One of Himeji Castle’s 997 small openings called “sama,” which are holes where weapons can be shot. // © 2015 Creative Commons user kzhr
Feature image (above): Himeji Castle in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture // © 2015 Himeji Convention & Visitors Bureau/Japan National Tourism Organization
Hyogo Prefecture, located in Japan's Kansai region, is often referred to as the "Heart of Japan." The prefecture is also home to Himeji, a charming, bike-friendly hamlet teeming with lush greenery, rolling rivers, natural hot springs, organic rice paddies and Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If Hyogo is the Heart of Japan, then the recently restored Himeji Castle is what keeps it beating.
The milky-white Himeji Castle features a rectangular moat, a rustic main keep, three smaller keeps and four passage towers for a total of 32 walls, 27 towers, and 21 gates. Its long and storied history began in 1333 C.E., when Japanese samurai Akamatsu Norimura formed an army and established a fortress on Himeyama Hill. After nearly three centuries and numerous takeovers and expansions, the seven-floor Himeji Castle was finally completed in 1608 by feudal lord Ikeda Terumasa. Since the castle’s completion, the biggest challenge has been preserving its classical Japanese architecture.
There have been three major restoration efforts since Himeji Castle was first built. The Meiji era restoration began in 1910. In the 1930s, the castle was designated a national treasure, and in 1934, the Showa era restoration started. However, due to World War II, this second restoration effort wasn’t completed until 1964.
Himeji Castle was registered as Japan's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, but the castle faced another threat when a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit nearby Kobe in 1995. Fortunately, the castle once again avoided destruction and managed to remain intact. Still, maintaining the Himeji Castle’s unique design has been a priority in Japan, which is why the Heisei era restoration — the third and most recent renovation — is so significant.
Rather than just maintaining the beauty of Himeji Castle, the latest overhaul began in October 2009 and has actually returned the citadel to its original glory with the help of some 15,000 workers and a budget of 2.4 billion yen. The castle's walls have been covered with white plaster that is created using the traditional method of mixing seaweed, shell ash, hemp fiber and slaked lime. The tiles on the roofs have been completely replaced, and its turnip-shaped gable ornaments, or “kaburagegyo,” have been upgraded in order to continue to artfully conceal beams and rafters.
After more than five years of restoration, Himeji Castle was finally reopened to the public this year. Now visitors can gaze through its latticed windows, originally designed to ward off intruders and resist destruction, as well as its “sama,” 997 small openings in the castle’s walls that allow for weapons to be fired from within.
The openings appear throughout Himeji Castle in four different shapes: the oblong holes were used for shooting bows, while the round, triangular and square sama were made for shooting guns. The fan curves of the castle’s stone walls provide inclines that made it difficult for enemies to climb, and stone-throwing platforms, weapons racks and double-reinforced doorways add to the impenetrable feel of the fortress and harken back to its past. Ironically, Himeji Castle was never actually attacked, so all the defense attributes have remained unused, which allows visitors a rare, fully immersive glimpse into Japanese military history.
There are also many hidden features to look for as well, such as star-shaped wooden pieces that act as plugs in the walls and family crests of former lords on the roof tiles. There's even an augmented reality app called "Himeji Castle Great Discovery," which conjures avatars such as a lady-in-waiting who explains features of the castle, as well as soldiers positioned to shoot in the event of a fictitious attack. Today’s Himeji Castle reflects a fusion of tradition and technology that has come to identify many other landmarks in Japan.
As a sign of Himeji Castle's role as an eponymous icon in its bucolic town (not to mention the country itself), the Japanese have affectionately dubbed it “White Egret Castle” because they believe the main keep resembles a heron in the sky. With this recent restoration, the beloved white egret can finally take flight.