On the 3rd day of January I offered Janna the chance to see a Japanese castle, almost on our doorstep (no, not the pretend one at Disneyworld!).

There are only 12 original Japanese castles surviving from the Shogun period and none of them were around Tokyo as many were dismantled around the same time as Edo Castle to prevent warlords building new power bases. The most famous by far is Himeji Castle but it is a long journey out of Tokyo.

However there are also a lot of reconstructed castles – built to illustrate what the originals would have looked like, and one of these happens to be situated in Chiba, the main city of the next-door prefecture with the same name. I had done a little research and knew it now housed a folk museum. And I had never seen it – in fact I had never stepped out of Chiba station, only passed through it. It was another sunny day and the journey was not too far and heading away from the crowds of central Tokyo so we decided that’s where we would go.

The route is very familiar to me – every Monday I teach on a company premises in the Chiba area and get off at Inage, two stops before Chiba. Chiba itself is not very familiar to me. I know they have a monorail – a hanging overhead light transit system – because I have seen it on my bus route to the company where I teach. So I was quite keen to ride on that too, as the castle seemed to be a short monorail ride from the station – 4 or 5 stops.

Janna was fascinated by the monorail, and filmed it arriving in the station, then after we got on, filmed the urban streetscape as it passed below us. We passed a large central square where an ice-rink had been set up and people were skating around happily in the sunshine. The monorail seemed to wind between buildings, twisting and turning as if added to the city as an afterthought (it probably was). And then we arrived at the stop we needed – the Prefecture Office no less, and the headquarters of the Prefecture Police.

We went down to street level on a rusty, mottled elevator with harsh buzzing alert sounds, far different from the smooth futuristic elevators we had seen all over the Tokyo transit system. Worryingly, there were no signs for the castle, and little in the way of tourist information. We eventually found a sign in Japanese which had a symbol on it that might have been a castle, or a temple, or a historical building of some description, so we headed in the direction it suggested.

It seemed just like a regular provincial city street. Unlike Tokyo with all its chain stores and convenience stores, there were just a handful of shop fronts some of which so obscure I couldn’t tell you what service they provided. But like Tokyo it was clean and well looked-after. We might have walked too far if I hadn’t spotted a distinctly castley sort of shape sticking up over the rooftops. We changed course to head towards it.

We came to what looked like the entrance to a park on a hill. A set of steps led upwards, but on each side of the steps there was a small shrine, which had recently received some attention in the form of offerings. A family were passing by the entrance of the park as we approached, the parents were showing the child the shrines and as they passed both gave a respectful bow.

We went up the stairs, along a flat piece of ground and came to a larger temple. This one had an actual wooden building you could go into, with the shrine inside. There were other stone structures outside in the courtyard around it, and a Torii gate across the entrance.

We carried on along the path, with plenty of plants and trees defying the depth of winter by defiantly displaying colours and beauty more reminiscent of autumn or spring. The sunshine too served to remind us of warmer seasons, and only the cool-but-not-too-cold temperatures disturbed the illusion.

We passed another stone structure – this one seemed more like a memorial, but there was no English signage to help us understand better. And then across a pebbled courtyard in front of us, there was the staggered, triangular outline of a Japanese castle. In front of it, a huge statue of an angry man on a horse.

Our hopes of going in to the museum floated away quickly as we spotted barriers obstructing the bottom of the staircase. We took a few pictures of the building and the statue and then walked a little way around it, finding another set of steps with another barrier. I snuck past it because I wanted to read the sign on the door. I couldn’t, of course, but my phone could a little – it turns out the museum was closed for the holidays on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January. It would be open tomorrow.

Such a shame. We weren’t the only ones hovering round the castle, and clearly we weren’t the only ones disappointed it wasn’t open, as a pair of young men followed the wheelchair ramp all around the back of the castle to find another closed door. A few other people were strolling around enjoying the sunshine and scenery and didn’t seem to alarmed that everything was closed.

We took the rear exit, which actually turned out to be the front exit, and went past another shrine and a couple of cemeteries. And we headed back to the station. Janna quite liked seeing a less touristy, more everyday side of Japan, away from the bustle of the capital. We’d had a nice day out even if we hadn’t seen the museum.

We headed back to the station and I engaged on a fruitless search for the tourist information office to see what else was worth looking at in Chiba. Perhaps we could go to the waterfront? We found ourselves walking through another shopping mall when we heard music – traditional Japanese music – and following the noise, we found some kind of street performance.

There were two or three musicians, two dancer-puppeteers, and two dragons. One of the dragons (a person in a dragon costume, but with the head on top of his own head so the dragon looked taller) had a line of people queuing up for him to kiss (bite?) the tops of their heads. Each one thanked the dragon for this blessing. I guess Janna and I had the same thought, and she went in the queue and I stood by holding the camera! Another example of my having no idea what’s going on but that whatever it is is clearly authentically and typically Japanese!

Eventually we decided to head back into Tokyo and do something there, without any clear idea. We hopped on a train, I scanned the stations it passed through, and spotted Ryogoku which rang a bell – that was the stop for the Edo-Tokyo museum. Maybe we could see a museum today after all? I suggested it to Janna, I’m not sure she was too enthused about the idea of heading to a museum now with half the afternoon gone, but she went along with it. I had a vague idea that there were some nice gardens somewhere around Ryogoku too.

It was a long ride but nice to see a different part of the city in daylight, and when we got off at Ryogoku it wasn’t too busy there either. The first thing we spotted was the Budokan – and this one IS the one that the Sumo wrestlers fight at! However, this was closed today, interesting though the Sumo Museum would have been.

Behind the Budokan is a huge raised concourse, and hovering over the concourse like a squatting robot is the building of the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It really is a strange, unusual shape. There were ticket stalls on the concourse, but no queues, we weren’t sure how much the tickets would cost or if it was worth it in whatever time was available before it closed. Rather than go over to the stalls and check, we rather just hopped on the escalators which snaked their way up through tubes in the “robot’s” legs to the museum on the upper levels.

I had joked on the way up that it would be a shame if we went up all these escalators only to find we couldn’t get in without a ticket! There had been an attendant at the very bottom of the escalator, but he had just nodded us through with a welcome. When we reached the top we did indeed face manned gates, with signs on them saying “Tickets not sold here – purchase tickets on the concourse.”

It seemed odd, but we didn’t want to cause trouble so we hopped in the escalator and went back down to the concourse. I told Janna to wait and went over to the ticket boxes, and saw a much more friendly sign advising that the museum was open for free to the public all day on 2nd and 3rd of January! That was why the escalator guy just waved us through, and the people on the gates would have done the same too, if we had tried going through them!

I explained the situation to Janna, in the circumstances “value for money” had just been yanked off the table – we had an hour and a half in one of Tokyo’s best museums for free! So up we went again.

The museum seems to be a curious mix of dioramas of buildings (in miniature and full scale) and more traditional exhibits. There are also several interactive exhibits, and there was a musical performance going on on the floor below us (we were on a sort of mezzanine level). There’s a faithful recreation of the original Nihombashi wooden bridge, displays of what town houses looked like for rich landowners and poor tenants, as well as commercial buildings, and charts and diagrams revealing insights about all aspects of Edo/Tokyo life, from water supply and sewerage, fire protection, trade and currency, and some particularly troublesome descriptions of how women were treated before and during childbirth!

We spent so long looking at the Edo period exhibits that we ran out of time before we had a chance to look at the growth of the city in the 20th century. There were some fascinating clockwork dolls that we just had time to see, and Janna made a couple of purchases in the gift shop.

The museum emptied and we went past the JR station to look for the nearby subway line. As usual we were keeping our eye open for meal opportunities too, ideally something where Janna could try something weird and crazy and Japanese but the menu would also have something I could eat – surprisingly difficult to find. But we decided to try out a little restaurant between the stations.

It seemed to be predominantly a shellfish and sushi place, but they did chicken too which suited me fine. They gave us electronic tablet pads to order on, which was a novelty to me, and I noticed other guests had grills on their tables to make their own soup. Less welcomely, a couple of men on a table behind us had ash trays and cigarettes on their table. I’d forgotten about that aspect of Japanese dining.

Janna tried the sushi and was quite pleased with it, my chicken was ok in the Japanese style, but I regretted not ordering the chips as they looked really tasty on other peoples’ tables! The smoke wasn’t too disturbing but the idea of it was unpalatable to put me off eating. We paid up and found the station and headed back to the hotel to make our final preparations for our journey into the mountains the next day.

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