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Himeji Castle: The White Heron of Japan

Throughout the history of Japan, thousands of castles have come and gone. While every castle has a unique look and a storied past, one stands out among the rest. I still recall my first visit to Himeji. The moment I left the station and headed north up Otemae Street, I saw it standing there, with unmatched size and brilliant white exterior, resembling a heron taking off in flight, Himeji Castle.

The White Heron of Himeji, Himeji Castle, standing under cherry blossoms
The White Heron of Himeji. I didn't understand its significance until I researched!

My First Impressions of Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is regarded by many as Japan’s finest surviving castle and is one of the few that has stood since the Edo Period. However, even as a lover of Japanese castles, I have to admit, I wasn’t immediately enamored by it on my first visit. Sure, the newly restored exterior was as brilliant as advertised, which made for a nice postcard photograph, but once I stepped inside the castle, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. I’d grown accustomed to modern replica castles, which often serve as museums that are filled with information boards, displays, and videos. Himeji Castle, on the other hand, offers few of these.

A boat ride in the moat of Himeji Castle. Cherry blossoms are in the foreground
Although my first impressions weren't great, the boat ride is a unique perspective not available at most castles

For a number of years, Himeji Castle remained low on my list of favorite castles. However, upon subsequent visits, my perspective changed. I came to realize that the problem wasn’t with Himeji Castle, but with me. It turned out that the White Heron of Himeji offered everything a castle lover could want; I simply didn’t have the knowledge to appreciate it on a deeper level at the time.

Once I took the time to learn the history of the castle, I came to understand why it was so revered amongst the locals I’d spoken to. However, in the process of learning why Himeji Castle was so significant, I also found out that this wasn’t the first time Himeji Castle had been brushed off as nothing special, which almost resulted in it being lost.

Standing the Test of Time

While Himeji Castle is considered by many to be the most important castle in Japan these days, it wasn’t always held in such high regard. After Japan entered the Meiji Period, people didn’t feel much reverence for relics of the Edo Period. As such, Himeji Castle was auctioned off in 1871 to a local for the equivalent of just over $3,200 USD in today’s currency. The new owner intended to demolish the castle so he could develop the land it sat on, but after he found the cost exceeded his expectations, he not only abandoned his plan but the castle as well.

Close-up shot of decorative metal coverings on the wooden doors at Himeji Castle
The original doors still remain, standing the test of time

Though it might sound unthinkable today, Himeji Castle was left abandoned for several years. Like many castles in the Meiji Period, it fell into severe disrepair, seemingly destined to be lost to the unrelenting forces of nature. Parts of the exterior crumbled and the castle became overgrown by the surrounding nature attempting to reclaim the land on which the castle stood. Despite all of this, the keep continued to watch over the city of Himeji; ravaged by years of neglect, but still standing.

A number of family crests on the Marugawara tiles at Himeji Castle
The Marugawara tiles of the family crests of the feudal lords who helped build or repair Himeji Castle

By the end of the Meiji Period, opinions towards Edo Period structures had changed, leading to the first of many restoration projects in the early 1900s. By the 1930s further restoration efforts of Himeji Castle were approved but were interrupted by the war. Against all odds, Himeji remained mostly unscathed through World War II, despite the city suffering heavy damage. Himeji Castle once again showed its impressive resilience when it only suffered minimal damage during the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Between 2010 and 2015, the castle underwent further renovations, which repaired years of wear and restored the white exterior from which the castle gets its nickname, ‘The White Heron’.

Himeji Castle's Lethal Design

While Himeji is best known for its remarkable keep, when diving deeper into the design of the castle I learned that it has some of the best defensive measures of any castle in Japan. I still recall during my first visit, feeling as though I was in a maze. While I didn’t think much of it at the time, it turns out this is one of Himeji Castle’s greatest defenses. While I was fortunate enough to have signs to guide me towards the keep, the winding path leading to the keep served as a way to confuse invaders attempting to storm the castle. I now imagine myself in the shoes of a soldier in an invading army as I make my way along the disorienting paths toward the keep.

A stone-lined wall and path up to a gate of the Himeji Castle
The corridors leading up to the main castle building winds around, confusing any invading forces

Continuing along the winding paths, I passed by what appeared to be nothing more than geometrically shaped windows. While these are aesthetically pleasing on their own, they served a more lethal purpose. The design of these windows allowed soldiers defending the castle to ambush attackers with waves of arrows without exposing themselves to the threat of retaliation. While I once enjoyed these windows for nothing more than the view, I now gaze through them, each with a perfect view of the path leading to the keep, while imagining myself as a defender of the castle.

If invaders somehow managed to navigate through the maze and make it past the endless waves of arrows, they were far from in the clear; for the castle held one more cruel line of defense. As I gazed up at the towering keep, small chutes along the wall began to reveal themselves. What I once thought were completely innocuous gaps were designed to pour boiling oil on any invaders unfortunate enough to make it past the first two lines of defense.

A far shot of Himeji Castle with the sunset light hitting the face of the keep.
From this perspective, you can come to appreciate the sheer size of Himeji Castle, and how difficult it would be to infiltrate the keep. The small gaps can be seen on the corners of the main building of the castle, just about the stone foundation.

It was in learning about this design that I grew to appreciate the complex architecture of Himeji Castle beyond the surface level. Interestingly enough, while Himeji is revered for its defensively-minded design, it never actually saw battle, which is one of the reasons it has survived since the Edo Period.

Echos of the Past

Fortunately, these days, visitors can enjoy the approach to the keep without fear of ambush, or being covered in boiling oil. The moment I remove my shoes, step inside of Himeji Castle and feel the cool wooden floor against my feet, I am instantly transported to a bygone era. What I once saw as a mostly empty building, I now see as a masterpiece of architecture maintained over the years, which retains the signs of its rich history. Every creaky floorboard, every cracked support beam, and every worn wall is a reminder of the more than 400 years Himeji Castle has watched over the city.

The White Heron of Himeji between cherry blossoms
If you get to visit during the spring, the pinkish white cherry blossoms make the White Heron even a better sight to see!

While Japan is still home to over 100 castles, none are more cherished by the people of Japan than the White Heron of Himeji. Surviving years of neglect, bombings, and natural disasters, Himeji Castle has stood the test of time, making it worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

It may not have been love at first sight, but my relationship with Himeji Castle has taught me that knowledge plays an important role in building deeper connections with the places I visit around Japan. With Untold Japan's guided tours, you will also hear stories that give your visit depth, adding to your overall experience of this fascinating country. Enquire now to start planning your tour!

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