the entire castle to do renovations. I really couldn't see any part of it or go inside.

Bummer, man...

I'll recover.. but I'm going to be sad for a while. And I don't like how that little steamy-bun is so smug about the whole thing. Who is he kidding!? Where are my castle hat and cherry blossoms!? How come HE gets to look so stylish.. >_<

I guess you could say we visited during the Hi-MEJI RESTORATION. (Gyaa ha ha ha! History joke mixed with a pun.. major kudos to myself) At least they were nice enough to paint a picture of the original castle on the side.. thanks guys! That really helps my imaginary view of this historic monument!

After the Hi-MEJOR excitement (lawlz), we moved on to Shimonoseki, where I attended a lovely Valentine's Day dinner that was graced by a Japanese Gospel Choir (Yes, "Gospel" as in Sister Act, not as in the Gathers). There was one boy in the choir. He was actually a Buddhist priest. I guess he knows 'where da ladiez at.'

The choir was talented, no doubt, but my more distinct memories of the town include seeing Akama Shrine.. a very famous shrine dedicated to a young emperor who died in the battle of Battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185. This was one of the most significant events in Japanese history.

I have too many pictures of this shrine to post on this blog, but it looks something like this:

These guys are pretty neat.. they are carved out of solid stone, and the ball locked in their mouths is carved out from the inside and cannot be removed. They may look like lions, but they're actually 'guardian dogs'.. AKA guard dogs. They watch both sides of any given gate, so where there's one, there's two. Oh, and they only obey commands from the spectral plane, so don't even try to get them to do a trick. Trust me, I tried.

Sometimes one pup's mouth will be open (ah) and one's will be closed (mmh). This is because in the Japanese syllabary "ah" is the first sound and "mmh" is the last, signifying the "beginning and the end."

Oh, and did I mention these crabs (sold as "good luck charms") have faces on their undersides?

Yes, those are real crabs. Yes, they're creepy, but you have to admit.. they're pretty cool.

I also found out the "spirit world" has doorbells. You learn something new every day.

What I mean by that, is that when you come to consult a "spirit" at this very functional Shinto-Buddhist temple, you're first supposed to "wake him up" if he's sleeping. Once you do that, he enters the mirror at the back of the room and you can walk up to the box behind the bell, clap, bow, and drop some coins in. That is the word on the street, anyway. I didn't ring it... I was out of girl scout cookies that day.

After that, we went to the harbor nearby and explored some local delicacies. The following photo shows me taking a LIFE THREATENING RISK:

Yes. That's pufferfish sashimi. I also had pufferfish soup! Shimonoseki is sort of known for pufferfish, so it would have been rude not to at least try some, right? Pufferfish is poisonous if not prepared correctly. I was playing a dangerous game of life and death.

Needless to say, I am no longer with us.

But I didn't die. I'm just in Japan for a while.

The pufferfish was okay.. not really anything spectacular. Some of the OTHER sashimi, however, was quite good. This includes the eel in the lower left corner of the picture to the right (it looks like a banana slice.. kind of tastes like it, too).

 After I ate the pufferfish, I made sure to have a chat with the rest of his family.

Ugly buggers, aren't they? Don't worry, some of them are cuter and more cuddly.

After the pufferfish sushi, my friends and I enjoyed some sea urchin ice cream (no joke!)...

Sea urchin ice cream... tastes like ocean, coral, and blueberries!
All in all, I'd have to say it was a pretty good trip. If you're ever in Western Japan, I recommend dropping by Shimonoseki..

Well, friends, I guess the time has come once again for me to sign off. To those of you who've made it this far, thank you! In return I would like to offer you the following words of advice:

Read the sign. Do what it says. That strategy has worked pretty well for me so far.

Michael Out.

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