Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
June 24, 2009
Part of what made visiting Himeji Castle truly exhilarating – and exhausting – was the fact that the donjon could be scaled up to its top, treating visitors with a panoramic view of Himeji City from its famous castle.
However, the interior of the castle was rather spartan. No grand halls, opulent quarters, and gleaming artifacts usually associated with such an elegant and imposing façade. Instead, the castle was hollow with lots of empty corridors and dark nooks. You might think the samurai lords were concerned more with making a strong impression on the outside than they were with their personal lifestyles.
At the entrance, you could choose to leave your shoes or put them in a plastic bag to carry with you. In any case, presentable socks were a must (look ma, no holes!). Walking on shiny woodwork of Japanese cypress was a balancing act; the floors were slippery, more so the wooden stairs, which required climbing gingerly as they were also precariously steep and had low vertical clearances. “Watch your head” signs abounded. Descending the stairs was trickier as it was vertigo-inducing – Hitchcock in Himeji!
The castle’s donjon was six-storey high, though the levels got progressively smaller. Edo era artifacts and artworks with bilingual signs were showcased on the lower floors. Most striking for me was the samurai armour clothing. It looked heavy and cumbersome with its embellished breastplate, brass-scaled skirt, thick obi that held swords and other weapons, brightly painted tassels, not to mention the kabuto (helmet) and metal mask. I wondered how a warrior could make those deadly moves decked out in it. In fact, they were made of lightweight materials.
Surprisingly, photography was not disallowed here. But there was almost no lighting, except from the numerous small windows called sama – loopholes through which soldiers would shoot arrows or fire harquebuses from in case of a siege.
Cylindrical shingles of the roofing had family crest designs at their jutting ends. These symbols represented the different feudal lords that had occupied the castle. The designs were varied: yin-and-yang, maple leaf, even a cross signifying the Christian conversion of one of the lords. We looked out the window to see them on the gable of the lower levels or on adjacent turrets.
The most curious design at the top floor, foregrounding the 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Himeji City, was the half-carp, half-tiger gargoyle that adorned gable peaks. Called shachihoko, they were said to protect the castle from fire as they were believed to summon the rains.
Himeji Castle was the most photographed structure in Himeji City, but the castle returned the favor. From its top floor, the view of the city inspired all shutterbugs to click away. Everybody stuck their camera out the window to capture the view from this vantage point. As if all our photos were not convincing enough, we dismissed any doubt we had been there with a Himeji Castle stamp on our brochure!
Postscript: Cindy (my travel bud whose favorite color was Hello Kitty pink) and I would like to express our deepest gratitude to our host who drove us to Himeji, Kobe, and Osaka all in one day. It was just our first day in Japan, but we already had an overdose (in a nice way!) of Japanese hospitality. Domo! Domo!
But of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make any booboo. Since we were on the road that day, our host quickly got us onigiri (sushi rice balls) take-out from a convenience store. However, she made the mistake of putting all the rice balls on my lap. There were circles, squares, and triangles – all wrapped in appetizing nori and they came in a variety of fillings (tuna, salmon, and other yummy things). I conveniently assumed they were ALL for me, and promptly devoured them one by one. Later on I realized I had eaten our host’s share! Uber embarrassing faux pas! Gomen nasai!!!