A visit to the "Samurai Castle" - Himejijo
By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
"If you are going to Osaka," my Japanese friend
said, "you should consider going to Himeji. It is just a short
distance by train, and they have a castle there that's considered the
best one in Japan."
Chances are, if you've seen any chambara or historical Japanese films,
you've seen an exterior shot of a beautiful castle, probably framed
by trees either in spectacular full bloom, or arrayed in autumn foliage.
Just in case you've ever wondered where that beautiful building is
(or in case you thought Japan was full of 'em), the castle is Himejijo.
Himejijo dominates the little town of Himeji, in Hyogo prefecture,
near the coast of the Inland Sea.
Himeji is a short ride by Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka station, and,
though it takes at least half a day to view the castle and grounds,
it is definitely worth the time. Out of curiosity, and bored with the
fact that the pace of Osaka is too much like that of New York City,
I boarded the train on a rain-soaked day in late May, to visit Himeji.
What makes Himejijo unique, aside from its beautiful form and setting,
is that the castle is an authentic example of Edo period castle architecture,
more perfectly preserved than any other castle in Japan. As such, it
gives insight into Edo period military thinking, and the way of life
of the warrior class of the time. Since it was never attacked, and
was miraculously preserved from fire, the castle complex existed essentially
intact until recent times.
Recent times took their toll, however. During the Meiji
Restoration the outlying samurai residences were razed to create a
parade ground for the Imperial Army (the area is now an athletic field).
Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, a bad storm brought down
the one of the small towers on the eastern side. Realizing that a structure
that had withstood so much over 300 years was now in danger of being
lost forever, the Showa government undertook a restoration. Work began
in 1934, but was suspended during the Pacific War and Allied Occupation.
Work resumed in 1956 and the restoration was finally finished in 1964
(4: 2). In 1993, Himejijo was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List
Himejijo started as a set of fortified buildings on a flat hilltop
as early as the 14th century. The location allowed a clear view of
territory all around, so if an enemy were to approach, he would come
into view from some distance away. Three hundred years later, after
the battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu set about giving lands to
his loyal commanders, both to reward their loyalty and to guard against
uprisings by any leftover rival factions. In 1601, Ieyasu gave the
area including Himeji to his son-in-law, Ikeda Terumasa (1564 - 1613). Times
being what they were, with bands of fighters still loyal to the defeated
Toyotomi clan lurking about, Ikeda immediately set about building a
castle on the hilltop which had been so useful to his predecessors
The work went remarkably quickly, with Ikeda commandeering stones
from temples and accepting donations from local citizens. It is estimated
that the construction of the daitenshukaku (central tower) took only
one year to complete as it now stands - five exterior levels, six actual
interior levels, plus a basement. (Why the additional level is not
reflected on the exterior is unknown. It is also unknown if this was
a rule for castle architecture, or just a quirk of this particular
structure.) The center of the main tower is anchored by two large pillars
- one made of a single piece of wood, the other of two pieces (architects
have speculated that the reason for the two pieces in the west pillar
was to allow for compensation for additional stress during construction,
if needed) (5: 7-9). By 1609, Ikeda's work was complete, including
the daitenshukaku and three kotenshukaku (small towers).
kotenshukaku were built to provide better observation of the
surrounding area. Two of these small towers still stand.
In spite of the speed with which the Himejijo complex was constructed,
aesthetic consideration with regard to the architectural design and layout
of the site was remarkably taken into account. The complex has the well-deserved
nickname of "Shirasagijo" ("white crane castle")
owing to its snowy white walls and overall appearance of looking like
a large bird ready to take graceful flight.
As impressive as the main buildings are, the arrangement
of the surrounding area is also a feat of strategic planning and engineering
skill. The grounds are laid out as a three-layer, counter-clockwise
rotating spiral, protected by a double moat. The spiraling ring design
allows for multiple lines of defense and creates a maze-like effect
that could confuse an invading enemy unfamiliar with the layout (5:2)
(a ground plan can be seen at virtualclassroom.org.
At least half of the time it takes to walk around Himejijo is taken up with
navigating this maze of pathways. Many outbuildings (approximately 80 of them)
are still extant, including yagura (lit. "arrow houses") and various
Even though there are numerous helpful signs posted,
it is entirely possible to get turned around more than once, as well
as find some interesting nook or cranny that does not quite seem to
show up on the map.
Once entering through the enormous main gate, one can see slits for
both arrows and firearms in the walls high above.
is pretty obvious even to the casual observer that no one could enter
the castle grounds without being watched at every turn. A hapless enemy,
confused by the twisting and turning, would be easy prey for marksmen.
I followed the official tour route, entering the castle by the western
kotenshukaku. This building was actually fitted out around 1615 as
a residence for Princess Sen, her husband, Honda Tadatoki, and her
ladies-in-waiting. Her father-in-law, Honda Tadamasu, was named lord
of the castle after Ikeda. One section here is nicknamed the "cosmetic
tower," as this area included the residence of the ladies-in-waiting,
and was also where Princess Sen spent much her free time (7: 2-3).
A long corridor connects a series of rooms of various sizes, with the
nicest being given over for the use of Princess Sen herself.
One room has been furnished to give an idea of what the rooms originally
looked like. All the rooms face the inner part of the complex.
After the "cosmetic tower" I wandered down a long passage
to the daitenshukaku. Rooms in the daitenshukaku were only furnished
with tatami where people actually had living quarters or received visitors.
The rest were left with plain wooden floors and walls, as can be seen
today. As a result, the details of the construction are very clear,
along with what we would now call "security measures." On
the 3rd floor, there are areas that appear to be solid wall construction,
which actually conceal hollow spaces. Whether these were simply for
holding stores or to potentially conceal men waiting in ambush is not
clear, but both are a possibility. A platform above this area runs
around the outer perimeter below the windows to afford positions for
firing guns, throwing stones or shooting arrows. This floor was also
the armory, and the inner wall is lined with weapons racks to hold
yari (spears) and yumi (bows).
There were also gun racks from floor to ceiling, with
pouches of gunpowder for loading tied to ropes that could be lowered
down when needed.
After several steep climbs, I reached the top floor, where a
Shinto shrine is installed. The shrine has been there since the
beginning of construction on the hill, as the place was considered
sacred from as far back as anyone knows. The top floor is quite
small overall, but the view is spectacular, even on a rainy day.
A careful descent led out to a different part of the
castle grounds. One of the grimmer places is the "harakiri maru."
Judging from the layout, as well as the name, this appears
to have been an execution ground.
It is a wide-open space, with a small building featuring a covered platform
for viewing the proceedings, as well as a small well which could have been
useful in bathing the offender's head after execution. Though a source at
the site casts doubt on the idea that it was used for executions, owing to
the proximity of the lord's bedroom one floor above (and therefore too close
to potential blood pollution), no one can explain the name, or come up with
a better explanation for the layout of the area. (The location of the building
itself suggests its importance in defense of the castle complex).
The water supply for Himejijo was ensured by four wells. One of the
wells is connected with a very famous story of brave Okiku. Okiku worked
as a maid in the household of the lord's chief retainer. As is usual
for legends, there is no date given for the story, but one source gave
the chief retainer's name as Aoyama (8:1). One day as she was going
about her duties, Okiku overheard Aoyama plotting the overthrow of
the lord with some of his men. Alarmed, Okiku told her lover, a samurai
in faithful service to the castle lord. He immediately informed on
the men, and the plot was foiled. Unfortunately for Okiku, the plot
was foiled in such a way as to not directly implicate Aoyama, and he
looked for a way to take revenge. One day he arranged to have one of
ten valuable antique plates stolen from the household, and blamed Okiku
for the theft. She was caught, tortured, killed and her body thrown
into the well to cover up the act (the plaque there dryly notes that
this act "rendered the well unusable"). The murder was revealed
by the indomitable spirit of Okiku, however. Soon after, people on
the castle grounds passing by the well could hear a woman's voice counting "Hitotsu....futatsu...." counting
the plates as she looked for the missing one. Her body was discovered,
and the murder mystery solved, but the mysterious counting continued.
According to the plaque, the voice did not stop until a shrine was
built outside the castle walls to assuage her spirit.
A Japanese friend of mine told me this story, famous in Japan as the
ghost story "Banshu sara yashiki," scared her to death as
a child. I'd rather think about it as a brave woman sacrificing her
life for her lord, and getting credit for it for a change.
After half a day of Himejijo, I wandered through the center of town,
which is filled with little shops selling all kinds of omiyage (traditional
souvenirs). After a very late lunch, and some shopping, it was time
to step back into the Shinkansen time warp to 21st century Osaka. Osakajo
was rebuilt as a museum in the early 20th century, and is made of concrete.
Rather than dominating the skyline, Osakajo is totally overwhelmed
by the city's glass-and-steel earthquake-engineered skyscrapers, as
much a reflection of the human scale in modern life as Himejijo is
of a time long past.
Deborah Klens-Bigman would like to dedicate this article to Mr. Terumi
Tokita, at whose suggestion she made the trek to Himeji.
1. "The Architectural Glory of Japanese Castles" www.jgc.co.jp/
2. "'White Heron', the surviving 17th-century
monument" www.jinjapan.org/atlas/architecture/arc11.html (n.d.)
3. "Himeji Castle: World Cultural Heritage" (brochure)
4. "Himeji Castle: Design" www.columbia.edu/itc/ealac/v3613/himeji/tpage.htm
5. "Technical Originality Seen in Construction
of Himeji Castle" www.jgc.co.jp/waza/a5_himeji/castle.02.htm
7. "Japan's Greatest Castle Himeji Castle" www.roman6.com/English/roman/sonota/so_m01.html
8. "Okiku's Well" www.himeji-castle.gr.jp/ENGLISH/okiku.html
© 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman
About The Author:
Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido
at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying
extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata
(halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's
Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation
on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study
Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association.
Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese
martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the
summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For FightingArts.com
she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.