Himeji-jo: Castle of the White Egret
It towers above the neon signs and drab concrete blocks of modern-day Japan, a gleaming monument to an age when shoguns and samurai didn’t just exist in the imagination. From its hilltop perch, Himeji Castle dominates its namesake city, marking one end of the tree-lined boulevard leading to the busy train station.
A fortress has stood on this site since the 14th century, presiding over a narrow strip of flat land bordering the Inland Sea – and a strategic point along the western approach to Kyoto, Japan’s imperial capital for more than a thousand years. Himeji-jo is nicknamed the “Castle of the White Egret” or “White Heron Castle” for its imposing beauty, though the compound’s age is just as impressive; much of its current form dates back to 1609.
Himeji-jo is one of only 12 original Japanese castles (those of Osaka, Nagoya, and Kumamoto are largely reinforced concrete replicas) and the largest of them all. For 17th-century armies, launching an assault on the heavily fortified castle would have been no easy feat. First, they’d have to navigate the labyrinthine approach of multiple gates and narrow, winding pathways – full of turns and switchbacks – while being fully exposed to the wrath of its well-hidden defenders. Scaling the enormous walls of interlocking stone blocks, steeply built with a perceptible curve, would have been out of the question.
Stones could be dropped onto intruders from the angled chutes at the corners of each turret; defensive loopholes were specially designed so warriors could shoot arrows and use their firearms without being seen. Inside the austere chambers of Himeji-jo’s main keep, empty weapon racks would have held matchlock guns (introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century), while hiding places were built into the walls, allowing defenders to emerge, ninja-like, from the shadows.
Any approaching army would be quickly spotted from the uppermost level of the keep, where the panoramic view unfolds beyond the decorative roof finials modeled after shachi – folkloric sea creatures with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp – believed to protect wooden buildings against fire. And because the castle was never attacked with cannon or set aflame by a lightning strike, it stands as proudly as it did in the early 17th century.
Today’s Himeji-jo is so well-preserved that it was listed as one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993. But it wasn’t always appreciated by those in power.
Amid the rush to modernize in the Meiji Period, which saw the feudal system formally abolished in 1871, Japanese government policies called for the wholesale destruction of traditional castles up and down the country. Himeji-jo was abandoned and some of its minor structures gave way to army barracks, though a colonel by the name of Nakamura Shigeto successfully put an end to the government’s plans to demolish it all. The castle was eventually snapped up at an auction for the not-so-princely sum of around US$2,300 (in today’s terms), by a local resident who planned to tear down its 80-odd buildings and redevelop the land. But he soon realized it would be too costly an endeavor.
Then came World War II, when Himeji became the target of a firebombing campaign in the final months of the conflict. Two-thirds of the city was razed to the ground in a single afternoon, but by a stroke of good fortune, the sole incendiary bomb that fell on the castle’s top floor did not explode.
Major repairs were carried out in the 1950s, while Japan was experiencing its remarkable postwar boom. More recently, the castle was meticulously restored over a five-year period, removing decades of accumulated soot and grime to reveal the original luster of its snow-white walls and roof tiles lined with plaster. The scaffolding came down in the spring of 2015, just in time for cherry blossom season, and giving me another reason to return to Himeji after nearly 15 years – this time with Bama in tow. ◊