30th October, 2006 - The day was fine, and we were on a long anticipated trip to Himeji - the sister city of my home town of Adelaide, way back in Australia (not that I was expecting the red-carpet or anything). Himeji is famous for a number of things, but one above all else. Himeji-jo - the castle of Himeji is also known by the name of the White Heron or White Egret Castle.
And that's what we were going to see...
We approached Himeji-jo on foot. Yes, you can catch a bus to go the 800m from the train station if you really want to, but I'd recommend taking in the approach on foot. My first impression was one of surprise at how dominating the castle is. It's huge. The moat that surrounds the castle is impressive... then again, in many areas of Japan, the moats freeze over in winter (not sure about here in Himeji). The size of castle grounds inside the moat is also impressive... with the main compound about 600x400m in size. Much of this is open park-land.
|Moat around Himeji-jo|
|Not my wife.... in case you were wondering....|
|Also not my wife....|
The pre-cursor castle was constructed in the sixteenth century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then expanded by Ikeda Terumasa (as a gift from his father-in-law, Tokugawa Ieyasu... thanks dad!). There's almost nothing left of the original Toyotomi construction however except for some of the earthworks. When the castle was being constructed, such was the need for stone that nearby temples and even the towns’ rice mills were being used as construction materials. "We all gotta make sacrifices... and when I mean all, I mean you people..."
There are few if any castles in Japan that can rival Himeji for it's state, or beauty. It's one of three quintessential castles, the other two being the Crow Castle in Matsumoto (in Nagano prefecture) and Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto prefecture). It is almost certainly the most recognizable Japanese castle - even if most people don't know where it is.
Yet, there's more than the main keep to admire. The keep is surrounded by a series of walls and gateways, all designed to impede attacking forces whilst they are being assailed from protected positions within the fortifications.
Nowadays, they make for a scenic approach to the keep, although one might still imagine the clatter of armour and steel as samurai and foot-soldiers alike ran headlong into battle. Thankfully, there weren't too many battles fought here and hence the castle remained in relatively good condition. Rumour has it that one reason why the castle survived through WWII was that it was used as a navigation point for bombing raids by Allied planes.... that could be an urban legend however.
One of the amazing things about Himeji-jo is the more recent history. Following the Meiji Restoration, the castle had fallen into significant disrepair and castles were not exactly the in-thing anymore. In fact in 1871 the castle was put up for auction and sold for 23 yen... or about 2,500USD in today's money. Now that was a good buy! It was going to be destroyed for land re-development, but that turned out to be too expensive so it was allowed to survive until it was renovated in 1910 and then again in 1956 (at the cost of about 5 million USD).
One of the unexpected sights for us was found in the inner keep gardens. Even though it was near the end of October, we found these beautiful blooms... as if we'd stepped through a hole in time and were here in Spring. I believe these are Shikizakura (four seasons sakura) which actually bloom twice a year - once in March/April and then again in October/November). They were an unexpected delight.
I love these sorts of places, where you can gain a sense of humankinds struggle to master not only each other but nature as well.
One interesting feature of castle designs is the use of strange fish-shaped ornaments (shown above and below) which are known as shachihoko. Shachihoko are mythical creatures that are a composite of carp and dragon. It seems to come from Chinese tradition (known as chiwen). We've seen examples of the Chinese version in a post about Yokohama's Chinatown. When placed on a roof (as an ornament) it's known as a shibi. The roof ornament is thought to protect against fires and typhoons... and this may have some root in fact in terms of lightning strikes (just my crazy theory).
|One of the Shachihoko ornaments|
The castle was built on the site of a Shintō shrine, which was moved prior to construction. Following a series of natural disturbances however, it was viewed to have been bad-luck, and the Shinto shrine was then moved back to the top level of the castle. It's an odd thing to see, standing in the centre of the small room at the top of the castle (no photos as it's a sacred area).
|The main keep of Himeji-jo|
|Close up of the top level.|
One of the best places to view the castle is from across the internal moat/lake known as the Three County Moat... which was also used as a water supply during sieges. There were actually three moats surrounding the castle but the largest was filled in long ago.
|The "Three County Moat"|
|Plan of Himeji-jo during renovation work set to finish in 2014|