By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
For earlier posts on my travels in Japan, see May 13, August 9, August 15 and August 22, 2016. For Japanese-related historical posts, see September 3, and December 15, 2016.
A maze of passageways meant to confuse intruders.
Two floors invisible from the outside.
Three water-filled moats.
Massive sloping stone walls.
Eighty-fours gates and more than 80 buildings.
Everything about Himeji Castle screams “defense,” though in its 400-plus-years, it has never seen a battle and in fact is one of the few feudal castles to survive the bombings of World War II intact.
During the war, black netting over the structure helped to camouflage it, so that Allied aircraft had a harder time recognizing it from on high.
Himeji is in the western part of Honshu, Japan’s largest island.
A fortification has stood on this strategic bluff in Himeji since the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the early 1600s that the castle, an acknowledgement of power and prestige in the era of the shoguns, began to take its present shape.
Ikeda Terumasa, son-in-law of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, gained control of the land as a reward for his loyalty to Tokugawa (1543-1616) in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. It took nine years to build the almost 150-foot-tall donjon (keep), and successive inhabitants continued to add to the complex.
When it was finished, more than 360 tons of wood had gone into the construction, with the walls further fortified by plaster. With its gently curved roofs, graceful lines and white color, its architecture has been likened to a heron ready to take flight, thus giving rise to its nickname, White Heron Castle (Shirasagi-jo in Japanese).
When I visited on a rainy Sunday in November 2005, I took a 90-minute guided tour in English which included the donjon, where I peeked into multiple empty rooms with shoji (sliding paper doors) and tatami-covered floors.
Our guide, Chiyuki, told my traveling companion and me and a couple from Quebec about the construction, history and castle intrigues — particularly those concerning Tokugawa’s granddaughter Princess Sen — that went on behind the nearly impenetrable walls.
Though she may have been accorded enviable status, in reality, Princess Sen (1597-1667), lived a restricted life. She and the other women were locked into the Vanity Tower each night, with guards stationed outside.
Chiyuki pointed out details, such as the mythical fish figures (called shachihoko) with arched tails, believed to protect the castle from fires, and other disasters, on the corners of the gabled roofs.
The crest tiles, also on the gables, illustrate the families who lived there over the centuries. Ikeda Terumasa’s family crest was a butterfly with raised wings.
It’s impossible to miss the multiple circular, triangular and rectangular portholes cut into the exterior walls, where archers and musketeers would have been stationed during an attack.
The view from the top floor affords an excellent panorama of Himeji, looking south toward the train station (about a 15-minute walk). The station’s location is the approximate area where the outer moat would have been during the shoguns’ time.
About those “missing” floors: Actually, the second and third floor from the top look like a single floor from the exterior. The almost-impossible-to-scale stone walls around the base disguise the basement.
The tour included quite a bit of climbing on steep wooden staircases. This was done in bare feet or socks, because all visitors must leave their shoes at the castle entrance, as is custom when entering most historic Japanese buildings (and nearly all residences).
In the spring and summer months, Himeji Castle is mobbed. Visitors who want to enter the main keep have to wait in a queue before being directed to ticket purchase. The number of total daily visitors is restricted to 15,000, according to its website.
In other words, get there early.
Himeji Castle is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Japan. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
It’s been a filming location for such movies as the James Bond caper “You Only Live Twice (1967) and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” (1985).
Fittingly, it had a role in the TV miniseries “Shogun” (1980), starring Richard Chamberlain.
About a five-minute walk to the west is the magnificent Kōko-en, a series of nine Edo-style gardens, which opened in 1992 on the former site of samurai residences.
Each garden is the epitome of calm; several feature flowers, pine trees, maple trees and a grove of bamboo. There’s also a tea garden and restaurant.
Sprinkled within the grounds are covered wooden pavilions, a pleasant place for a brief rest, and a perfect setting to contemplate the surrounding beauty.
Quick reference: Visitors can, of course, find accommodate in Himeji, but it’s also only about a 50-minute shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Kyoto, which has so many delightful things to see that it’s a logical base for exploring the region over several days. Himeji is also easily accessible by train from Osaka.
Himeji Castle (2017 information): 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.); until 6 p.m. April 27-August 31. Closed December 29-30. Adults (18 and over) 1,000 yen (about $9), students 300 yen (about $2.70). A combination ticket for the castle and Kōko-en gardens is adults, 1,040 yen (about $9.35) and students 360 yen (about $3.25). Address: 68 Honmachi, Himeji City.
Check the website for its “congestion forecast,” which advises via a calendar the likely busiest days. www.himejicastle.jp/en
A version of this post appeared in the January 29, 2006 Travel section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.