Visiting Himeji Castle:
In August of this year (2015), I visited Himeji Castle (姫路城) also called the White Heron Castle (白鷺城), in Himeji City (姫路市). Founded in 1333, when a fort was constructed on Himeyama hill by Akamatsu Norimura, the ruler of the ancient Harima Province. Akamatsu Norimura (赤松 則村, 1277 – February 18, 1350) was a Japanese samurai of the Akamatsu clan (赤松氏) in the Muromachi period (室町時代-1337 to 1573). He was governor (shugo) of Harima Province in Hyogo Prefecture.
Spacious Grounds of Himeji Castle:
I have visited a few castles since living in Japan such as Hikone Castle (彦根城), Iga Ueno Castle (伊賀上野城), Wakayama Castle (和歌山城) and of course Nijo Castle (二条城) here in Kyoto. Himeji Castle is by far the largest of them all, built in the Azuchi-Momoyama style its highest peak has an height of 46.4 meters or 152ft.
After crossing the Sakuramon Bridge (桜門橋) and walking through the massive Ōtemon Gate (大手門) you can see the White Heron Castle of Himeji in all its splendour. The white plastered walls stand out, a combination of slaked lime, shell ash, hemp fibre and seaweed. A most impressive view.
There are many sakura trees in this area and all around the castle grounds. It stands to reason that the cherry blossom season at Himeji castle is a popular destination.
Inside Himeji Castle:
There are six floors to be explored on the Main Keep, fortunately the steps are not too steep. Inside the Main Keep of Himeji Castle there are no artefacts to be found. I was a bit disappointed, on some of my other castle adventures there were plenty of weapons, samurai armour and historical items on display. The climax of climbing all these steps is the top floor with a magnificent view of the City of Himeji. On one side the Seta Inland Sea and Mount Shosha (書写山) on the opposite site. There is also a small shrine on the sixth floor. The Osakabe Shrine (刑部神社) was already on the hill before the castle was built. A legend is attached to this small shrine though. It is said that shrine was moved when they started with the construction of Himeji Castle. Legend has it that the whole town of Himeji became haunted. To play it safe the shrine was moved to its present location.
History of Himeji Castle:
Himeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji) is a hilltop Japanese castle complex located in Himeji, in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. The castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture, comprising a network of 83 buildings with advanced defensive systems from the feudal period. The castle is frequently known as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō (“White Heron Castle”) because of its brilliant white exterior and supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight.
Himeji Castle dates to 1333, when Akamatsu Norimura built a fort on top of Himeyama hill. The fort was dismantled and rebuilt as Himeyama Castle in 1346, and then remodelled into Himeji Castle two centuries later. Himeji Castle was then significantly remodelled in 1581 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who added a three-story castle keep. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu awarded the castle to Ikeda Terumasa for his help in the Battle of Sekigahara, and Ikeda completely rebuilt the castle from 1601 to 1609, expanding it into a large castle complex. Several buildings were later added to the castle complex by Honda Tadamasa from 1617 to 1618. (This part courtesy of Wikipedia)
Musings about Himeji Castle:
Although at first a bit disappointed that we couldn’t see any artefacts, I was impressed by the sheer magnitude of the castle. Getting all these large stones here and then stacking them all. Constructing the walls, digging several wells, there were 12 in all) and all that went into building this structure must have taking quite a bit of skill and that without more technology and tools.
Gokoku Shrine next to Himeji Castle:
The Gokoku Shrine (護国神社) is just to your right as you cross the big street in front of Himeji Castle. It is a shrine erected for the protection of the nation, and dedicated to the spirits of individuals who died in Japanese wars from the end of the early modern period through World War II.
The Encyclopaedia Of Shinto gives the following explanation: “Throughout most of the prewar period these shrines were known as shōkonsha or ” spirit-inviting shrines,” but all shōkonsha (over one hundred) built since the Meiji period were renamed gokoku jinja in 1939 following a Home Ministry ordinance issued that year. The ordinance divided the shrines into two categories: “specially selected gokoku jinja” designated by the Home Minister, and other gokoku jinja not so designated. The “designated” shrines were in principle limited to one per prefecture, and the enshrined spirits (saijin) were likewise limited to those of people who had resided inside the respective prefecture.”
Other must see spots in Himeji:
We ourselves went on towards Ako city and spend the night at a resort looking out on the Seto Island Sea. Some friends of mine told me that visiting Engyō-ji (圓教寺) at the top of Mt. Shosha (書寫山) is a well worth experience. You can reach the temple via the Mt. Shosha Ropeway. Shoshazan Engyō-ji (書寫山圓教寺) is a temple of the Tendai sect in Himeji, Hyōgo, Japan. It was founded by Shoku Shonin in 966.
The web site of “Sacred Japan” says the following about this historical spot. “Engyōji, called the ‘Mt Hiei of the West’, is a major Tendai temple complex set high on Mt Shosha, overlooking Himeji city. Its vast grounds make for a whole day’s outing, which many local people take advantage of for hiking and picnicking during the year. After taking the cable car, you can spend hours walking the many mountain paths and passing by shrines and ancient stone monuments along the way, all the time hearing the Bell of Compassion being run by the pilgrims. Despite some damage during WWII, there are many beautiful old buildings that are heritage listed. It was here that the movie The Last Samurai was filmed in 2002, bringing renewed attention to the temple complex.”