On Sunday Phil and I journeyed to the city of Himeji to visit Himeji Castle (Himeji-jō) and Koko-en Gardens. I had heard much about Himeji- jō as it generally touted as Japan’s most spectacular castle and the best surviving example of early 17th century castle architecture. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was one of the very first sites in Japan to be designated a World Cultural Heritage Site, so I was very much looking forward to the visit. Thankfully it didn’t disappoint! Constructed on Himeyama hill some 45.6 metres above sea level the top of the 46.3 metre tall, 5700 tonne main tower is more than 90 metres above sea level and stands tall and proud over Himeji city; we caught our first glimpse of it almost as soon as we stepped off the train.
While a fort was constructed on the site in 1333, Himeji- jō’s history really began in 1581 when Hideyoshi Toyotomi built a three-storied castle on the site. When Ikeda Teremasa became lord of Himeji-jō twenty years later he transformed the castle into the impressive five-storied building that occupies the site today. The reconstruction took eight years to complete and, as well as increasing the height of the main castle tower itself, he also greatly extended the area protected within the moats and established a bustling castle town. When Honda Tadamasa became castle lord in 1617 he developed the West Bailey (Nishi-no-Maru) to reinforce the castle against attack. Amazingly Himeji-jō has kept its original appearance for over four hundred years, although there have been a few minor losses of buildings over the years and a number of restoration projects have been carried out to preserve it.
We had the misfortune to arrive on the day of the World Heritage Himeji Castle Marathon, which meant a lot of walking as we had to walk almost 360 degrees around the outer walls and moat to first get to the castle and to get back out again due to restricted access. Still, it was a beautiful walk and it was fun to see the runners.
At least there was a plus side
Perhaps Himeji- jō ‘s most striking features are its attractive combination of multiple, grey-tiled roof layers and dazzling white-plastered walls. In fact it is on account of these white walls that Himeji-jō has earnt its nickname – Shirasagi-jō, or ‘white heron castle’. As is traditionally the case with castles in Japan, Himeji-jō is constructed of wood rather than stone, so it is somewhat miraculous that the castle has survived the attempts of fire, earthquake and war to bring it to the ground. Interestingly the white plastered walls have not only an aesthetic purpose – the plaster helps to strengthen the walls and has fire-proofing capabilities too!
Sadly the main keep was out of bounds on the day of our visit as the 5-year long restoration project which began in 2010 draws to a close. However there was still much to explore within the grounds. The castle complex covers 107 hectares and comprises 8 National Treasures, 74 ‘important cultural properties’. There are 82 buildings all in all, including the donjon complex, ramparts, gates and stone walls. As well as marvelling in the beauty of the castle complex (seriously, I took over 600 photos during the trip!) we were able to explore the 13th Century Wa Watch Tower, the Cosmetic Tower and the interconnecting 300 metre long ‘Long Tower’. If you’re wondering, as I was, where the Cosmetic Tower gets its name it is so-called because Senhime, the widow of lord Honda Tadatoki, would rest here and fix her makeup before going to worship at a nearby shrine.
Himeji-jō was a very important defensive position for the Tokugawa shogunate government and, as such, has lots of interesting defensive features to see inside including:
Sama, or loopholes (narrow openings in the walls for shooting arrows and bullets)
and Ishiotoshi , or stone drops (self-explanatory really…)
Judging by the number of photographs I took of them I was rather fascinated by the smoked roof tiles. The terminal ridge end tiles all have different crests on them, reflecting the different feudal families who have owned and occupied Himeji-jō in its 400 year history. The plaster joints between the end tiles and family crests are elegant in design and also help rain water to drain away…
…a very useful feature on a day like today!
I couldn’t resist doing a little charcoal rubbing of one of the tiles as a little keepsake.
You may have noticed from some of the pictures that there are some rather interesting fish-like statues on the corners of the main tower roofs. These are actually shachi, a mythical creature with the body of a tiger but the head of a fish – they spout water from the mouth to extinguish flames.
This exhibition within the castle complex shows the different shachi which have adorned the roof throughout Himeji- jō’s history. You can see the different styles of the Meiji, Showa and Heisei eras respectively in the photos below.
Beautiful though the castle is the highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the neighbouring Koko-en Garden. This 3.5 hectare garden was constructed in 1992 using horticultural techniques from the Edo era (c. 1600-1860) as a guide. With Himeji-jō providing an impressive backdrop Koko-en comprises 9 separate gardens, each with a very different style and atmosphere.
Here are some of my favourite parts.
Our tour of the gardens began with a walk along this attractive wooden roofed corridor…
…which provided some beautiful views out over the first garden…
…and led to a little guest house, Cho-on-sai, inside which was a display of bonbaiten (bonsai plums) and an illuminated cherry blossom covered scale model of Himeji Castle.
The first garden, ‘The Garden of the Lord’s Residence’ is the largest at Koko-en and very beautiful.
Another garden featured order beds Japan-style, with rocks and stones accompanying the plants.
‘The Flatly Landscaped Garden’ is designed to have a relaxed, informal style.
It was perhaps not the best time of year to visit ‘The Garden of Summer Trees’ but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
The Garden with a Hill and a Pond’ is a traditional style Japanese Landscape Garden, similar to many of those which Phil and I have already visited here in Japan.
Finally, my personal favourite ,‘The Garden of Bamboo’. I’m not quite sure why I liked this one so much but it seemed somehow both traditional and modern.