Upon hearing the name Himeji, most people would instantly think of the castle the city is famous for, while forgetting the lesser known Mount Shosha (書写山, Shoshazan) where Engyoji (円教寺, Engyōji), a temple complex, is situated. As Himeji castle, also know as the White Egret Castle (shirasagijo), is one of the few extant castles preserved in their original form, this should not come as a great surprise.
Even if it shouldn’t come as a great surprise, we do feel it might be interesting to provide a thorough intro-guide-review of this fabulous castle and underline why it really shouldn’t be ignored if one is travelling in the Kansai region. Besides reviewing and introducing this castle, we want to provide some important elements of information that could augment the pleasure of visiting this castle.
Even though Himeji was already an area with a fortress (a fortress that was built by Akamatsu Norimura / 赤松則村 (1277-1350) in 1333 on top of the Himeyama hills) as early as the 14th century, the current Himeji castle only began to take shape in the early 17th century. But Himeji castle is was not the first castle to be build there. In 1346, thirteen years after the construction of the fortress, Norimura’s second son Sadanori/赤松貞範 (1306-1374) rebuilt the fortress as a small mountain castle, Himeyama castle.
After Toyotomi Hideyoshi/豊臣秀吉 (1536 – 1598) took control of Harima, Kurodo Yoshitaka/黒田 孝高 (1546-1604) or Kanbei proposed to use the Himeyama hills (and the castle) as a base to suppress the Mori family of the Chugoku region. As such, in 1580, Hideyoshi ordered the construction of a three-storied Tenshu (castle tower) – a construction that was completed in 1581.
In 1601 Ikeda Terumasa/池田 輝政 (1564-1613) received control over Himeji castle from Tokugawa Ieyasu/徳川家康 (1543-1616), his father-in-law, as a gift for his support in the Sekigahara Campaign (1600), that unofficially marked the beginning of the Tokugawa bakufu. Ikeda Terumasa ordered the replacing of Hideyoshi’s castle and after a nine year construction program (from 1601-1609) the Himeji castle assumed its current form. In 1617, Honda Tadamasa/ 本多忠政 (1575-1631) expanded the castle complex with several buildings.
To really appreciate the brilliance of Himeji castle, one should engage in a little play of imagination. For the castle grounds, imagining oneself in the position of an attacker, an attacker who wants to gain access to the citadel, seems most beneficiary. For the inside of the castle keep and the western bailey, one should opt to imagine oneself primarily as a defender – a position that puts the position of attacker even better into perspective. This play of imagination should enable the visitor to feel how the integration of location and technology created a barrier (physical as psychological) to confuse and exhaust the enemy.
Area and its surroundings
From the very first view on Himeji castle it should be clear that Himeji is built on a hill surrounded by a plain – this type of castle is called hirayamajiro. While the main tower is built on a hill (which was easier to defend), the plain is used to surround the main tower with defensive walls, moats (Hori) and yagura towers. These additional yagura towers, which are similar in style to the main donjon, were primarily guard-towers set atop the corners of the castle’s stone wall and other strategic positions so the surrounding area could be overlooked – sometimes these yagura towers served as armories or storehouses for rice or salt as well.
Himeji castle is also an example of a connected tower construction style. Besides the main donjon, the daitenshu, Himeji Castle also has three kotenshu, small subsidiary towers/donjons connected by corridors and passages (wateriyagura) to the daitenshu. These connected towers form the inner citadel or the ‘hon-maru’. Other compounds include the outer bailey, ‘san-no-maru’, the ‘ni-nomaru’, the second compound, and the ‘nishi-no-maru’, the western bailey.
Even today, with the route clearly marked, one might feel somewhat confused while navigating the castle complex. It is at that moment that one should realize that the castle complex was always designed for military purposes and that the ‘goal’ of the design is making itself experienced. The diverse interlocking compounds made sure the enemy didn’t know how to quickly reach the inner citadel. One had to traverse open areas within
compounds and charge along wandering passages that seem to lack any logic. The gates, heavily fortified by wood and stone, are small so it was impossible for a large group of attackers to enter at the same time. And don’t forget the various towers from which one surely would have been fired upon.
Exterior / interior
We already underlined the defensive preoccupation that guided the construction of Himeji complex, but there is more. While walking around, one will observe openings (sama) in the walls. The rectangular openings are called Yazama and were reserved for archers, and the circular, triangular and square ones, called Teppozama, were intended for musketeers. Each opening is narrower on the outside than on the inside – it should be obvious why.
What concerns the exterior of the main keep itself, two aspects are worth underlining. First, we have the fifteen-meter sloping stone walls (ishigaki). If one stands at the base of the wall, one is able to understand their function: a direct view on the castle is impossible. It is worth noting that these walls were built with the Sangizumi technique, i.e. layers with long rectangular stones are alternated with shorter stone pieces. Secondly, the donjon features ishi-otoshi, i.e. openings (26 cm) that allowed the defenders to pour boiling water or oil on the attackers who were trying the scale the stone walls. One should look right above the stone walls for a construction that slightly sticks out – in the donjon these ishi-otoshi were normally covered with a wooden lid.
Inside the donjon, there is one thing, called Musha Kakusha, that should be given special attention. These musha kakushi were hiding places for warriors and designed to keep oneself hidden while keeping the possibility to attack any intruders intact. The donjon is not the only building that can be entered. Along the walls of the west-bailey, the bailey that served a residence for Princess Sen (and Tadatoki Honda, her second husband), there is a long corridor with multiple rooms and the keshō yagura (Dressing Tower), where it is believed Princess Sen groomed herself.
For anyone who visits the kansai region, Himeji-jo is a place that cannot be ignored – one is obliged to visit this castle at least once. It is a masterful construction in wood, blending functionality with a fabulous sense of aesthetic taste, e.g. the use of white-painted plaster, the multiple roof layers.
Even though the floors of the main donjon are in general unfurnished – which might disappoint some castle lovers, it does enable the ingeniousness of the wooden interior to come fully to the fore. Additionally, there are various multilingual signs inside the donjon and around the castle precinct that highlight various aspects – some of those we explained already.
One minor hassle that visiting the Donjon introduces is the fact that you will have to carry your shoes in a plastic bag (from the first floor to the last and highest floor and back downstairs). And if it rains, an additional bag for one’s umbrella has to be carried. As Himeji-jo is very popular – even more so after it has been renovated, one should expect some waiting-in-line at the entrance of the donjon – the place where one receives one’s plastic bag.
- Fabulous wooden architecture (especially the interior and exterior of the Donjon).
- Fabulous defensive oriented castle complex.
- Waiting some time to be able to enter the Donjon (especially on rainy days).
- An “empty” castle. The various explanation panels do provide some context.
Address: 68 Honmachi, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture 670-0012, Japan.
Price: 1000 yen (adults).
Visiting Time (approximate): 1 hour and a half to two hours.
How to get there
A 20-minute walk from JR Himeji and Sanyo Himeji stations. From the Himeji station as from Sanyo Himeji station the castle is very easy to spot.