Himeji Castle is a jaw-dropping wonder.
The first known structure on the site, Himeyama Hill in the coastal city of Himeji just east of Kobe, was a fort built in 1333. Over the next four centuries, the castle was rebuilt and expanded by a succession of shoguns but by the late 19th century, when the Japanese feudal system was abolished, the castle was abandoned and in disrepair.
Now the story takes some remarkable twists and turns. In the 1870’s some of the surrounding buildings were destroyed to make room for army barracks and the government was going to tear it all down, but an army colonel named Nakamura Shiget managed to stop the process. The castle was later purchased by a local resident for the equivalent of less than US$3,000 with the intent of tearing it down and redeveloping the land, but the cost of demolition was too great and nothing was done. The castle survived American bombing during WWII even though the surrounding town was leveled: it was hit by an incendiary bomb which fortunately failed to ignite.
Beginning in 1956, an enormous multi-year project costing 550 million yen and known as the Showa Restoration was undertaken to restore the massive 6-story castle keep and surrounding buildings. That was followed by an even greater project lasting from 2009 to 2015 which employed 15,000 people and cost 2.5 billion yen. A temporary roofed structure was built to enclose the castle keep to protect it during the restoration. The castle roofs were removed, the building was partially deconstructed, weak timbers were replaced, damaged floors and windows were repaired, new roof tiles were made in the original style, and subtle changes were made to improve earthquake safety even though the castle had survived the 1995 magnitude 6.9 Kobe earthquake unscathed.
The castle looks today much as it did four centuries ago: magnificent and imposing, designed to inspire awe and strike fear in the hearts of enemy armies. I admired the carefully pruned Japanese black pine trees.
The inside tour route starts in the basement of the castle keep, where you get a close up look at the huge timbers that support the entire structure.
Up the steep stairs to the first floor. One of the volunteer guides latched onto us and provided expert commentary in reasonable English.
The floors diminish in size as you ascend. Here is the second floor with stairs leading to the third.
On the third and fourth floors there is a space between the wood-framed shoji screens in the inner wall and the outer wall with slits for the archers and gun-bearing soldiers: in the space are long narrow doors that can be pulled up so that weapons can be pointed downward more sharply and stones can be dropped on the enemy.
Up and up we climbed, to the sixth floor at the top.
There are two staircases on every level and the tour route is arranged such that one is used only for ascending and one only for descending. They are extremely steep with low overhanging beams midway through. Or at least low for me, probably not for 16th century Japanese. More sights on the way down, including these iron-clad double doors connecting the main keep to the western keep.
Some of the walls below the castle keep have holes of various shapes that allowed defenders to fire on invading soldiers from a range of angles depending on the shape of the hole.
Himeji Castle is the largest and finest surviving example of feudal Japanese castle architecture. It’s just a one hour ride on the Shinkansen from Kyoto and we were very glad we made the trip!
Next post about our Kyoto trip >>> The Extraordinary Koko-en Garden at Himeji Castle
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