We got out of the Shinkansen train. Left the Himeji railway station. And we saw it. A white castle on a hill. The view was impressive, but at first, we did not realize how big this castle was. We were standing at the station exit gate, in front of a wide alley, two or three kilometers away.
Himeji was established as a castle town in the XIVth century, although the area had been inhabited for much longer before that time. The Himeji Castle, which is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, was originally built in the mid-IVth century by a local lord named Akamatsu Sadanori. Over the centuries, the castle was expanded and renovated several times, becoming one of the largest and most impressive castles in all of Japan. The surrounding town grew and prospered as a result of the castle’s presence, and it eventually became known as Himeji. Today, Himeji is a thriving city with a rich cultural heritage and many historic landmarks.
On the approach way already at the gateway to the castle premises, we had to take turns and go complicated paths between fortification walls. We crossed a series of smaller gates and baileys. At first, I did not give it much thought.
In one of the chambers inside, as I looked through a window, I realized, the castle was a widespread complex of fortifications and premises around its main keep.
Himeji castle, although never inhabited by a shogun (in Japan: a military commander, appointed by the Emperor, with the actual power in the country till late XIX century), was owned by the militaries. So, it was constructed to serve defensive purposes. The maze of paths between fortifications, baileys, gates, and walls one has to take to get to the main keep was indeed a part of the castle defense strategy. Altogether, the castle complex consists of 83 buildings. It was initially built in the XIV century but later rebuilt and extended several times. It got its final shape in the early XVII century. Throughout history, its construction also turned out to be earthquake resistant. Himeji Castle is also known as the “White Heron Castle”.
A bit of a surprise was that every visitor was asked to take off shoes. Not surprising in Japan, as in most places, you are asked to do so. Taking off shoes in Japan is a traditional custom that is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. It is a way of showing respect and maintaining cleanliness in homes, schools, temples, and other indoor spaces. One reason for this practice is that Japanese homes and buildings traditionally have tatami mats as flooring, which are made of woven rush grass and are delicate and easily damaged by shoes. Additionally, Japan is a country with a wet and rainy climate, and removing shoes prevents mud and dirt from being tracked into homes and buildings. Taking off shoes is also a way of separating the outside world from the inside world, and is seen as a way of maintaining hygiene and cleanliness in homes and other indoor spaces. Visitors to Japan are usually expected to follow this custom when entering private homes, traditional inns, and some public places such as temples and museums. There are often signs and reminders in Japanese and English to remind visitors to take off their shoes.
But it was the first time in my life as I spent two hours in a castle walking barefoot. The system was quite simple. At the entrance (that was quite distant from the exit), we were given plastic bags, which we were supposed to carry during the whole visit. At the exit, we put back shoes on and returned the bags.
The other surprise was that there was absolutely no furniture or other stuff of historical value displayed on the premises. Thus, to our disappointment, we had no insights into the way how daily life looked like in the castle. Still, the castle underwent restoration work for several years and reopened to the public only in 2015. Maybe in the future, some of its chambers will be equipped at least with some objects of daily use. We shall see.
In this context, we need to remember that traditional Japanese interiors often feature low tables and cushions instead of chairs, which allows people to sit on the tatami mats comfortably. This style of furniture is known as “zabuton” (floor cushions) and “chabudai” (low tables). Himeji Castle, like many traditional Japanese castles, did not have beds. Instead, people slept on tatami mats on the floor. Tatami mats are made of woven rush grass and are a traditional flooring material in Japan. They provide a cushioned surface for sitting and sleeping and are considered to be more comfortable than hard floors. In the castle, sleeping areas were often separated by screens or sliding doors and could be closed off for privacy. Bedding was typically stored in cabinets or chests during the day and brought out at night.
The whole fun was, however, about walking long corridors, climbing steps that got steeper and steeper, the higher it was. The most difficult was the paths and steep stairs in the main keep. And we were not alone – there were hundreds of Japanese taking the same way. (Making photos I tried to find a spot that was not crowded so that what you see on pictures may be misguiding).
The carpentry in the central part of the castle was very impressive. There were few separate chambers inside, only open space (contrary to the lower parts of the castle premises where chambers were neighboring the long corridors). We could only have imagined that while the inhabited area was divided in the traditional Japanese way – by movable panels. In some parts, you even could have seen wooden rails on the floor and in the ceiling marking the chambers.
The other surprise was that what we saw in the top chamber. It was a shrine, at which many of the Japanese visitors paid their respect to a deity (or deities). (At his point of our trip to Japan., we knew already that the Japanese attitude to confession was totally different from that what we were accustomed in Europe, and bigger or smaller shrines may be found anywhere >>>).
Below some other photo impressions of the Himeji castle interiors and exteriors.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), there were plans to demolish Himeji Castle. The period was named after Emperor Meiji, who reigned during this time and oversaw many significant changes in Japan’s political and social landscape.
During the Meiji period, Japan underwent a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the country and increasing its power and influence in the world. These reforms included the abolishment of the feudal system, the introduction of a modern legal system, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and the creation of a modern education system. Japan also embarked on a program of rapid industrialization, building factories, railroads, and other infrastructure to support its growing economy. The Meiji period also saw significant changes in Japanese culture and society. Traditional practices and customs were modified or abandoned in favor of Western-style practices and values, including dress, music, and language. The Meiji period is often seen as a turning point in Japanese history, marking the country’s transformation from a feudal society to a modern industrial power.
At that time, many traditional structures were seen as outdated and hindrances to progress. Many Meiji leaders believed that the country needed to embrace modernization and shed its feudal past in order to catch up with the western powers. This led to a wave of destruction of traditional Japanese heritage sites, as many leaders viewed them as symbols of the old order that needed to be erased in order to make way for progress. One notable example of this was the destruction of the Edo Castle in Tokyo, which had been the seat of the Tokugawa shoguns for over two centuries. The castle was dismantled and replaced with a modern imperial palace, symbolizing the transition from the feudal era to the modern era. However, not all Meiji leaders supported the destruction of heritage sites. Some recognized the importance of preserving Japan’s cultural heritage, and worked to protect and restore important historical sites. For example, the famous Buddhist temple of Horyuji in Nara was carefully restored during the Meiji period, with great care taken to preserve its ancient architecture and artwork.
Himeji Castle did not share the fate of Edo Castle. Thanks to the efforts of local citizens and preservationists, the castle was saved from destruction. In 1931, it was designated a national treasure, and in 1993, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.