Matsumoto Castle, Kumamoto Castle and Himeji Castle are considered the Big Three of Japan’s castles. Of the exalted trio, Himeji Castle in Hyōgo Prefecture is the largest with 83 buildings in the defensive compound. Himeji is also the most visited castle complex in the country.
Himeji , located in Hyogo Prefecture, was first deemed necessary by samurai Akamatsu Norimura who participated in the sacking of Kyoto in the 1330s. His fort was ripped down by his son Sadonori and rebuilt in 1346 which launched a series of tear-downs and new castles for the next several centuries. The current configuration dates to the early 1600s when Ikeda Terumasa, the Shogun of Western Japan, was given the castle as a battle reward. He installed three moats and added so much to the fort that it is said to have involved 25 million man-days of work. The efforts of 10,000 workers were required.
Himeji passed into private hands at auction after the abolition of the feudal system in 1871. The selling price was all of 23 Japanese yen – the equivalent to a little more than two thousand American dollars. The buyer’s plan was to demolish the castle and commercially develop the land but the cost of bringing the massive complex down was so great the project was abandoned.
The castle survived American bombing in World War II and the Great Hanshin earthquake a half-century later. In 1993 Himeji Castle was recognized as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites of cultural significance listed in Japan. Five of the castle structures, including the keep in the most defensible area inside the innermost moat, have been preserved as National Treasures of Japan, noted particularly for their classic Japanese castle architecture. Himeji has been nicknamed the White Heron Castle (Shirasagi-jō ) for its startling white exterior and its form that suggests a large wading bird taking flight.
Many people who have never been to Japan have seen Himeji Castle. When Sean Connery was working to fend off World War III in You Only Live Twice, the fight scene with Japanese ninja warriors was filmed in the castle complex. But others lucky enough to be in Hyōgo Prefecture can tour the castle in person. Himeji has just finished undergoing a restoration that cost 24 billion yen ($212 million). Restoration is a key word since most other Japanese castles are replica creations. Here, the fir and cypress infrastructure remains original.
Tours lead through many of the 21 gates still remaining in the complex and visitors experience the myriad of spiraling passageways that were designed to allow intruders to be attacked from behind. Trick gates and blind corners were built into the castle that could be blocked in seconds, trapping unwitting attackers. Slits built into walls could accommodate archer’s arrows and hatches in the floor were installed to pour boiling water on enemy invaders. Alas, none of these ingenious defensive devices were ever needed. James Bond did the only fighting inside Himeji Castle.
Himeji Castle is open daily, closing at 5:00 p.m. There are family friendly activities in addition to historical and cultural tours. For more information go to the website.
Photo by Lukas (originally posted to Flickr as ) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons