Himeji Castle is the picture-perfect, iconic pagoda castle that is the greatest surviving fortress of Japan’s legendary feudal age. An immense complex that strategically dominated Hyogo province in medieval times, it is also known as Hakurojo, the White Egret Castle, because of the white-winged appearance of its upper stories. Himeji Castle has been on the brink of destruction many times, both at the hands of man and by natural disasters, but has admirably managed to withstand the march of time. It is the most popular and visited castle in Japan, and after the Great Wall the most visited fortification in the entire Far East. Himeji Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Beginning in the 12th century AD, Japan entered a great feudal period, an era that lasted on and off almost into the modern age. During this time, powerful Japanese warlords were in a near-constant state of vigilance against each other and the nominally ruling Shogun, the closest thing Japan had to an emperor during much of this period. The most powerful of these warlords often came from the rich agricultural heartlands of the island.
One of these, Akamatsu Norimura, was an important but faltering supporter of the emperor. In 1333 he constructed the first major fortress in Himeji, the capital of the Harima province. Its completion helped to embolden him to leave the emperor’s service and realign his clan with another leading warlord. Barely a decade later, perhaps fearful of reprisals from imperial enemies, Norimura’s son extensively rebuilt and expanded the fortress. It remained an important strategic military site throughout the rest of Japan’s feudal age.
Himeji castle changed hands many times in its history, most often peacefully as a gift to some warlord or another. Often after each transition it was expanded, strengthened or remodeled. This was especially true in the late 16th century, when Himeji took on the general shape it has today. The iconic keep was completed in the early 1600s, along with most of the rest of the fortifications and buildings that are still in place.
From the 1860s onward, Himeji Castle’s survival has been nothing short of miraculous. It survived demolition in 1871, when an army colonel recognized the castle’s historic importance and saved it by requisitioning its use as an army barracks. Shortly thereafter the castle was put up for auction and purchased by a land developer for 23 yen; however he lacked the funds to destroy the place. It even survived destruction during World War II when the sole firebomb which hit the keep failed to detonate. Finally, it shook off the terrible earthquake which devastated the surrounding countryside in 1995. It is now one of the best surviving castles not just in Japan, but in the entire Far East, and is arguably Japan’s most historically important and iconic structure.
Himeji Castle is the largest intact castle in Japan and one of the largest medieval fortresses east of India. The bulk of the castle consists of a labyrinthine, multi-building complex surrounded by concentric rings of steep walls and a trio of moats. Scores of buildings and warehouses of the castle, not to mention over twenty gates, are still intact, giving an excellent idea of what the fortress was like at its height in the 17th century. The area around the castle is serene with gardens and cherry blossom trees.
The castle highlight is the absolutely breathtaking central keep. This massive building, which rises from the very peak of the hill, is one of the world’s finest pagoda structures. The lower eighty feet or so of the keep is an impenetrable stone juggernaut. Crowning this is a towering, solidly-built six-story wooden pagoda. A smaller building juts off from the side of this. All of the floors served a specific military purpose, from barracks below to observation above. These now house exhibits about the castle. Of particular note are the medieval weapons and matchlock guns on display in the armory.
Himeji Castle is located on a hill in the center of the city of Himeji, along the southern coast of Japan approximately 250 miles west of Tokyo. It is easily accessible on foot from public transportation. It is open daily, except December 29-31, from 9:00am-4:00pm (later hours in Summer). Admission is Y600. Web: www.himeji-castle.gr.jp (official website).
The majority of Japan’s great feudal-era castles have not survived the ages. Nearby in Kyoto, which was once an imperial city, is Nijo Castle, as well as the Kyoto Imperial Palace, both of which served as royal residences. Scattered around the Kyoto region, in various stages of repair, are Fukuchiyama Castle, Fushimi Castle, Hikone Castle, Inuyama Castle, Kishiwada Castle, Muruoko Castle, Osaka Castle, Wakayama Castle and Nagoya Castle.