Dokodemo Door!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Visit to Himeji

Back on March 4th I had a day-off and decided to use the opportunity to visit the city of Himeji, which is less than an hour to the west. Himeji's big draw? White Heron castle, almost universally considered to be the finest example of a feudal Japanese castle.

(Sadly, my cell-phone camera isn't the best at photographing things at a distance and it was a little overcast that afternoon so this picture doesn't give it justice.)

To really appreciate it, one must first understand that Himeji is one of the small number of original castles which are still standing in Japan. For their sheer size and bulk, Osaka castle and Nagoya castle have Himeji outclassed. Alas, they're modern replicas made of concrete, complete with elevators.

Castles in Japan have undergone two waves of destruction over the past two centuries. The first took place after the Meiji Restoration in which relics of the feudal infrastructure were dismantled. (A number of locales, Himeji among them, managed to evade this by designating their castle grounds as public exhibition centers.) And, as you might expect, further destruction took place as a result of bombing in the 1940s. The wooden donjon of Hiroshima castle, for instance, didn't react well to Little Boy.

One must also appreciate the difference between pre- and post-Tokugawa-era castles. Without going into pedantic detail, pre-Tokugawa castles (built before the early 1600s) were military fortifications but the design of post-Tokugawa castles were tightly-regulated by the Shogun and were largely built to be symbols of state power. As a result, post-Tokugawa castles are quite ornate and were the site at which local governance took place. You can get a sense of the aesthetic value from this shot taken under the eaves. You can also see the gun-ports, not that they were ever actually used:
The frame of the donjon is made of wood and weighs about a hundred tons. Due to the lack of decent illumination inside, I couldn't get many pictures of the interior. But, needless to say, one must remove one's shoes when walking-around and the stairways were extremely narrow. The number of people allowed inside was kept small. I was in line for about 90 minutes before I got to the top. Here's the view looking to the west:
The long building housed servant's quarters and, for a while in the 1600s, the daughter of one of the daimyo. Elsewhere on the grounds is a quiet building in which one could carry-out ritual suicide.

It's hard to believe that this place is a mere 40 minutes away.


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