Today was a great day. Two students from our Community English classes volunteered to give us a tour of Himeji Castle. This was, by far, the most thorough tour that I’ve ever been given, of any thing. They were both very knowledgeable, with tidbits and videos and handmade posters that explained the history of the castle.
Keiko, Toshi and their friend Myumi took great pains to make sure that we knew everything there was to know about the castle’s construction and resilience. In the photo above you can see Keiko showing how small the gates were. Movies and literature will have you to believe that the Samurai were great big, tall men but they were tiny little dudes. This gate, and most of the other doors, windows, and stairs prove it.
I learned that Himeji castle, originally extended to Himeji city limits. This map, above, is very old but shows how the city was arranged. There was the outer wall. Outside the outer wall lived the peasants and farmers. Just inside the outer moat were the lower class samurai and their families and merchants. Closer to the castle, in the middle were the middle class samurai and their families. And inside the inner moat were the highest class samurai and their families. No one lived in the castle. It served as a military base/central command post.
This castle was built in a very clever way. Every component was meant to provide protection from fire, earthquake, and war. It is the only wooden castle, I think, that exists in Japan. The framework is wood, with layers of mud, rocks, limestone, sea shells, seaweed and every other natural building material. I was amazed to learn that the entire structure rests on two ginormous pillars that run from the basement all the way up to the 6th floor! The original pillars were made of fir wood. Great, logs were felled and used to stabilize the castle. Each pillar is 87 feet long! Below is a picture of the only remaining “original” pillar. The east pillar was replaced during the Showa Restoration period with Cypress wood.
The stairs and doorways were made for tiny samurai so there was a lot of bending and minding my head. The castle was packed with people but Keiko assured me that this was nothing compared to how many people visit in the spring and summer.
Every staircase, every passageway, all the windows, doors and features were all made with security in mind. The doors at the top of each stair well could be closed to ensure that no one got through. The gates, outside the castle, were called “bury gates” because they stood at the bottom of stone steps. You could easily “bury” someone with a good boulder or two if they tried to come in unwanted. The holes/windows were for a sniper’s bow and arrow. Stone walls were curved like “fans”. Stones were stacked in a way that seemed easy to climb but was impossible. Paths lead to cliffs or directly into the line of a sniper’s bow or gun. “Slippery Iris” plants were planted in areas where enemies might achieve entrance. Enemies would slip and fall and be shot dead. Passages were narrow to allow only one samurai or intruder to pass at a time. This allowed the snipers to take them out one by one. Learning how many ways the castle was protected lead me to ask if there had ever been an invasion. In 400 years, not a single one.
During World War 2 there were a ton of bombings that destroyed the outer wall to the castle. The resulting fire made it to the inner moat but could go no further. There were even newspaper articles in which an American fighter pilot talked about the reasons they avoided bombing Himeji Castle. According to the fighter pilot, from the sky it all looked black so they didn’t think any troops were in that area. Another newspaper article talked about a single bomb that landed on the castle unexploded. A Japanese soldier making his rounds found it and tried, in vain, to pull the fuse. He found that the bomb was more modern (couldn’t remove the fuse) and had to be taken away.
It was interesting to hear the history. The princess drama, the Shogun and his pions, the samurai and their hierarchy and class system and finally these super kind people that we’d met. Even if you don’t enjoy history, I still recommend that you visit Himeji Castle. Be sure to find a tour guide. While on our tour there was a Spanish tour, our tour was in English and a Japanese tour.
Himeji castle was registered, in 1993, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’d like to know more about Himeji Castle or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization please visit this link. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/661