day 11 in Japan: Matsusaka beef, Bunraku, and the Himeji Castle

We were on the Shinkansen bullet train before 8am on Saturday and walked up to Himeji Castle at 9:30am.

I checked in on Swarm and saw that there are free guided tours in English that are excellent, and I’d no sooner declared that we should find out how to get one when an older lady heard us and walked up to lead our tour.  Later in the tour, another guide told us we had the best of all the guides, and we couldn’t disagree.  She was passionate about her culture and this castle.  We learned about its many defenses and explored every bit of each of its 6 floors.

The castle, which is also known as the White Heron Castle, is another world heritage site and is one of Japan’s 12 original castles, miraculously surviving earthquakes, fires, and WWII.  It’s the largest and most visited castle in Japan.  We were glad we made the trip over to see it.

On our way back to the train station, we stopped for some Kobe beef on sticks for lunch, and they were delicious.  Then we rode the train to Osaka, Japan’s 2nd largest city (about the size of NYC) for our rows 1 and 2 tickets at the National Bunraku Theatre, arriving just before 1:30pm.

No photography was allowed during the show, and being on row 2, there was no chance I could sneak a photo.  Before the show began, a comedian came on stage and gave an explanation of what were about to see, followed by a brief example of bunraku before the “feature” performance began.

The form of theater began in Osaka in the 17th century and is a sophisticated puppet show, with each puppet being operated by 3 actors.  The main puppeteer controls the head and right hand, and he’s visible to the audience, while the other 2 (one operates the left hand, the other the legs) are dressed in all black and have their faces covered in black veils.  At stage left are a singer and musicians; the singer narrates the story in loud, animated song, such that by the end of his shift, he’s covered in sweat and seemingly exhausted, and after a while, the wall and floor rotate, and a new set of singer + musicians take over for the next act of the play.  The actual show was nearly 3 hours long and was absolutely amazing to see.  We understood the story via English subtitles from a teleprompter above the stage and portable English listening devices with an earpiece we each rented for the show.  The children loved it, and we adults really liked it too!

That night for dinner was an experience I’d anticipated for months:  having Matsusaka beef.  Our reservation was at Yakiniku M in the Dotonbori neighborhood.  Matsusaka is one of the 3 types of wagyu beef (along with Kobe and Omi). The virginal black cows used for this beef are fed beer and given massages; in short, they’re told how beautiful and wonderful they are every day and live a life of luxury until they’re slaughtered and served to people like me.  It was absolutely the best meat I’ve ever had, and grilling it in the middle of our table was fun!

Here are a couple informational pages from our menu:

Here’s our sweet, tender meat as it grills to perfection:

And this?  Is beef sushi, and it was delicious, and I wanted to eat plates and plates of it, no matter the exorbitant cost (so I had seconds…and thirds).

After dinner, we explored the arcade and the shops surrounding the Dotonbori Canal running through Osaka, which was super crowded, noisy, and surrounded us with bright lights, giant billboards, and all kinds of interesting things to behold.  It was the most Japanese scene we’d seen in Japan.

Within the arcade was a place known for its delicious puffy cheesecakes–Rikuro’s, so we shared one for dessert.

After some Hawaiian coffee, we made our way back to the train station for a late night return to Kyoto to our final night of rest at the Azzurro Elefante before making our way to a new city the next morning on Fathers Day–Hiroshima!

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