Himeji Castle is one of the most spectacular castles in Japan. I was specially lucky to be there so soon after the end of a five-year period of renovation. I first saw this castle in Akira Kurosawa’s movies Kagemusha and Ran. For years I seemed to remember Toshiro Mifune in Ran walk up to the gate of this castle and order it to be opened. Years later, on a second view, I saw that Toshiro Mifune does not appear in the movie, and the person who gives the futile order is Tatsuya Nakadai. The brilliant colours of Kurosawa’s movies were not in evidence today: the sky was heavy with clouds preceding typhoon Nangka, which is supposed to hit this part of Japan tonight. But my first view of Himeji castle was breathtaking.
The name Shirasagi-Jo, White Heron Castle, seems appropriate to the imposing structure in pure white edged with black. I climbed 40 meters or so to the seventh floor of the main keep (tenshuku). The castle stands on a stone base, but the main structure is wooden. In about 1610 Ikeda Terumasa, who was given the castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu, finished rebuilding it in its present form. It is now a world heritage site, and a national treasure. When you see it, you have no problem understanding why.
It turns out that the world heritage status could have been removed if the renovation had kept less than 70% of the original material, or used design elements or techniques not in keeping with the original construction. Also, several additions made in the 19th and 20th centuries have been removed. The castle is therefore closer to what it was in the 17th century than it has been in the last two hundred years.
However, the two main pillars which hold up the seven story central keep have been replaced during the Showa period. The east pillar is reputed to have been a single fir tree, but it is now certainly not a single piece of wood. The west pillar was originally a single cypress tree. During a Showa era restoration a replacement cypress tree was brought as a replacement, but broke during installation. The joint can be seen today in the third floor of the castle.
As I left the castle and approached the inner moat I saw one of the local gray herons sitting and looking at the castle. It kept a wary eye on me as I took a close up.