Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
June 24, 2009
I had seen posh palaces, towering temples, and formidable fortresses, but a castle complex eluded me – until I got to Himeji, a quaint little city near Kobe. Himeji-jo (jo being castle in Nihongo) was completed in the early 1600s, yet it stood as the best-preserved castle in Japan, even emerging unscathed from WW2 bombings.
Unlike its medieval European counterparts, however, the Japanese castle had a delicacy of design that glossed over its impervious walls and murderous trappings. Himeji-jo was a vision of elegance in architecture. Its whitewashed walls and layers of gables with upturned eaves were made to look like the cascading plumage of a white egret about to take flight. Thus, sometimes called Shirasagijo, or White Egret Castle, the castle looked as lovely as an egret.
The fortified castle was set atop a hilly plateau, a vantage point for spotting approaching enemies from miles away. A wide moat separated it from the land beyond, ensuring that even the most persevering invaders would get waterlogged and drained if they could get through at all. Its spiral arrangement of pathways was an ingenious display of military strategy, shogun–style.
Approaching forces could not charge the castle head-on; instead, they would have to snake through the maze of pathways that often led to dead-ends. These winding footpaths were flanked by walled structures (yagura, literally “arrow house”) punctured with holes of various shapes – triangles, squares, circles – corresponding to particular weapons.
The wooden gates, fortified with buttoned metal, were constructed with low vertical clearances that, presumably, made it difficult for an armored soldier to get through, much less a whole army. The top of my head grazed the gate’s crossbeam.
The stones in the castle’s foundation were not held together by mortar. Rather, they were piled atop one another in a steep incline. The purpose of the fan curve was two-fold: structurally, it allowed flexibility during earthquakes; psychologically, it presented an imposing blockade to intruders, minimizing any good view of the castle’s donjon. The technique worked – the castle had remained standing despite the geologically unstable land and numerous wars it witnessed through the centuries. Aesthetically, the sloping walls added an illusion of graceful movement to the static stone structure.
Surrounding the donjon were numerous turrets used as storehouses for war supplies, such as food and ammunition. Peeking through the window slats, I could make out the salt spread evenly on the floor, despite the darkness.
The castle’s engineering was designed to break down an intruder’s fortitude. To minimize this effect on present-day tourists, signposts with arrows were pegged on corners. Still, it could all be overwhelming.
This impressive six-level main tower, the daitenshukaku, stood almost 150 feet tall, dominating the landscape. Fitting the entire structure within the camera viewfinder was quite a challenge. I had to lie flat on my back to to get a full-view shot.
What a view it was – it encompassed the history and ancient society of Japan. The samurai psyche was made manifest in the architectural features and layout of Himeji Castle.