If one could only visit one Japanese castle, it would have to be Himeji. Walking around the inner and outer areas of Himeji Castle is akin to stepping back in time to Japan’s feudal past and it is not difficult for one’s imagination to visualise castle life back through the ages.
In large part, this is due to Himeji Castle remaining relatively unchanged, thus allowing visitors to walk through history. In saying this, I should point out that the castle was a work in progress over several centuries, growing in scale and complexity from its origins in the 14th century to its final and present form in the early 17th century.
The castle’s endurance is impressive. Built to be an impregnable fortress, its defences were never tested by invading armies. It has similarly endured bombing at the end of World War 2, whereas much of the surrounding area was flattened. Even earthquakes have failed to impact the castle and although the Great Hanshin earthquake extensively damaged the city of Himeji in 1995, the castle survived.
One can only marvel at the engineering and construction methods that have given the castle such longevity and I gained some appreciation of the structural strength during my visit. As those who have visited in recent years will know, the castle has been undergoing significant renovations and is due to reopen fully in early 2015. In the meantime, it is possible to view some of the renovation work being undertaken using materials and methods true to the originals. During my visit, I observed craftsmen carefully removing roofing tiles dating back several centuries. What was most amazing was the number of damaged tiles that had to be replaced, which, from memory, was less than 5%.
My images must, therefore, present an incomplete photo-story of Himeji Castle. It would have been wonderful to include some wide external shots, but scaffolding and shrouding are not very interesting.
My enduring vision of the visit is probably the internal shots (pics 1 to 3) taken within the castle keep – a fortified area within the castle able to house the castle residents during ties of attack. The white plaster and heavy wooden beams are stereotypically Japanese, but it is worth noting that the white plaster used throughout the castle was chosen for its fire retardant properties, in keeping with building strong defendable positions. Standing in these rooms and walking the corridors on boards polished smooth over the years, one wonders how many have walked those corridors and what stories they could tell.
The castle sits atop a modest hill that nevertheless meets the desire of castle builders the world over to occupy the high ground. In pic 4, one can see the city of Himeji below, as well as gaining a sense of the castle’s snaking walls, intentionally designed to confuse and impede invaders. Pics 5 and 6 give some impression of the structure’s majesty, with pic 7 showing defensive loopholes in the shape of circles, squares and triangles. Approximately 1,000 of these loopholes remain in the castle, which were considered to form an advanced defensive system in their day. From these positions, archers and riflemen could fire with limited exposure; with the square and circular loopholes incorporating angled chutes for dropping stones or pouring boiling oil onto attackers.
Another integral element of the castle’s defences was a system of 84 gates, 21 of which have been retained. As can be seen from pics 8 and 9, the gates were strategically located and of solid construction.
As mentioned earlier, the castle was a work in progress over several hundred years, with successive feudal lords adding progressively to the structure. Signs of these contributions are evident throughout the castle in the form of family crests, such as those shown at pic 10. In this case, the objects depicted are the circular end caps on roof tiles.
The final pics (11 and 12) show the impressive dry stone inner and outer walls, with the moat looking quite the opposite of foreboding on a lovely autumn day.
(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)