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Himeiji-Okayama 1: Castle Otaku paradise...

Since I had only 3 weekends left in Japan, I decided to splurge a bit last sunday. Y0-chan had agreed to go on another day trip with me (after our trip to Miyajima/ Hiroshimathe weekend before), so I pulled out all the stops and decided to hit two hotspots in the same day, Himeji and Okayama.

Except for Hiroshima, most of our trips are just to spots around Kyu$hu. But this time I bit the bullet and bought Shinkansen tickets to Himeji and back. Himeji is about 30 miles west of Kobe in the Kansai region of central Japan. It was about 2hours and 15 minutes away (Shinkansen = Bullet train btw).

As you may know, I have developed a bit of a taste for visiting Japanese castles (including this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and especially this one, to name a few).

But Himeji Castle, nicknamed the Castle for its white color, trumps them all.... Why? because unlike all those other ones, this one is . Unlike every other large castle in all of Japan, this one managed to survive WWII! (to be fair, being made of wood, most castles, palaces, shrines and temples in japan have been burnt down several times over the past 500 years, WWII just managed to do it again in many cases).

So its the largest existing original castle in Japan, and its also one of the most architecturally interesting ones to boot. So I knew I would kick myself for not visiting it after I leave...

The 95 degree heat and 80% humidity couldn't stop this kindly old crossing guard from wearing his long sleaves and gloves, and I wouldn't let it stop us from seeing the castle either. Its about a 10 minute walk from the station to the castle grounds, and I spent the whole time running from shade patch to shade patch.

There was a festival going on in the town this weekend, which worked out pretty well for us in addition to a bunch of cultural events set up on the castle grounds, admission to the castle was also free!

Here's a close up of the main tower building from inside the inner walls. The outer two moats worth of castle area (where the samurai and merchant class originally lived) have been filled in with city now, but the complex that's left is still very large.

On the right is a scale model of how the castle used to look. The part on the upper part of the hill is still pretty much there, and is what you'll see in this entry. :-)

I asked at the front gate about the free english guided tours I had read about online, the lady said there weren't any, but about 5 minutes later we caught up to a guy taking around a Finnish couple. He was one of the volunteer guides, and I really lucked out. He was a mechanical engineer who does robotics for Kawa$aki heavy industries, so he knows and likes to explain a lot of the technical details of the castle's designs, just the way I like it! I was in Castle Otaku heaven!

Here's the guide and the Finns as he leads us through a portion of one of the other defense buildings that was damaged in a typhoon and had been rebuild in the original style only 10 years ago -- a lot of castles are redoing their buildings this way lately (see the end of this entry), whereas in 60s when most of the castle towers were rebuilt, they did them all in steel and concrete.

On the right is another one of those weird edo period manniquin recreations (like the ones seen here)... This part of the complex was called the Vanity tower ( ‰»Ï˜E), its where the famous Princess Sen lived apparently. Thats supposed to be her and one of her attendents playing an old Japanese memory game, where you have to match pictures panted on the bottom of sea shells...

So as I mentioned the guide guy was dropping lots of cool details about the design of the castle's defenses, etc. For example the path up to the main tower's entrance is really circuitous, requiring you to head away and down from the tower at several points. In the case of the picture on left, you are exposed to the arrow/gun points along the left, which seem to run all the way to the big wall at the end, but if you think the way up is to the right you'd run off a cliff, there's actually a narrow entry (aka choke point) at the end that you can't see until the last minute.

After that you have to get through another gate and then pass under this low guard house building. Apparently the floorboards are removable and the ceiling of that building is very high, which means you can stand up there and skewer people with spears if they try to enter. Lots of fun stuff like that....

L: All the roof tiles on these old japanese buildings have their lord's family crest on the end pieces. Hypothetically if a lord changed they're supposed to change all the tiles I guess, but since this place is so big, only the new buildings had the new lords' crest, and the old tiles (many of which are not really visible anyway) stay up. This cement post contains several examples. There were only 5 different families that controlled the tower from when the first buildings were built in the 14th century through the Meiji restoration (when all those lord dudes were tossed), so there's really only 5 different designs, but several different versions of each.

R: As we approach the main tower, you can see more examples of the ishiotoshi, or stone dropping doors on the corners of the buildings, used to take out anyone trying to scale the building (here's one on the outer walls of Kumam0to castle to compare).

Here's a view from inside the main building. Its really cool that there's still such a striking example of old japanese construction. Although I should note that its not completely original... a lot (probably almost all) of the floor boards are replacements, as I think are a lot of the other wearable surfaces. And most notable from 1956 to 1964 they gutted the entire building and replaced the two main beams in the center, which had become rotten (and are now sitting outside in a shed), they also took out the original foundation stones which had settled unevenly (now also relocated outside in their original configuration) and replaced it with a concrete foundation. Then they put it all back together, replacing damaged wood where necessary.

On the right is a scale model made by the renovators as they were dismantling the building to keep track of how the thing originally went together.

Ok, not completely original, but still its pretty cool! :-D

They also put in sprinklers and fire hoses, electricity and some more user-friendly stairs with railings (if you're not good with extremely steep stairs, you wouldn't last 5 minutes in ancient Japan). On the left those are the two replaced main beams, that picture is from one of the upper floors where the tower is relatively small.

On the lower floors there are a lot of weapon racks. Hanging above them are nails for hanging bags of gun powder and bullets. Although I didn't get a picture, there are also a bunch of small doors in the corners and under the eves that look like they go to storage closets, they actually lead to small crawl spaces where soldiers can hold up and ambush invaders who have gotten into the tower.

Once you get to the upper floors, the view is quite nice. On the left you can see some of the other buildings of the complex, including the main gate and 'Vanity Tower' building (the long one w/ the bend in it towards the right edge of the pic).

On the right is a picture of the festival tents set up in front of the castle, as well as the main blvd that ends at the station. The station now stands where the outer most wall used to be. You can see how big this complex used to be... On the roof is an example of one of those so-called japanese mythological 'dolphins' which are supposed to ward off fire. Not as fancy as the gold ones in Nagoya castle... (actually the tour guide explained that the chinese character for these things is actually 'tiger fish', not really anything to do with dolphins, i don't know why they always translate it that way in English...)

The top of this tower was a bit different than all the other ones i've visited, this one had a shinto shrine at the top. I think they said something about the castle building being built on a former shrine location, so they relocated the shrine to the top here to keep things in good balance after it was finished....

Back down at the bottom:

L: One other interesting gem of castle design that the guide mentioned was the number of floors... from the outside, using other japanese castle construction as a reference, it looks like there are only 5 levels (green numbers), one floor per set of windows. But actually this castle has 7 (blue numbers). The ground floor is actually in the stone foundation and the pitch between the visible windows is actually different from the actual floors. So on some floors the windows are higher up than normal, and in one case there's a 'hidden' floor, only visible from a small window under one of the eves (circled next to #6).

I should also note that since this castle was in 'active duty' as a castle more recently than a lot of the other ones, the builders took more steps to modernize it against guns. It has a heavy plaster applied to the exterior walls, making it much more resistant to fire than the regular Japanese castle you see in my other trips.

R: Our guide also mentioned that they had a hard time getting enough stones to make the walls, so they ended up recycling a lot of mill stones and in this case even old stone coffins. You can just barely see the inside lip on that stone in the center on the corner.

There are a lot of small buildings around the inner walls, which function as part of the defense or to store food and material in case of a siege. This part is called the 'Harakiri Maru' (Suicide Place).

the story goes that this is the place for officials to observe disgraced samurai committing ritualized suicide. Sounds pretty freaky, but then the tour guide told us that the whole story was actually not true, no one ever committed harakiri here ('...not here, they did it in other places...'), it was used for something else.

I also ran into a genuine walking stick (missing one of its legs) along the way... freaky.

It may have withstood the civil war period, and the B-29 Superfortress, but the 1995 Kobe earthquake did a number on this wall....

As we finished the tour, our guide asked to take a picture of us, and then said thanks and ran off to give another tour. Y0chan was like    very lucky.

I forgot to mention that this place is a UNESCO world heritage site (click here for the video).

There's also a lot of good (better) info on the web. Here are some good site to check out:

http://www.jgc.co.jp/waza/a5_himeji/castle01.htm

http://www2.memenet.or.jp/unesco/shi.../engcastle.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himeji_Castle

Its also been in a few movies...

There's more coming. Stay tuned!

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