Every year the city of Himeji (just west of Kobe) holds a cherry blossom festival (kan-o-kai), usually on the first Saturday in April. Many cities and towns do the same; what makes Himeji’s special is that Himeji Castle is indisputably the finest surviving castle in Japan (in samurai dramas, it’s always the one they show the feudal lord riding out of for dramatic effect). And in addition to kodo drumming and other events, Himeji’s festival features something unique: a long stage in front of the castle, featuring double rows of koto on which dozens of women in kimono play traditional Japanese music. It’s practically every  element of traditional Japan all in one place: kimono, cherry blossoms, koto music, and a magnificent medieval castle. Add to that delicious local Japanese sake at ¥100 a cup and a huge crowd of people eager to celebrate the arrival of warm weather after the long winter, and you have the makings of an unforgettable party.

And this year, the stakes were particularly high. For several years, the castle has been hidden by scaffolding due to a major restoration that was only completed about a week ago. So, following the official unveiling last week, this year’s festival was set to be a major coming-out event.

But the weather reports were all bad, predicting rain and strong winds for the whole weekend. (In addition to being unpleasant, that’s the worst-case scenario it warms up, the blossoms pop open, and rain and strong winds send them immediately to the ground. Game over.) On Friday, the day before the festival, there was the hope of a (literal) ray of sunlight: the weather report was predicting a narrow window of good weather for around 11 a.m. on Saturday. So I went, but I wasn’t holding out much hope.

There was no rain when I arrived; so far, so good. This photo shows the castle with some of the young women who would be performing koto on stage in the foreground:

(And yes, if you’re thinking this is impossibly picturesque, the whole day is like this.)

Here’s another view of these same koto performers posing in front of the castle:

People come to this event hoping the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom (which they certainly were this year), with the aim of taking photos like these next two. As you can see, the skies were gradually getting clearer.

And this is the big payoff. Unbelievably, by the time of the koto performance, there was quite literally not a cloud in the sky. Nobody could believe it.

In past years, it was possible to take a closeup photo from the right of the stage with a big closeup of the koto performers in the foreground and the castle wall in the background. This year, they had configured the security barriers and audio equipment so that wasn’t possible. This was the best I could do:

From the left side, you could get a bit closer:

For some reason, the rear is never closed off, so I can always get photos like this:

Still, the money shot is from the front: the magnificent castle (never seen the “white heron castle" this white before) and cherry blossoms, with double rows of koto played by kimono-clad ladies in front:

And once more, a closer view, for impact:

And as soon as the koto performance was over, it started to slowly cloud up again, and the rain started again that evening.

It had cleared up just enough to make the renovated Himeji Castle coming-out party a smashing success.

Somebody up there must like us.


Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Festival 2015

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