As a little 30 minute excursion from my stay in Kobe, I wanted to see Himeji Castle, despite being told it was under repair until mid-2016.
Himeji Castle is a hilltop Japanese castle complex located in the city of Himeji, Japan. The castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture, comprising a network of 83 buildings with advanced defensive systems from the feudal period. The castle is frequently known as the “White Egret Castle” because of its brilliant white exterior and supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight. I could definitely see this resemblance walking here from the station – even with the scaffolding somewhat ruining the views!
Himeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and it was registered in 1993 as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. The area within the middle moat of the castle complex is a designated Special Historic Site, and five structures of the castle are also designated National Treasures. Along with Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle, Himeji Castle is considered one of Japan’s three premier castles. I was surprised to learn that during World War 2, despite American carpet bombing, Himeji Castle survived virtually unscathed. This is in stark contrast to another of my favourite Japanese castles, Hiroshima Castle. We all know what happened in Hiroshima…
The curved walls of Himeji Castle are sometimes said to resemble giant fans, but the principal materials used in the structures are stone and wood. Feudal family crests are installed throughout the architecture of the building, signifying the various lords that inhabited the castle throughout its history. Both the third and fourth floors have platforms situated at the windows called “stone-throwing platforms”, where defenders of the castle could observe or throw objects at attackers. They also have small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places”, where defenders could hide themselves and kill attackers by surprise as they entered the castle.
The Himeji Castle complex is located in the center of Himeji, on top of a hill called Himeyama, which I learned was 45m above sea level. The complex comprises a network of 83 buildings. Of these, 74 are designated as “Important Cultural Assets”: 11 corridors, 16 turrets, 15 gates, and 32 earthen walls. The highest walls in the castle complex have a height of 26m. Joining the castle complex is Kokoen Garden, a Japanese garden created in 1992 to commemorate Himeji city’s 100th anniversary. For me, the garden was one of the highlights of my brief visit, especially seeing as the castle itself was somewhat ugly due to the restoration works underway.
Externally, the castle keep appears to have five floors, because the second and third floors from the top appear to be a single floor; however, the tower actually has six floors and a basement. The basement contains special facilities that are not seen in other castles, including lavatories, a drain board, and a kitchen corridor.
The legend of the “Old Widow’s Stone” is another folklore story associated with the castle. According to the legend, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ran out of stones when building the original three-story castle keep, and an old woman heard about his trouble. She gave him her hand millstone even though she needed it for her trade. It was said that people who heard the story were inspired and also offered stones to Hideyoshi, speeding up construction of the castle. To this day, the supposed stone can be seen covered with a wire net in the middle of one of the stone walls in the castle complex.
For 600 Yen, I thought Himeji Castle was a good experience. However, until 2016, the restoration works will continue and this will obviously hinder your view of the castle, both up close and from afar. However, the history of the place requires a visit, as who knows when you’ll next be in the city of Himeji?