[From February Issue 2011]
Approximately an hour outside Japan’s second largest city of Osaka, on the JR Tokaido Main Line, is Hemeji, a town rich in history and culture. Just a 15-minute walk along Otemae-dori, right outside JR Himeji Station, you will find Himeji Castle.
The castle hasn’t changed in 400 years. Throughout its long history, Himeji Castle has fortunately escaped the ravages of war. Because of the way it rises skyward, it is likened to a shirasagi (an egret) flying gracefully through the air, and is therefore also referred to as Hakuro Castle. In addition to being designated a national treasure because of its cultural value, Himeji Castle was also one of the first sites in Japan to be registered as World Heritage Site, along with Horyuji Temple (Nara Prefecture).
Today’s Himeji Castle was built by IKEDA Terumasa in 1609 at the beginning of the Edo period. Before that, TOYOTOMI Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan, was once based there.
The castle’s symbol is its keep (the central tower of a medieval castle, with a rooftop observation deck). Located on a hill, the castle contains several different keeps, with the main tower connecting to three small ones.
Seen from the outside, Himeji Castle’s highest tower seems five stories tall. But seen from within, it actually contains seven floors, a security design intended to trick attackers. Since feudal lords lived in the castle, they had to be prepared to defend themselves against outside enemies, therefore various security systems can be found within the castle.
Enemy troops entering through the “ote-mon,” or main gate, cannot easily get to the keep. Built throughout the castle are a maze of white walls that turn left, right, and 180 degrees around. Unless tourists follow the fixed route, they will most likely end up getting lost.
Following along the white walls, visitors pass through a number of gates. Some of these are designed so that soldiers hiding in the ceiling above can spear an enemy walking below. In the walls there are also square, triangular and round holes called “sama” through which guns are shot and arrows released. Although the holes are intended for defensive purposes, their design blends into the castle’s decor, adding to its overall beauty.
If the enemy somehow reaches the keep, even after slipping through the various traps, they will eventually come up against a high stone wall towering in front of them. Not only does the wall consist of stones piled high, but its sloping design, similar to an open fan (sensu) prevents the enemy from climbing up. This curved wall also creates a wider foundation that better supports the keep.
As the castle has never been attacked, these defense systems have never actually been tested. The only time that it was really in any danger was during World War II. Hoping to protect the castle, citizens covered it with black nets. However, despite their efforts, a bomb fell into the keep through a window, but fortunately never exploded.
The way Himeji Castle remained standing on such devastated land, provided symbolic emotional support for Himeji’s citizens during the reconstruction. In the castle’s surrounding park, cherry, maple and gingko trees have now been planted, decorating the castle in different colors throughout the seasons. During the cherry blossom viewing season, or for autumn’s changing leaves, the park crowds with families and groups of people who laugh cheerfully. Himeji Castle is the center of its citizens’ lives as well as a lasting symbol of peace.
“Aijo-kai” (the castle loving club) consists mostly of local elementary and middle school students who have been regularly cleaning the castle for over thirty years. Furthermore, since the castle was designated as a World Heritage Site, Himeji itself has developed into an international tourist destination where English signs can be found throughout the city.
In the castle’s vicinity are Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History, Himeji City Museum of Art, Himeji Center for Research into Castles and Fortifications, Himeji City Museum of Literature, and other cultural facilities where you can appreciate Himeji’s history and culture, all while seeing Himeji Castle from various angles. The retro-looking sightseeing bus is just one convenient method of transportation for tourists, costing 100 yen per adult, or 300 yen for a one-day pass.
Admission to Himeji Castle is 400 yen per adult, although discount tickets that include admission to the art museum and Koko-en (a Japanese-style garden) are also available. The street running from JR Himeji Station to the castle is lined with numerous souvenir shops and restaurants offering local specialties, as well as seafood from the Seto Inland Sea.
Traditional crafts unique to the town that developed around the castle include myochin hibachi (tongs), leather-made goods and himeyama ningyou (dolls). Local specialties include takoyaki, made with octopus from the Akashi Strait and plenty of eggs, and shioaji manju (salty steamed buns), made with salt from Akou. Also recommended are almond toast and Himeji oden, which are among the local dishes known as “Gotouchi Gurume (gourmet)” that are much talked about these days.
Himeji Castle has been under repair since October 2009. As of spring 2011, the main keep will remain covered from the outside. However, an elevator for tourists will be in operation so that tourists can see it while repairs are being done. Although you won’t be able to enjoy the keep’s view in its entirety, this will provide the opportunity to see it up close. All repair work is scheduled to be completed in March, 2015.
Text: OBAYASHI Hitoshi