Friday, September 3, 2010

Himeji-jo... The Caged Bird

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
Of course, it's not long before you realise that you are in a tourist trap. Ok - I admit it... I'm an idiot. At least when confronted by historically costumed people. I can't help but to act like a goofy tourist. I suppose I should be thankful that I'm at least not always a tourist hehehe....
Not my wife.... in case you were wondering....

Also not my wife....
As you can see... I'm not easily embarrassed (and also not overly dignified). In my defence... this was quite a few years ago, and I've clearly matured since then.... er... yes... like a fine wine.

Himeji lies a short distance west of Kyōto, in a strategic location between east and west Honshū. There have been fortifications around the area of Himeji since after the Kamakura period.

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.

You can also follow a guided tour in the buidlings that surround the castle, where you will see a little more of what life was like living in the castle, and hear some of the ghost stories as well. Not to mention the strange variation of the shell-game that they played back in those days.... now can you guess where the pea is?!?!

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 is some six levels high (46m); with the view from the top level of the donjon providing a perfect vantage point for the lands and city around. It's an awe-inspiring sight, even if you're not keen on heights. One warning however, as you get to higher levels in the castle, the stairs get steeper and steeper until they effectively become ladders. Access to the upper levels is therefore a little difficult.

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.

The earthworks and defences around the castle are extensive, and it's a great place to explore. The castle has plenty of grisly tales however... and it had it's fair share of executions and ill-fated deaths...

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"
 Unfortunately as I write this blog today, Himeji-jo is being progressively obscured behind a cage of metal. It's brilliance slowly being obscured by a giant shed... and I do mean a shed. Below is a mock-up of what it should look like when the rennovation is in full swing... and this is not a joke. This is taken from the official Himeji website. Those crazy Japanese don't do things by halves.

Plan of Himeji-jo during renovation work set to finish in 2014

The rennovation commenced in 2009, with the castle being closed earlier this year. It will remain closed until 2014, so there's a long wait now if you really, really want to see the castle. If you want to see progress of the rennovation - check out here... or here for a live webcam view

Ah - Himeji-jo... you may be a tourist trap, but at least you're a GREAT tourist trap. It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip and I feel sorry that people will have to wait till 2014 to see it again in all of it's glory. I feel very lucky to have seen it when I did... and will almost certainly come back. It is Adelaide's sister-city after all!

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1 comment:

  1. Majide?!?! 2014 is a long wait, so I guess I'll have to make do with your photos. =P

    Loved the tourist traps. I would be right there in the picture with no shame whatsoever. Hehe. I thought those ladies were real. Then I was like, "why do they have a fake cat in the picture?" Naruhodo.