I’m a huge James Bond fan so I couldn’t travel all the way to Japan without paying homage to a castle that 007 himself visited back in the 1960s.
The film was You Only Live Twice, Bond was Sean Connery and Himeji Castle was a ninja training school that he visited with the boss of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka. We travelled there on the Bullet train from Kyoto, a quick 45-minute dash with impressive efficiency, peace and staff who enjoyed a good bow.
We spotted the castle as we drew into the city, standing majestically on its own hill above the unattractive urban sprawl. It was obvious how it got its nickname of the White Heron Castle, its white plaster wings soaring proudly at each storey.
We were lucky. Only a few months previously a major restoration programme that had seen the keep encased in tarpaulin was completed, allowing it to be revealed in all its glory for the first time in several years.
We walked through the city up a wide boulevard of little architectural merit to the castle grounds, along with plenty of other tourists but grateful that we’d avoided the huge crowds that apparently visit at weekends.
Our route through the site was rigidly prescribed and inside the 16th century building – one of the few wooden castles left in Japan – we had to walk about on the shiney wooden floors in our stockinged feet. In truth, the inside wasn’t up to the drama of the exterior. There was little in the way of furniture, the structure itself being the star of the show. A few panels dotted around told the castle’s story and revealed more about the recent restoration.
I was amazed to see photos of it standing amid a wasteland of bomb damage, one of the district’s few survivors of Allied bombing during the Second World War. Apparently it had been dressed in camouflage netting to keep it hidden.
At the heart of the building stand two giant wooden pillars that run from top to bottom and support everything else. Centuries old, they would’ve taken a hell of a lot of felling.
We climbed up from one storey to another amid the crowds, taking in views from the many windows, and admiring the beautiful roof tiles. We also saw secret panels in the walls, where a soldier or two would’ve waited to pounce on any invaders who’d broken through the defences.
The higher we got, the steeper the stairs, the more precarious it felt, the more nervous I became. At the top we found a shrine, which some locals made offerings to. Walking down was even more nerve-wracking.
Outside, in the sultry heat, we drank in views of this immense and spectacular structure, snapped endless photos and then went off to tour some of the castle outbuildings.
The highlight of the grounds was a collection of stunning gardens, all slightly different but all uniquely Japanese. Again, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of them and the peace they offered.
We had katsu in a touristy restaurant, organised with brutal efficiency by an army of middle-aged waitresses, before returning to Kyoto.
In the evening we went back to the Pontocho district and wandered around looking for somewhere to eat. Sometimes having too much choice is a bad thing and there was a huge number of eateries in the streets around and about. We settled for a place that specialised in tempura, and it was OK.
Then we tracked down a place called Sama Sama, at the end of an alleyway off one of the main streets. Run by a delightful Indonesian guy, we took off our shoes and settled into the womb-like warmth of his small bar, supping Indonesian beers and chatting to a number of tourists who’d also landed for the night.
Our host was a fascinating chap who’d lived in Japan for years. Talking to him and a Swiss couple, I got slowly and pleasantly drunk.