Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture is considered to be the finest example of Japanese castle architecture. Thankfully, it has survived to this day. One of the rare exceptions.
The first castle in what is now Himeji City 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 (Showa 6), it was designated a national treasure, and in 1993 (Heisei 5) 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.
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.
Whereas many Japanese castles were destroyed during the turbulent times of Bakumatsu and the Meiji Restoration, Himeji Castle survived. In 1868 (Keio 4), 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 burned to the ground by American fire bombs, the castle survived. Albeit, in a dilapidated condition.
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.
1 Columbia University. Himeji Castle. Retrieved on 2008-07-26.
2 Hearn, Lafcadio (1910). Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan. Bernhard Tauchnitz, 267-268.
3 For an explanation of koku, see 1890s • Oxcart with Rice Bags.
4 This postcard was published by Kokkidou (国旗堂), Kawanoshitamachi, Okayama.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Himeji 1910s: Himeji Castle, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/302/himeji-castle
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