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Vertical Japan: Awaji Island and Himeji Castle

Vertical Japan: Awaji Island and Himeji Castle

A traveler in Japan ventures out of the big cities to admire the art of Tadao Ando on Awaji Island and relish in the beauty of Himeji Castle.

I was in Japan in the summer of 2018 for just under two weeks. What an experience. Like all people sensitive to visual stimuli, I was impressed by Tokyo and Kyoto. But Japan is not just these two beautiful cities. There is much more to admire. For example, when I was hosted by a friend in Kobe, I had the chance to visit, Awaji-shima, an incredibly fascinating island nearby that is not overrun with tourists.

My friend introduced me to the island during a day trip with him and his family. We drove around and once we crossed the bridge that connects the Prefecture of Hyōgo to the island – an impressive construction – we headed towards one of the two wonders of the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando that are present on the territory: Honpukuji, the Temple of Water, a place of worship linked to Tantric Buddhism. As soon as we got there, I asked myself, “Where are we?” We were surrounded completely by nature without a single trace of construction.

After walking past a high concrete wall, we arrived at a small pond covered with lotus flowers, and in the middle, a staircase that led underground. The Temple, or rather the interior of the Temple, was located there below. I still remember the red hue, its circular shape, and the natural light from behind the altar, a force that illuminated the Buddha statue in a magical way.

After a lunch break and after a few stops, we finished our trip by visiting Ando’s second wonder: the Yumebutai. Though the complex that today includes a conference center, hotel, small amphitheater, and restaurants, it essentially remains a civil memorial, built to commemorate the 1995 earthquake that struck the island and its surroundings. The architect originally persuaded the local authorities to buy the territory where the complex stands – a territory whose land was used mainly for the development of Osaka and its surroundings – to design the construction of a park for recreational purposes.

However, the earthquake struck and Ando revised his plans to construct a monument and developed the Hyakudanen, an inclined grid of flower beds located behind the hotel. The overall image is splendid: a bed of flowers associated with all four seasons arranged in a hundred small square gardens on different levels, a design that represents the possibility of returning to contemplate the beauty of nature after the disaster.

During my stay in Kobe, I made another trip out of town, but in this case alone. I took a local train to the city of Himeji. Here stands one of Japan’s oldest and most beautiful castles–along with those of Matsumoto and Kumamoto. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, Himeji Castle visible as soon as you leave the train station — central, on the horizon, like a mirage. Its characteristic color is white, its presence imposing.

The history of its construction is complex, through the centuries, the epochs and the epochal changes of Japan, such as the abolition of the feudal system (1871). Throughout this time, the structure has substantially resisted many hardships, including recent ones such as the bombings of World War II and the 1995 earthquake. Then, once inside, if you visit it in its entirety, you have the feeling of being inside a spiral labyrinth that rises to the sky. Outside, on the other hand, you can admire an enchanting garden. Cinephiles might recognize Himeji Castle from the films Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985).

Spending a few days outside of Japan’s big cities offers a sense of the beauty that extends beyond the visible, below and above us.

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