Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle was one of my must-visit historical sites in the Kansai Area.  I was a bit disappointed that I didn't go on the day that I was in Kobe, because they are so close to each other.  When I realized that I could spend 2200 yen for a one day JR Kansai pass and combine a trip to Himeji with a brief visit to Ako, I decided to make the journey from Kyoto.

Himeji Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the organization refers to it as "the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture."  It recently underwent significant restorations (some locals were criticizing how white the restored exterior looks), so I would be seeing the castle as it looked in it's original state.  Ako Castle, on the other hand, has significant damage.  Ako is famous as the setting of the story of the 47 Ronin.

After about 1.5 hours on the train, I finally arrived in Himeji.  The walk to the castle is about a kilometer, lined with interesting shops and restaurants selling local specialties.  The local artisanal crafts include Shosha-nuri (lacquerware originating in the Meiji period, painted many times in black until finally finished in red), Shirasagi (a technique of dying objects white, named after the White Heron), Myochin Hibashi (wind chimes originally made from the tongs used to handle charcoal for tea ceremony), as well as artisanal spinning tops, white-tanned leatherwork, and papier-mâché toys.  The local specialty dishes include Himeji Oden (vegetables, eggs, meat, and noodles cooked in broth - Himeji's variant uses soy sauce and ginger), Yume Soba (buckwheat noodles cultivated locally), Kamaboko (steamed/boiled paste cakes made with locally caught fish), Conger Eel, Yuzu Syrup, and dozens of varieties of sweets (Karinto, Kinuta, Tamatsubaki, and Gozasoro).  There are also ten sake breweries in Himeji.  The rich, artisanal culinary and manufactured products from here rival the trendiest neighborhood in any city.

The castle was originally surrounded by three moats, of which two are remaining.  The present day outer moat is spanned by a 2007 recreation of the Edo-period Sakuramon Bridge.  Across the bridge sits the Otemon (Main Gate).  This 1938 reconstruction Koraimon (three-tiered gate)   is a completely different style from the original Edo-period design.


Once I finally made it over the bridge to the castle, I wound my way through the complex maze of walls designed to confuse invaders and slow down their advances, and arrived in the central courtyard, where a large stone commemorating the 1993 UNESCO Inscription welcomed me to the castle.


I purchased my ticket and finally made my way into the grounds of the castle situated on top of Himeyama, which is a small hill in the Himeji plan in between numerous mountains.  Quick history overview: Although the first fortifications on this site was constructed in the 1300's, the first mention of the castle in written history is a 1561 document held in Shomyo-Ji temple.  Hashiba Hideyoshi built a three-storied keep on the site in 1580 after capturing Harima province.  He built this structure as a base for advance into the Chugoku (central country, referring to the western part of Honshu).  The current structures - the five-storied, white-walled keep along with surrounding stone walls and outer moat- was first constructed by Ikeda Terumasa in 1600.  The Ikeda family became incredibly powerful as they also controlled Bizen and Awaji provinces, thus Terumasa ruled as the shogun of Western Japan.  The Long Corridor was added by Honda Tadamasa in 1617 (after the Tadamasa family replaced the Ikeda family), completing the modern-day layout of the castle.   

Barely visible in the bottom of the above image is the Sangaku Bori, a moat used as a reservoir for the castle.  In the center of the third image below, you can see a circular stone called the Ubagaishi, or old woman's stone.  When the original three-storied keep was being build by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, there was a shortage of stones.  A provincial woman heard of the plight, and donated her grindstone to support the construction of the castle.  Even though it was her sole source of income, she believed that she could inspire more people to give supplies to construction of the castle.

I followed the steps up to the castle and finally reached the entrance to the main keep.  Visiting Himeji Castle is an incredibly valuable lesson in Japanese castle architecture, as the building is preserved so incredibly well.  Hopefully you can appreciate some of the jewels of knowledge I picked up doing my exploration of the castle.

This is a miniature model of the castle interior wooden support systems.  This type of scale-model is common in Japan for transmitting architectural knowledge about building construction techniques.  In this specific instance, the model was built to assist in the 5 year renovation completed in 2015.  The castle was completely dismantled, with every single support beam and stone removed, for the castle to be cleaned and for engineers to install earthquake-resistant measures to protect the castle (look up the Kumamoto Castle to understand why this is so important).

When the castle was under attack, defenders would open these panels to throw stones down to injure attackers.  There are about 80-90 of these windows throughout the castle.  Although in most European castle, similar features exist to enable defenders to pour hot oil onto attackers, here stones are used because of the wooden construction of the castle.

These small doors fit two men inside, and are meant to hide soldiers to jump out and surprise attackers who have breached the interior of the castle.  They are asymmetrically distributed around the castle and look just like storage doors, so it is not possible to tell which ones hold items or defenders.  The third image is inside of one of these spaces.

Above are the various wooden structural elements throughout the castle. The second picture is one of the two central support beams, which is made up of two trees attached together at this joint with metal fittings.  In the third picture there are two wooden panels which are actually windows.  These are designed to be opened up to ventilate the smoke coming from defenders gunpowder weaponry, so that the lack of visibility would not become a disadvantage.  Notice also the metal fitting under the support beam which is a nail cover.  This is a common design motif in buildings designed for the wealthy, with elaborate metal fittings to display the wealth of the builder while protecting the nailheads.  The fourth image shows wooden corner reinforcements added later in the Edo period to stabilize the castle against earthquakes.

This is the east central support beams connection to the fourth floor ceiling.  The metal bracket was added during the renovations to protect against earthquakes.

This style of roofing is designed for draining rainwater and is heavily influenced by Chinese and Korean architectural designs.  The fish motif is really great.

A Shinto shrine on the top floor of the central keep, with enshrined diety to protect the castle.

The view of the castle from the main courtyard, which is actually where scenes were filmed for the James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice."

This is the wall next to the Bizen Gate.  Notice the huge rectangular stone.  This is actually a tombstone from a nearby burial mound, which was repurposed to be used as part of the wall.  Because of the shortage of stone, the Daimyo had to go to extreme measures.