Himeji Castle – Japan’s Beacon on a Hill
Himeji Castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks. While you might not have known its name, you have likely seen it on tourism brochures along with pictures of Mount Fuji and other scenic locations. It is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and it is one of only a handful of original castles remaining. Its grounds are also home to hundreds of cherry trees, making it one of the best places to view blossoms in the spring. All of this combined to merit the castle’s inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The castle recently reopened after being closed for five years for maintenance, so it should be a must see for anyone visiting the Kansai area.
To understand how special Himeji is amongst Japan’s castles, a brief history of Japanese castles is necessary. Castles developed into their current form during Japan’s Warring State period (1467 -1603). During this era, two types of castles dominated the landscape: mountain top (yamajiro) and hilltop castles (hirayamajiro). Mountain top castles were used primarily as defensive structures that relied on their inaccessibility for defense. Hilltop castles were both defensive and administrative centers, and they relied on walls, moats, and their elevated locations for defense. A third category, known as a flatland castle (hirajiro), was developed during the peace of the Edo period (1603 – 1868), and these castles served as administrative centers for the government.
Himeji Castle is the second type, and it sits atop a hill overlooking a plain south of Kobe. A fortification has existed in that location in some form since the 14th century, but the current castle layout and buildings date from the first years of the Tokugawa period in the early 17th century. The castle is surrounded by a moat and stone walls for protection, and the castle’s labyrinthine grounds are a designed to confound any enemies that breach its outer defenses.
That the castle has survived intact for four centuries is no small feat. During the peaceful years of the Tokugawa period, many mountain top castles were abandoned due to their inaccessibility, and the hilltop and flatland castles became associated with the Tokugawa government. When the government was overthrown in the mid-19th century, several major castles were destroyed in the conflict, and many of the remaining castles were purposely dismantled by the new Meiji government as a means to consolidate its control over the nation. The castles that remained tended to be in major cities that were heavily bombed during the Second World War, which lead to many of them being destroyed. Given this history, nevermind natural disasters, there are only twelve original castles left in Japan, of which Himeji Castle is the largest.
This fact is not readily apparent to someone visiting Japan for the first time as many of Japan’s major castles (Osaka Castle, Nagoya Castle, Kumamoto Castle, Hiroshima Castle, etc.) were rebuilt in the second half of the 20th century using concrete. On the outside, they are indistinguishable from the wood and plaster exteriors of original castles, but the interiors are air-conditioned areas that house museums, elevators, restrooms, and ever present gift shops.
Himeji Castle, however, is authentic inside and out. Architecturally it is considered a sterling example of castle construction, and is in fact so cunningly constructed that it survived unscathed the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 that devastated and destroyed highways, buildings, and killed approximately 6,500 people around Kobe. The castle sits perched atop its perch gleaming brilliantly in the afternoon sun, and its recent renovation removed the patina of pollution and dirt that had built up over decades, making the castle almost too bright to look at directly. The interior of the castle is also original, and its steep staircases, arrow and gun slits in the walls, and other defensive features offer reminders of the castle’s martial purpose, while larger rooms showcase the castle’s administrative role. Most of the rooms in the castle have been stripped of their tatami (thick mats made from bamboo), but a few select locations have been arranged to appear as they would have when the castle was occupied.
No location of this sort would be complete without the requisite gift shop, but they are located on the grounds below the castle and housed in buildings designed to mimic traditional architectural motifs, limiting their intrusion on the atmosphere of the site. This is a blessing, as the grounds are nearly as impressive as the castle building itself. They have been planted with hundreds of cherry trees, and the brief window in the spring when they bloom makes for one of the most picturesque spots in Japan as the castle appears to be soaring above a sea of pink blossoms. The beauty of the location draws thousands of visitors every year, but the crowds should not deter anyone from visiting as the reward more than justifies the effort required to navigate the masses. While spring is undoubtedly the highlight, the castle grounds also offer picturesque sights throughout the year.
This combination of architectural and natural beauty has made the castle famous in Japan for centuries, and the castle is also known as Shirasagi-jyo (White Crane Castle) since it is said to resemble a white crane taking flight. The castle is also home to tales of betrayal and heroism, and it is home to a famous kaidan (Japanese ghost stories) about a woman who was unjustly executed and thrown into a well; legend has it her voice can still be heard echoing from the well at night as she tries in vain to prove her innocence.
The castle is located just south of Kobe on JR West’s Sanyo train line, so it is easily accessible from Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and even Hiroshima further down the coast. Entrance to the broader grounds is free, but it costs ¥1,000 (approximately $10 USD) to get inside the inner grounds and main keep. Despite the cost and the crowds, the location’s combination of scenic beauty, cultural significance, and authenticity make it a must see for anyone visiting Japan.
Website(in Japanese): http://www.city.himeji.lg.jp/guide/castle/