Narrow escapes

Yesterday was my second encounter with a cyclone. Fortunately cyclone Nisarga made landfall about 40 kilometers south of earlier predictions, and so missed us by about 80 kilometers. These are enormous disturbances in our atmosphere, so we got rain and high winds all day. But it was the kind of weather we see two or three times every monsoon, so it was not hard to weather. The incident brought back memories of another narrow escape: from typhoon Nangka when I was in Japan five years ago. That was a super typhoon which weakened into a minimal typhoon when it made landfall. The featured photo was taken at Shirasagi-jo, the White Heron Castle in Himeji, a few hours before the landfall. I’m not one to carp at these near misses.

Himeji castle


Himeji Castle is one of the most spectacular castles in Japan. I was specially lucky to be there so soon after the end of a five-year period of renovation. I first saw this castle in Akira Kurosawa’s movies Kagemusha and Ran. For years I seemed to remember Toshiro Mifune in Ran walk up to the gate of this castle and order it to be opened. Years later, on a second view, I saw that Toshiro Mifune does not appear in the movie, and the person who gives the futile order is Tatsuya Nakadai. The brilliant colours of Kurosawa’s movies were not in evidence today: the sky was heavy with clouds preceding typhoon Nangka, which is supposed to hit this part of Japan tonight. But my first view of Himeji castle was breathtaking.


The name Shirasagi-Jo, White Heron Castle, seems appropriate to the imposing structure in pure white edged with black. I climbed 40 meters or so to the seventh floor of the main keep (tenshuku). The castle stands on a stone base, but the main structure is wooden. In about 1610 Ikeda Terumasa, who was given the castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu, finished rebuilding it in its present form. It is now a world heritage site, and a national treasure. When you see it, you have no problem understanding why.

himejic It turns out that the world heritage status could have been removed if the renovation had kept less than 70% of the original material, or used design elements or techniques not in keeping with the original construction. Also, several additions made in the 19th and 20th centuries have been removed. The castle is therefore closer to what it was in the 17th century than it has been in the last two hundred years.

However, the two main pillars which hold up the seven story central keep have been replaced during the Showa period. The east pillar is reputed to have been a single fir tree, but it is now certainly not a single piece of wood. The west pillar was originally a single cypress tree. During a Showa era restoration a replacement cypress tree was brought as a replacement, but broke during installation. The joint can be seen today in the third floor of the castle.


As I left the castle and approached the inner moat I saw one of the local gray herons sitting and looking at the castle. It kept a wary eye on me as I took a close up.


I don’t think I had paid much attention to Kobe before the great Hanshin earthquake of January 1995. Images coming out of this area were so striking (such as this photo of the Hanshin elevated expressway after the quake), and so many people were affected, that Kobe remained in view for several months. The port city seems to have recovered completely, although I’m told that shipping volumes have dropped off since then.

In my mind Kobe is also associated with a personal rediscovery of the now-famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. I’d read him very long ago, when he was first being published in translation. Then, around the beginning of the century, The Family bought a collection of short stories by Murakami called "After the Quake", built in and around Kobe after the earthquake. We read through this together, and then read all of Murakami’s books and stories in the subsequent years.

So now, planning a work trip to Kobe seems like planning to meet a blogger whose posts I read every now then: I have a rough idea of what to expect, but I’m sure that there will be much to surprise. Fortunately I chose a hotel close to Sannomiya station, since it was close to work, but then found that it is also the core district, with a lot to do. It happens to be close to the port, and the artificial island in the bay which holds the airport.

The song of minminzemi is a quite popular sound effect that represents “a hot summer day” in Japanese manga. If you draw a sound effect “min min min” in the background of your manga, you don’t have to make your manga character say “Man, I’m boiling.” You don’t even have to draw a cicada! —Semi, cicada

Japan is perhaps the best country in the world for part time tourists. When you are busy at work from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening and still want to get a feel of local life, Japan obliges by being open around the clock; so when I’m up to it, I’m sure that I’ll get to see Kobe Harborland, the Akashi Kaikyo bridge, the night view from Mount Rokko, the Chinatown, and Kobe’s jazz-bars. There will be time for beef and sushi. I’ll try to take a little time out to go see the Ikuta-Jinja shrine. I would have liked to take a half day off to go see the Himeji castle, but with restoration work on, perhaps this is not the best year to visit. An off-the-beaten-track thing which I hope to do is to go see the K computer, one of the world’s first petaflops computers, and still one of the fastest in the world.

I guess mid-July is a little too early for one of the incredible things about summer in Japan: the sound of cicadas. On the other hand it is not too early for the humid heat of summer, and not too late for the occasional days of torrential rains. It might feel exactly like Mumbai.