Tag Archives: Japan

JNTO Sweepstakes Free trip to Japan

Adachi Museum

Want to go to Japan? Enter the Japan National Tourism Organization’s offering of a free trip for two people to one of three destinations in Japan–your choice. Called Japan: Discover the Land of the Gods Sweepstakes, it centers on three destinations: Dogo Island of Shimane Prefecture’s Oki Island chain; Izumo, also in Shimane Prefecture; and Hiroshima. I know all about them, because I wrote all the descriptions for each of the destinations for the sweepstakes. You have until March 10 to apply.

Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima is a World Heritage Site

I just spent a few days in Hiroshima Prefecture, and I have to say that Miyajima is one of my favorite places in Japan. Because its Itsukushima Shrine is a World Heritage Site, the small island is hardly undiscovered, and yet there are hiking paths that allowed me to be completely on my own yesterday, making it pretty much one of those perfect days. And the oysters! They’re among the largest and juiciest I’ve ever had.

But Izumo is also one of my favorite places, not the least because it’s home to the Adachi Museum, which stunningly blends art and a traditional Japanese garden into one of the most mind-blowing museums anywhere. And the Oki Islands? It’s off the beaten path, with shrines and natural wonders that will certainly place it someday on the international radar.

So act now. Enter at Japan: Discover the Land of the Gods Sweepstakes




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Japan’s Top World Heritage Sites

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

I haven’t been to all of Japan’s 21 UNESCO World Heritage sites, but they’re on my list. Kyoto, of course, is king, with an astounding 17 locations that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site. But Japan’s World Heritage sites are varied and vast, with a list that includes villages, islands, ancient shrines and temples, mountains, a castle, a silver mine and even a bombed-out shell of a building that serves as a somber reminder of Hiroshima’s 1945 atomic blast. What follows are my reviews of Japan’s top World Heritage sites, based on my 30-some years traveling around Japan as author of various Frommer’s guides, including Frommer’s Japan. Whereas some sites are worth seeing if you’re in the vicinity (such as Tokyo’s Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier and added to the list in 2016), most are worth going out of your way for. And some are so spectacular they’re worth the trip to Japan just to see them.

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Places to Visit Between Tokyo and Kyoto


You can zip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Shinkansen bullet train in about 2 ½ hours. But if you have more time on your hands, there are several places to visit between Tokyo and Kyoto that make for easy day or overnight trips along the way. Depending on your interest, you can see castles, shrines, gardens, hot-spring baths, panoramic views of Mt. Fuji, and museums showcasing everything from samurai armor and decorative arts to century-old architecture.

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Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park: Gateway to a national park at the foot of Mt. Fuji, Odawara is where you disembark the bullet train for a delightful circuitous route via mountain railway, cable car, ropeway and sightseeing bus through verdant mountainous countryside. Along the way you can visit a reconstructed castle, soak in hot springs (Hakone Kowakien Yunessun offers outdoor and indoor baths), ramble the landscaped grounds of the Hakone Open-Air Museum with its 400-some sculptures, and learn how restrictive travel was during the days of the shogun at Hakone Check Point by visiting a reconstructed guardhouse. Although you could conceivably complete the journey in a long day, you’ll get more from the experience if you stay overnight in one of Hakone’s many Japanese inns or in the majestic Fujiya Hotel, established in 1878. In clear weather, you might even be able to see Mt. Fuji.

Atami: This seaside town makes for a relaxing day trip, especially if your goal is the beach and boardwalk just a 15-minute walk from the station. There are, however, a few sightseeing options, including the hilltop MOA Art Museum with panoramic views, woodblock prints, Chinese ceramics, lacquerware and other Asian art, and Kiunkaku, a 1919 villa with a mix of Japanese and Western architecture. If you time your visit on a Saturday or Sunday, you can also see geisha performing traditional dance at Atami Geiga Kenban theater and even have your photo taken with one of the performers.

Nagoya: Japan’s fourth-largest city was largely destroyed during World War II, but its castle figures so prominently in history, it was resurrected almost exactly as it was and houses feudal-era swords, flintlocks, paintings on sliding doors and screens and other treasures. Other major draws include the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium and the Tokugawa Art Museum with its samurai gear, decorative arts and other objects that once belonged to the first Tokugawa shogun, plus its Tokugawaen Japanese garden. The Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology depicts the historic progression of the company’s automobile and textile production. If time allows, visit the Museum Meiji Mura with its 60-some buildings and structures from the Meiji Period (1868-1912), including Western- and Japanese-style homes, government buildings, churches, a kabuki theater and the original façade and lobby of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, Museum Meiji Mura is one of my favorite museums in Japan.


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Japanese Tea Ceremony Soothes the Soul

The Japanese tea ceremony might seem like a simple thing, but as with most things Japanese, it is anything but. In fact, developed to free the mind and soul of worry and thought, it’s a highly choreographed ritual that takes years to learn. Samurai used it to clear their minds during long war campaigns. Aristocracy used it as a form of relaxation. Housewives learn it to round out their education. Businessmen take it up as a way to escape the rigors of business. Simply put, the Japanese tea ceremony soothes the soul, but it also demands patience, discipline and dedication. One of my first experiences with the seemingly simple procedure occurred years ago, when a woman I met at a budget Japanese inn asked whether she could serve me tea as a way to practice what she’d learned. As she went through the many steps, apologizing for being such an amateur, I asked how long she’d been studying. Only seven years, she replied. As far as she was concerned, she had much to learn.

Nothing is left to chance in a Japanese tea ceremony. The way the charcoal is lit, the placement of the tea utensils, the selection of the tea bowl based on the seasons, even the vocabulary–all is strictly proscribed. With time, the movements and the ceremony become fluid, allowing thoughts to flow freely from one step to the next.

Read more about how the Japanese Tea Ceremony soothes the soul in my article, Bucket List: Japanese Tea Ceremony, published July 2017 in Global Traveler.

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Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto

Every first-timer to Japan should see Tokyo and Kyoto, but there’s so much more to explore. From the beaches of Okinawa to the rugged mountains of Hokkaido’s national parks, Japan has enough to keep travelers busy for a lifetime. I myself have been traveling around Japan for more than 30 years and have been to more than 60 cities and towns, mostly while writing and updating Frommer’s Japan. But there are countless places I haven’t yet seen.

I have, however, visited all the destinations cited in this advertorial I wrote on Japan that appeared in the March issue of Conde Nast Traveler. Even so, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Conde Nast Advertorial

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Hiraizumi 12th-century Buddhist Utopia in Japan

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi


Most of Japan’s history–skirmishes and wars between feudal lords, legends surrounding ancestors of the Imperial Family, even the location of its capitals–played out on the southwestern end of the main island of Honshu, so it’s not surprising that most of its historic sights and World Heritage sites are also found there. But in Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu, Hiraizumi is a town I very much would have wanted to visit if I had been alive in 12th-century Japan. It was created as a Buddhist heaven on earth, a place of sprawling temples, pagodas, sutras, gardens and quarters for hundreds of monks. It lasted only 100 years before being sacked by the man who would go on to become shogun over the land, but Hiraizumi’s influence on Japan was tremendous. This article I wrote for BBC.com/travel, A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery, tells why.


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A Fan of Japanese Fans

The warm summer months are almost upon us, which reminds me of the first time I saw a Japanese woman cooling herself with a fan, and instantly I knew: I want one of those!

Fans for sale at Oriental Bazaar in Tokyo

Fans for sale at Oriental Bazaar in Tokyo

Over the years I’ve acquired a modest collection of Japanese fans, some of them purchased in souvenir shops, some given to me as presents, some passed out free by companies as advertisements. While I appreciated their practicality and their beauty, it wasn’t until I visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts that I also grew to appreciate the work and skill that goes into crafting the slats of wood that form the ribs, producing the paper, and painting the designs that grace the very best.

No one knows exactly how the idea of fans originated (though my money is on a middle-aged woman experiencing her first hot flash), but the Chinese were using flat, rigid fans by the 2nd century B.C. and exported their invention to Japan some time around the 7th century, whereupon the Japanese improved on the concept by inventing the folding fan. Before long, folding fans, made of cypress ribs covered with parchment, evolved from being merely functional to becoming an essential accessory, the rage of the Heian court (794-1192). As the centuries passed, they also assumed an importance in Shinto religious ceremonies, dances, the tea ceremony, and theatrical arts.

Today, Japanese fans range from inexpensive souvenirs to handmade, exquisitely crafted folding fans that can cost well over $500. For me, however, fans remain mostly a means to stay cool (I don’t use much air conditioning at home), and I keep my collection handy to pass out to visiting friends. I also keep one in my purse, and when I pull it out to fan myself in line at the post office, at an outdoor concert, or a baseball game, someone will invariably turn to me and say: “I wish I had one of those!”


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A Hakodate Stopover

Commodore Perry in Hakodate

Commodore Perry in Hakodate

More than a quarter of a century ago, it used to be a long haul to travel from Tokyo to Hakodate, long considered the gateway to Hokkaido. After traveling the better part of a day by train to the tip of Honshu island, you then had to board a ferry for the 4-hour journey onward to Hakodate. I always thought the ferry was a fun change from the usual train travel, though there were also times when all I wanted was to get to my Hakodate stopover as quickly as possible and settle into my hotel. Then, in 1988, the Seikan Tunnel opened for business, with an underwater rail line between Honshu and Hokkaido cutting travel time from Tokyo to Hakodate to about six hours.

Now, of course, 1988 seems quaintly ancient. Last month the Hokkaido Shinkansen made its debut, linking Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in just a little more than four hours. Heck, you could almost do Hakodate on a day trip! But while the Hokkaido Shinkansen is good news for Hokkaido, I’m not so sure it’s great for Hakodate. For one thing, Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station is not actually in Hakodate itself but rather a 20-minute train ride away. Furthermore, the Hokkaido Shinkansen will eventually be extended all the way to Sapporo, with an expected completion sometime around 2030.  In other words, long gone are the days when Hakodate was about as far as you could get in a day’s journey from Tokyo. Bypassed by the Shinkansen, it is also no longer the gateway to Hokkaido. My guess is that many visitors will literally pass it by. And that’s a shame, because Hakodate is a great stopover destination.

Motomachi, Hakodate

Motomachi, Hakodate

In addition to a famous nighttime attraction and an early morning must-see, Hakodate boasts historic districts I love to explore. Indeed, with its old-fashioned streetcars, waterfront brick warehouses now housing restaurants and shops, and broad sloping streets lined with turn-of-the-20th-century Western-style clapboard homes, former embassies and churches, Hakodate retains the atmosphere of a frontier port town. Maybe that’s why more than 60 movies have been filmed here in as many years. For young Japanese, Hakodate is irresistibly romantic.

One of the most romantic spots is atop Mount Hakodate, 1,100 feet high and accessible from the city center in just three minutes via cable car. Although the view of Hakodate’s lights shimmering like jewels on black velvet is impressive, what I most like about the experience is the camaraderie among viewers and the collective oohs and ahs of arriving newcomers (take note: it’s chilly at the top, even in August).

The next morning I always get up early to walk through the morning market, convenientlyDSCN0178 located right next to Hakodate Station and famous for its huge crabs. Motomachi, with its churches, former administrative buildings, and vintage homes, is another great place for a stroll, as is the nearby warehouse district with its shopping and dining opportunities. If time permits, you might also wish to take in the Museum of Northern Peoples with its Ainu artifacts; Goryokaku, a park famous for its cherry trees and 150-year-old star-shaped fort; and the hot-spring baths in Yunokawa. There’s also the Seikan Ferry Memorial Mashu-maru, which chronicles the history of ferry transportation between Honshu and Hokkaido from 1908 to 1988.

Although traveling by train is unquestionably faster, I sometimes miss the days of the ferry, when unpredictable weather patterns, vistas of open seas, and passenger rooms filled with families, noisy tour groups, and business travelers made getting to Hokkaido as much of an adventure as being there. But for romantics who still like traveling the old-fashioned way, there is still ferry service between Aomori and Hakodate. If possible, therefore, I suggest arriving in Hokkaido by ferry. Save the futuristic-looking bullet train for the trip back.

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Osaka is No Tokyo, and Doesn’t Want to Be

Osaka Castle is the city's most iconic landmark

Osaka Castle is the city’s most iconic landmark

It’s no secret that there’s a long-standing rivalry between Osaka and Tokyo. In fact, after hearing people debate which city is better, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. Rather, I like to think both cities and their inhabitants have their unique selling points. It’s like comparing New York to LA. What’s the point?

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

In recent years, Osaka has been spiffing up its image and its urban landscape, most notably around Osaka Station and the Tennoji/Abeno districts. This article I wrote for Global Traveler, Discover the Hip Business Ambience of Modern Osaka, describes some of these recent developments, as well as some of the most notable differences between Osaka and Tokyo. Most peculiar: Tokyoites stand on the left side of a moving escalator while Osakans queue on the right. In fact, so much is this difference ingrained in the national psyche, that The Japan Times ran an article on April 1, 2015, about a new city ordinance that would require all Osakans to stand on the left to avoid confusion.

It was, of course, an April Fool’s Joke. Osakans wouldn’t stand for it.

Japan's tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

Japan’s tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

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Tokyo Woos Tourists, Business Entrepreneurs

View of Tokyo toward Tokyo Bay

View of Tokyo toward Tokyo Bay

Tokyo’s working climate has changed dramatically since Debbie Howard came to Japan in 1985 and subsequently set up her own market research company. Japan was on top of the world back then, and most Japanese seemed content with their own products and way of doing business. But the 1992 economic bubble burst made it painfully clear that Japan could no longer live without joining the global market. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown was a wake-up call that Japan also needed international tourists.


The Ginza

After launching an aggressive campaign to increase the number of international tourists to Japan, 2014 brought the largest number of foreign visitors ever, 13 million compared to 8.6 million in 2010. Japan’s goal is to have 20 million visitors by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic summer games.

Tokyo is also opening itself to foreign investors by creating economic incentives and providing assistance with complicated paperwork. All this and more is in my article Tokyo Focuses On A Successful Future appearing in the June issue of Global Traveler.

Young girl in New Otani Hotel's garden

Young girl in New Otani Hotel’s garden

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Lodging in Japan

Ah, sleep. Does it matter where we do it? Absolutely!

Every country has its share of unique lodging opportunities, from castles and manors in England to eco-lodge treehouses in South America.

In Japan, there are the usual luxury hotels (though there’s nothing usual

The Unzen Kanko Hotel opened in 1935

The Unzen Kanko Hotel opened in 1935

about the wealth of decor and degree of polished service) and mainstream tourist hotels. But there are also traditional Japanese inns, Buddhist temples, love hotels (usually rented by the hour but also available for overnight stays), capsule hotels with coffin-sized accommodations, government-owned lodges in national parks and more.

Information on these and others, as well as where to go for more information, is the focus of my article Japan Lodging: Inns, Temples, Luxury Hotels and More in IndependentTraveler.com.

The Conrad Tokyo provides mesmerizing views of Tokyo Bay and Hama Rikyu Garden from many of its rooms

The Conrad Tokyo provides mesmerizing views of Tokyo Bay and Hama Rikyu Garden from many of its rooms

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12 Best Experiences in Japan

There’s so much to do in Japan, you could write a book about it! But it seems lists are big these days.

The five best luxury hotels in Hong Kong. The best national parks in the U.S. The best beaches in the world.

Here’s my contribution to the world of lists: The 12 Best Japan Experiences, published February 2014 in IndependentTraveler.com. Japanese cuisine, the Buddhist temples of Mt. Koya, biking across the Shimanami Kaido, the art island of Naoshima, hot-spring baths and more are on the list. But seriously, it should be The 100 Best Japan Experiences.

Naoshima combines scenic beauty with cutting-edge art

Naoshima combines scenic beauty with cutting-edge art

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Update on Himeji Castle

A reader asked about the progress being made on Himeji Castle’s restoration, which I wrote about in a previous post published Nov 3, 2011. The reader wanted to know whether it was worth visiting the castle in mid-March, so I thought it pertinent to give an update for people traveling to Japan this year. This was my reply (which appears under the Nov 3 post):

It looks like mid-March is not an opportune time to visit Himeji Castle. The special viewing platform (Egret’s View) allowing visitors to see restoration work up close and personal was taken down January 14. As of now, the scaffolding is being taken down piece by piece, with completion slated for August at the earliest. And the main keep (tower) that has been covered up for the past few years is closed to the public until March 27 of this year.
There are other parts of the castle open to the public, however, and some of the keep may be visible by the time of your visit. You can follow the progress of the work being done by Kajima, the construction doing the renovation, at: http://www.kajima.co.jp/tech/himeji_castle/index-j.html
It’s in Japanese, but I find the videos fascinating.
So I guess it depends on your own interests. There is certainly plenty to see, but mid-March might be a disappointment if your main interest is the outside view of the castle of seeing the inside of the main keep.


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Kobe’s Chinatown

This article on Kobe’s Chinatown appeared in the October issue of Skyward, Japan Airlines’ domestic magazine.

Kobe’s Slice of China

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The Wolverine comes to Japan

Although I have seen Iron Man movies (thanks to my sons, though how hard is it to watch anything with Robert Downey Jr. in it?), I’m not much of a superhero fan.

When asked to write a review for The Wolverine, however, I became interested in seeing the new movie when it comes out July 26, for several reasons. Foremost, it was filmed in Japan (as well as a studio in Australia), both in Tokyo and a rural fishing village. I especially like movies set in Tokyo, because it’s something of a game for me to identify exactly where scenes were filmed. Second, it’s more of a character study than the usual action-packed, adrenaline-laced superhero film, with Japan serving as a metaphor for Logan’s tormented soul. Anyway, here’s my review, on the Japan National Tourism Organization’s website.

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AAA Promotes “Affordable Japan” tour with my Articles

AAA is offering a guided tour of Japan, which I think is great (Japan still needs tourists, even two years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant fiasco devastated the Tohoku coast and sent the economy into a tailspin). This tour will take in Tokyo and Kyoto, plus a stop in Hakone along the way. You can read more about the tour in AAA Traveler’s March/April 2013 issue in my article, The Many Faces of Japan. (Well, maybe; you have to enter a zip code for Northern CA, Utah or Nevada; try 89501 for Reno).

In the same issue’s emag is my spread on Japanese baths and etiquette in Japan called Getting into Hot Water.

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The Adachi Museum’s Picture-Perfect Views

I’m sitting here in my home office, looking out the window at bare trees, neighborhood houses, and a drab winter landscape, but I know of a museum in Japan that has picture-perfect views from its windows every season of the year. The Adachi Museum, in Shimane Prefecture, blows me away every time I lay eyes on its masterpieces.

To be sure, its collection of contemporary Japanese paintings from the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras is top class, with approximately 200 works on display at any given time, shown on a rotating basis in four annual exhibitions that change with the seasons. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of works by Taikan Yokoyama, credited with harmonizing European and traditional Japanese painting styles, with at least 20 of his works forming the backbone of every exhibition. I especially like his landscapes, with “Autumn Leaves” and paintings of Mt. Fuji among my favorites. The museum also supports emerging artists by displaying their contemporary Japanese-style paintings (nihonga) in an annex.

The main garden incorporates background hills

The main garden incorporates background hills

But what sets the Adachi Museum apart are its stunningly beautiful gardens, which perfectly complement the seasonal exhibitions and are visible throughout the museum through cleverly crafted windows. The effect is surreal, as though the framed landscapes themselves are works of art, a scroll, or even a Taikan Yokoyama painting. In fact, I consider the gardens here among the top landscaped gardens in Japan.

There are several different types of gardens, many with outdoor viewing platforms, including a tranquil moss garden, a white gravel and pine garden (which recreates Yokoyama’s “Beautiful Pine Beach” painting), and the museum’s main garden, a magnificent dry landscape garden which incorporates distant mountains into its scheme of meticulously pruned pines, boulders, cropped bushes, and gravel designed to resemble a flowing river. Like the museum’s paintings, the gardens change also with the seasons, with azaleas lending their fuchsia colors in spring, the sun’s rays reflecting different shades of green in summer, maples blazing red in autumn, and snow providing a delicate blanket of white in winter.

Windows display views of the garden like a work of art

Windows display views of the garden like a work of art

It all makes my own backyard seem pretty pitiful, but just now, for an instant, I was transported right back to the Adachi Museum as I closed my eyes, conjured up my memories of its gardens, and composed this post.

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Tohoku says thank you

It would be hard not to relive some of the emotions we all felt when Tohoku was ravaged by earthquake and tsunami on 3.11 when we watch this heartfelt thank you from the people who lived through it.

Tohoku says thank you

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No Free Trips After All

Japan’s announcement a few months back that it would offer 10,000 free flights in 2012 turns out to have been only a dream. Unsurprisingly, the government has determined it can’t afford the publicity stint. Looks like people who really want to help the local economy by traveling in Japan will have to get there on their own yen.

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Himeji Castle Renovation a Mind-boggling Task

I consider Himeji Castle to be Japan’s most beautiful fortress. Completed in 1618 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, it’s the main tourist draw in Hyogo Prefecture, and deservedly so. Thus it was with some trepidation that authorities decided to embark on a five-year restoration project of the castle’s roof and plaster walls, necessitating the erection of a protective shroud over the castle and a partial shutdown of the castle’s interior.  

   To be sure, it’s a major disappointment for tourists to find Himeji Castle hidden from view until 2014. Yet the story of its restoration is remarkable, and no effort was spared to make a trip here no less of an experience. First of all, temporary scaffolding was constructed over the main keep, complete with an adjacent elevator and viewing platforms of the exterior’s 7th and 8th floors, giving visitors a bird’s-eye-view of the painstaking restoration work being done on the rooftop and plaster walls. As many as 80,000 roof tiles are being removed and either cleaned or replaced. Plastering of the castle’s walls is being carried out using traditional methods, with plaster made of salt-baked slaked lime, shell ash (produced by baking the shells of oysters, bloody clams, freshwater clams, and other clams), hemp fibers, and seaweed harvested in Hokkaido. It’s so rare to be able to see work like this in progress, let alone such an up-close view of the castle’s roof, that even people who have already been here are coming just for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

   It took one year alone just to construct the scaffolding, and when restoration is complete, it will take another year to remove it. Himeji Castle will then shine again in all its glory, renewed, restored, and ready for future generations of admirers.

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