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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 (2: 1).

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 (1: 1-2).

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).

The 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

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 small gates.

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.

It 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"
waza/a5_himeji/castle.01.htm (n.d.)

2. "'White Heron', the surviving 17th-century monument" (n.d.)

3. "Himeji Castle: World Cultural Heritage" (brochure) (n.d.)

4. "Himeji Castle: Design" (n.d.)

5. "Technical Originality Seen in Construction of Himeji Castle" (n.d.)

7. "Japan's Greatest Castle Himeji Castle" (n.d.)

8. "Okiku's Well" (n.d.)

© 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman

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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 she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Japanese castles, Himejijo, Samurai castles, feudal Japan, Samurai, Edo period castles

Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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