Where Diego runs into a samurai, sips a cup of tea, and gawks at a manhole cover.
The next day dawned bright and sunny – perfect conditions for visiting another castle.
Another ride on the Yakumo limited express train, though at about 2.5 hours this journey was much longer than yesterday’s. This time I rode it far beyond Takahashi and all the way to the historic city of Matsue, capital of Shimane Prefecture, near the Sea of Japan.
The city has several fine attractions, but with my tight schedule (and as a Japanese castle enthusiast) I had just one target for today: Matsue Castle. Completed in 1611, this ancient fortress is one of only 12 castles in Japan that still have their original tenshu, like Bitchū-Matsuyama which I visited previously.
Walking towards the entrance, the first I saw of the castle were its formidable walls, and a slight blush of white along the top from some of its blooming cherry trees.
Near the gate, a man clad in full armour kindly posed for (and with) visitors.
Just inside, food stalls were starting to prepare for the expected crowds. The area was still fairly quiet this early in the morning, but things turned much more lively – and packed – as the day wore on.
Time to head into the castle compound. Within the walls, the ubiquitous cherry trees were at the height of their glory.
And finally, at the heart of the complex, the mighty tenshu itself.
I popped inside for a closer look. Some of the interior space was being used as a museum, with one of the more interesting artefacts on display being a fan that is said to have belonged to Sanada Yukimura (there’s a snapshot of it among the pictures below).
I climbed up to the uppermost storey and was rewarded with great views of the surrounding area.
After my tour of the tower, I headed back out into the bright sunshine. It was getting closer to midday now and the crowds had grown, with people happily picnicking under the sakura. There was a real variety to the way the locals practised hanami: elderly women gathering upon a blanket to swap stories, a younger group arriving with a badminton set, others content to stroll together underneath the canopy of blossoms or share bowls of tea within sight of the trees.
I bought tea and a sweet from a nearby stall and settled down for a breather. Bliss.
On my way out, I happily snapped more pictures of the splendid cherry trees . . .
. . . as well as one of the city’s colourful manhole covers. In my travels across Japan over the last few years, I’ve observed that many places have their own distinctive, sometimes elaborately decorated, versions of these otherwise purely utilitarian devices. I rather regret not taking more photographs of them, but in my future visits I’d like to make it a regular part of my itinerary, with each manhole cover serving as a sort of souvenir stamp from each city I go to.
Next up: a visit to the ruins of what was one of Japan’s most heavily fortified castles, in which the formerly martial atmosphere has been softened by the presence of countless sakura in their springtime finery.