Japanese Castles: Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle 姫路城
Himeji Castle in Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture, not far from Kobe, is Japan's largest and most spectacular castle and certainly its most visited.
A UNESCO World Heritage site (one of the first to be registered in Japan), Himeji Castle is also known as also known as Shirasagijo or Hakurojo due to its bird-like silhouette and the white color of the castle's plaster walls. Himeji is one of Japan's only 12 completely original castles.
History of Himeji Castle
There has been a fortress on the existing site since the 14th century when Sadanori Akamatsu laid out the first castle on the site, but present-day Himeji Castle was first begun by warlord Hidetoshi Toyotomi in 1581, when he constructed a three-story donjon (central keep) on the site of Himeyama Hill in the very center of present-day Himeji town.
Himeji Castle was later enlarged to a five-story donjon and remodeled by Terumasa Ikeda (one of Hidetoshi's generals, who later changed sides and supported Ieyasu at the decisive battle of Sekigahara) in 1608. The castle was further expanded a few years later to reach its present grand and impressive scale.
Design of Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle is a masterpiece of form and function and although the castle was never besieged, it has a multitude of defensive walls and turrets. The wooden framework of the castle is made from huge pillars including a nearly 800-year-old cypress beam, which is thought to bestow good luck on touching it.
Eighty-two castle buildings remain at Himeji, including the imposing 46m-tall keep. The castle was originally encircled by three moats, of which two still survive. The castle was equipped with some of the best defensive technology of the day including triangular gun ports and rectangular arrow ports in the walls, from where defenders could fire their weapons.
The entrance to Himeji Castle also constitutes a veritable spiral maze of walls, gates and baileys, constantly under-fire attackers would need to penetrate.
There are magnificent views from from the top level of the castle over Himeji town and out to the Ejima Islands in the Inland Sea. The castle is particularly attractive in cherry blossom season when the hundreds of cherry trees in the castle grounds are in full pink bloom. The extensive castle park also has plum, peach, azalea and wisteria growing in the grounds.
The story of Himeji Castle is intimately connected with Senhime, the oldest daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada, the second Shogun of the Tokugawa regime. Senhime was married off at age only six by her grandfather, Ieyasu Tokugawa, to the son of his greatest enemy, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
After the suicide of her first husband on the political defeat of the Toyotomi clan by Ieyasu, she was married off again to Honda Heihachiro Tadatoki, the daimyo of Himeji and lived in the castle for 10 years until the death of her husband, when she became a nun and passed the rest of her life in Tokyo. Readers of James Clavell's blockbuster Shogun may recognise some of the details and intrigue of the story.
Himeji Castle Details
There are guided tours of Himeji Castle available in English.
The castle is a 10-15 minute walk from Himeji Station north along Otemachi dori.
Himeji Castle — Admission Fee ¥600.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (later in summer); Closed December 29-31
Tel: 0792 85 1146
A 10-15 minute walk from JR Himeji Station along Otemae-dori. Alternatively take a bus or taxi.
NOTE: Himeji Castle is undergoing extensive repairs through 2015 and the admission fee is reduced to ¥400.
Books on Japanese Castles
Recommended books on Japanese castles are the beautifully illustrated hardcover Castles of the Samurai by Jennifer Mitchelhill and the knowledgeable paperback Japanese Castles 1540-1640 by Stephen Turnbull.
Himeji Castle, Hyogo Prefecture