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I have seen the castle myself and found that I was in a state of …
The first castle in what is now Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, was built in 1346 by Akamatsu Sadanori (赤松貞範, 1306-1374). In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) handed the castle to Ikeda Terumasa (1564-1613) who undertook a nine year construction program that created a castle that was a true masterpiece of Japanese castle design. Although the new castle played an important symbolic role in displaying the power of Tokugawa rule, it was never used in a real battle and therefore survived to modern times. In 1931, it was designated a national treasure, and in 1993 it became Japan’s very first UNESCO World Cultural and Heritage Site. Because of its white color and a design that resembles a bird ready to take off for flight, it has been called the White Heron Castle.
Designed as a defensive castle, the main complex of Himeji Castle consists of one main donjon and three secondary ones located on two hills commanding the Harima plain. The main tower, located on one of the two hills, is connected by corridors and passages to the other three towers. A palace used to stand at the base of the main tower, but it was destroyed by fire.
The view from Himeji Castle’s main donjon clearly shows its strategic command of the Harima plain.
Outside this main complex are a residences and storehouses enclosed by moats and massive walls. The three water-filled moats were designed to slow down enemy attacks by forcing the enemy to unload supplies and transport them across the water, a very inefficient process.
The defensive capabilities of the castle went far beyond its strategic location and impressive moats. To enter the castle, one has to navigate a true maze that even confuses a relaxed tourist with a map, let alone an uninformed attacker fighting off defenders. Gates are relatively small, making them easy to defend as only a small number of attackers could move through at the same time.
Fifteen-meter high stone walls make use of a carefully designed sloping line making it impossible to view the castle from the base of these walls. The castle’s walls feature a large number of holes. Each hole is designed for a specific function, the shape allowing either bows or rifles, or the throwing of stones and scalding water.
Not only can many of the defensive and architectural features used in Japanese castles during medieval times be observed in Himeji Castle, but it is also an extremely elegant and beautiful structure, making this castle an uncommonly valuable cultural asset.
Different shapes of holes in the castle walls for different defensive functions.
Whereas many Japanese castles were destroyed during the turbulent times of Bakumatsu and the Meiji Restoration, Himeji Castle survived. In 1868, a government army under the command of a descendant of Ikeda Terumasa, shelled the castle, but used blank cartridges. It even survived WWII. Although the surrounding city was burnt to the ground by American fire bombs, the castle survived, though in a dilapidated condition. Restoration work begun in 1956 has brought it back to its former glory and it is now, along with the castles in Kumamoto and Matsumoto, the best example of castle architecture in Japan.1
Famous author Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) recounted a well-known story set in Himeji in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894):
Himeji contains the ruins of a great castle of thirty turrets; and a daimyō used to dwell therein whose revenue was one hundred and fifty-six thousand koku of rice.2 Now, in the house of one of that daimyō‘s chief retainers there was a maid-servant, of good family, whose name was O-Kiku; and the name “Kiku” signifies a chrysanthemum flower.
Many precious things were intrusted to her charge, and among others ten costly dishes of gold. One of these was suddenly missed, and could not be found; and the girl, being responsible therefor, and knowing not how otherwise to prove her innocence, drowned herself in a well. But ever thereafter her ghost, returning nightly, could be heard counting the dishes slowly, with sobs:
Ichi-mai, Ni-mai, San-mai, Yo-mai, Go-mai, Roku-mai, Shichi-mai, Hachi-mai, Ku-mai
Then would be heard a despairing cry and a loud burst of weeping; and again the girl’s voice counting the dishes plaintively: “One — two — three — four — five — six — seven — eight — nine” — Her spirit passed into the body of a strange little insect, whose head faintly resembles that of a ghost with long dishevelled hair; and it is called O-Kiku-mushi, or “the fly of O-Kiku;” and it is found, they say, nowhere save in Himeji. A famous play was written about O-Kiku, which is still acted in all the popular theatres, entitled Banshu-O-Kiku-no-Sara-ya-shiki; or, The Manor of the Dish of O-Kiku of Banshu.
Some declare that Banshu is only the corruption of the name of an ancient quarter of Tōkyō (Yedo), where the story should have been laid. But the people of Himeji say that part of their city now called Go-Ken-Yashiki is identical with the site of the ancient manor. What is certainly true is that to cultivate chrysanthemum flowers in the part of Himeji called Go-Ken-Yashiki is deemed unlucky, because the name of O-Kiku signifies “Chrysanthemum.” Therefore, nobody, I am told, ever cultivates chrysanthemums there.3
Himeji Castle is considered the most beautiful castle in Japan.
Lords of the castle
No fewer than 13 families lived in Himeji Castle since Akamatsu Sadanori first built it. They include lords from the Matsudaira, Okudaira, Sakakibara and Sakai families. Here is a short list of some of them.
1346 Akamatsu Sadanori
1349 Kodera Yorisue
1441 Yamana Mochitoyo
1467 Akamatsu Masanori
1469 Kodera Toyomoto
1545 Kuroda Shigetaka
1567 Kuroda Yoshitaka
1580 Hashiba Hideyoshi
1585 Kinoshita Iesada
1601 Ikeda Terumasa
1617 Honda Tadamasa
1639 Matsudaira Tadaaki
1648 Matsudaira Naomoto
1649 Sakakibara Tadatsugu
1667 Matsudaira Naonori
1682 Honda Tadakuni
1704 Sakakibara Masakuni
1741 Matsudaira Akinori
1749 Sakai Tadazumi
1 Columbia University. Himeji Castle. Retrieved on 2008-07-26.
2 For an explanation of koku, see 1890s • Oxcart with Rice Bags.
3 Hearn, Lafcadio (1910). Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan. Bernhard Tauchnitz, 267-268.
4 This postcard was published by Kokkidou (国旗堂), Kawanoshitamachi, Okayama.