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Winter Trip (pt 4) - Himeji

Written on: Sunday January 27th, 2008

A journal entry from: Japan

The last stop on the way home from Kyushu is Himeji. There was really one purpose to my stop here, and that was to see the Shirasagij?, or "White Heron Castle", a magnificent feudal castle

So, taking some info from the brochure handed out at the front gate, and the website, here's a little History: Local ruler Norimura Akamatsu built a fort here in 1333, which was enlarged by his son. The fort was replaced with a castle in the 16th century, by a famous daimyo named Hideyoshi Hashiba. The castle, and its fortifications and moats, were built up and further developed over the years by various lords, but the castle in its current form was completed by Tadamasa Honda in 1618. The castle has managed to withstand the centuries since, and even escaped harm when Himeji was bombed during the Second World War. (It did undergo some heavy restoration work in the 1950s, but I'm not clear on the extent of that.)

On an amusing side note, a neighbouring lord in Okayama, who was apparently annoyed at the attention the white castle was getting, built his own magnificent castle, a black castle, as a way of thumbing his nose at it.

The Castle was designed to be impregnable. The grounds are huge, and the paths through the grounds are built like a maze, so that approaching enemies would easily become lost and confused. There were plenty of small gaps in all the walls for defenders to shoot out of, and in the West Bailey area there were many tiny trapdoors visible, called ishi-otoshi (stone-throwing hole), which could be opened to throw stones or boiling water on attackers, or to shoot arrows or guns out of. According to one of the signs posted on-site, the ishi-otoshi at Himeji castle are the "finest in the history of Japanese castle architecture", since they combined beauty with function. (Beauty is important when you're throwing boiling water and stones at your enemies, isn't it?) In the main tower, you could also see small trapdoors hidden in the corners, where samurai warriors could lay in wait in tiny spaces and spring out to attack in the unlikely event that invaders made it into the heart of the castle.

There are some interesting non-military features in the castle as well. One of the beautiful features of old Japanese buildings is the roof tiles. Here, the "end-tiles" on the roof bear different symbolic designs, each one representing the lord who did the building or repairs on that part of the structure. There is one tile - one on the whole castle - with a cross design, whose origin and meaning aren't entirely clear, but appear to be connected with one particular lord.

Also, at different points all around the castle, it's possible to see stones incorporated into the walls which are actually grave stones, coffin stones, or even pieces of stone lanterns from nearby temples. When Hideyoshi Hashiba was building the original castle, building stones were in short supply, so any stones that could be salvaged were used.

There are of course, many smaller buildings that make up the whole castle, and the most intriguingly-named was the "Harakiri-maru", an enclosed courtyard with a long building to one side, and a well near the centre. The name and many of the features here seem to indicate that this was an area designated for performing seppuku or harakiri (ritual suicide). The well, for example, seems to be well-placed for washing the body after beheading. But there doesn't seem to be a clear record of whether this area was indeed used for seppuku. It is clear, however, that it was used as a defensive post for guarding the rear gate.

Of course, what I loved most were The Stories. There was once a shrine at the site of the castle, and when it was built the shrine was moved. But, as the guide pamphlet explains, "afterwards, people felt nature's curse", so it was decided to restore the shrine to close to its original home, and it was relocated to the top of the main tower. There is also a legend that a famous swordsman haunts it. (I think; I'm not quite sure as the English explaining it is a bit mangled in the guide. The actual sentence reads: "There is a famous legend that a great swordsman named Musashi Miyamoto killed haunting there.")

Another ghost story tells of a servant named Kiku. Tessan Aoyama was the chief retainer of one of the lords of Himeji castle, Norimoto Kotera. Aoyama was plotting against the lord, but Kiku, a maidservant of the Aoyamas, was loyal to the lord, and also happened to be the lover of Motonobu Kinugasa, one of the lord?s loyal retainers. She was able to warn Motonobu, thus foiling the plot. When he discovered Kiku's part in all this, Aoyama got his revenge on her by (falsely) accusing her of having stolen valuable family dishes, and used this as a pretext for torturing her to death. Her body was then thrown into a well on the castle grounds. Motonobu and several other loyal retainers eventually defeated Aoyama. But the voice of Kiku could still be heard crying at nights from the well where her body had been dumped. When she was enshrined as Okiku at the nearby shrine, the cries apparently could be heard no more.

Going back the shortage of building stones at the time of the original construction by Hideyoshi Hashiba, there is another story (not a ghost story) about an old woman who heard about his difficulty finding building materials to construct the stone walls. This old woman contributed her only millstone to the lord to help out. The story of her selflessness apparently spread and numerous people began donating any stones they could, which helped the lord finish the construction quickly. Although I'm not sure why an old woman who depended on her millstone to make a living should donate it to building a castle, I suppose you have to take into consideration that a strong castle guarding her city could be a distinct advantage in those days. And possibly she just felt it was the right, noble thing to do.

The sweetest story connected with the castle is definitely the story of Princess Sen. Something of a figure of legend, as I learned after looking up some info on her, apparently the story of Sen's life isn't sweet; but at least her time at Himeji was. Sen was the daughter - and granddaughter - of two of the Tokugawa shoguns. She was married at an early age to Toyotomi Hideyori, the son on Hideyoshi Hashiba who had built the original castle at Himeji, and lived with him at Osaka castle. But when she was 19, her grandfather Tokugawa Ieyasu attacked Hideyori at Osaka castle because of Hideyori's fledgling rebellion. The castle fell, and Hideyori (and his mother) committed seppuku. Sen had been rescued from the castle before it fell, so she escaped a similar fate. She was then married to Honda Tadatoki, the son of the ruling lord of Himeji castle at the time. Sen and Tadatoki had a happy marriage and an idyllic life together. Eventually, though, tragedy struck again, as their young son died, and a few years later Tadatoki himself fell sick and died. Sen then became a Buddhist nun and returned to Edo (Tokyo). But at Himeji, it is only her happy peaceful years that are remembered. She and her husband lived in the (then) recently-constructed West Bailey area, and the "Cosmetic Tower" where she dressed herself and the "Long Corridor" of the bailey are on view to the public.

That's about it. I had hoped to make one more stop on my trip - to a place called Shirikawa-go, in the snowy mountains, but there wasn't any accommodation free since it was the busiest holiday time of the year. Instead, I headed home to Kannami. I guess this turned into a bit of a long post too, but, it seemed worthwhile to include all the stories about the castle.