Japan day 18: Himeji Castle - from Okayama to Kobe


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Asia » Japan » Hyogo » Himeji
May 23rd 2019
Published: June 6th 2019
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Today we started the last leg of our journey through a small part of Japan. We were going to Kobe, via Himeji. Every travel company we had spoken to recommended a day’s trip (at least) and to the castle. Third castle in a row, but they do differ by their history and layout. So it was back on the Shinkansen for the last time.

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We got off at Himeji and discovered a bus which tours the city so we bought our tickets. We found the correct bus stop and set off to explore the the castle. The outside is very impressive. The castle dates back to 1333 when it was built as a hill fort. In 1346 it was dismantled and rebuilt as a castle, and then two centuries later it was remodelled again as Himeji Castle. The shogunate awarded castles to warlords throughout early Japanese history and Himeji was no different. When it changed hands again in 1581 Himeji Castle was then substantially remodelled with a three-story castle-keep added. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu awarded the castle to Ikeda Terumasa for his help in battle. Ikeda completely rebuilt the castle from 1601 to 1609, expanding Himeji Castle into a large castle complex. Several buildings were later added to the castle compound from 1617 to 1618. For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained intact, even throughout the extensive bombing of Himeji city in World War II, and natural disasters such as the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake.

In the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912), many Japanese castles were destroyed. Himeji Castle was abandoned in 1871 and some of the castle corridors and gates were destroyed to make room for Japanese army barracks. The entirety of the castle complex was slated to be demolished by government policy, but it was spared by the efforts of Nakamura Shigeto, an army colonel. A stone monument honoring Nakamura was placed in the castle complex within the first gate, the Hishi Gate. Although Himeji Castle was spared, Japanese castles had become obsolete and their preservation costly.

When the Han feudal system was abolished in 1871, Himeji Castle was put up for auction. The castle was purchased by a Himeji resident for 23 Japanese yen (about 200,000 yen or US$2,200 today). The buyer wanted to demolish the castle complex and develop the land, but the cost of destroying the castle was estimated to be too great, and it was again spared.

Himeji city was heavily bombed in 1945, at the end of World War II, and although most of the surrounding area was burned to the ground, the castle survived intact. One firebomb was dropped on the top floor of the castle but failed to explode. In order to preserve the castle complex, substantial repair work was undertaken starting in 1956, with a labor expenditure of 250,000 man-days and a cost of 550 million yen. In January 1995, the city of Himeji was substantially damaged by the Great Hanshin earthquake, but Himeji Castle again survived virtually undamaged, demonstrating remarkable earthquake resistance. Even the bottle of sake placed on the altar at the top floor of the keep remained in place.

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We walked from the site entrance up to the first floor which was up quite a steep climb, a mixture of steps and slopes. Then we reached the first floor where we were asked to remove our shoes to preserve the floor. We climbed the first flight of steps and walked into an empty space. There was no exhibit to show how the room was used even though there was a notice that said that this was where the weapons, like spears, were placed. Then we climbed up a steeper flight of stairs. At the four corners of the building were secret compartments where soldiers were stationed for ambush. But still there were no exhibits. To get to the fourth floor the staircase was almost vertical. The fourth floor had high windows to allow smoke to escape during a gun battle. Because the windows were so high, platforms with stairs were installed so that soldiers could fire on the enemy. At this stage I gave up climbing the stairs especially without shoes. Don kept going up. He saw the large pillar which supports the main keep. This was made from two large trees and the joint can be seen on the third floor. We saw that more clearly on the way down. Finally on the sixth floor was a shrine to the god of Osakabe. Then we had to make our way down. It wasn’t until we had reached the end of the down staircase that we saw an exhibit showing the structure of the castle and how it had been renovated.

Compared to the two castles we had previously visited, this was poorly presented in terms of historical information and relevant exhibits. However it was the most imposing physical structure of the three. In fact Don found it near impossible to take a direct photo due to its height and base elevation over the moat walls.

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Then we walked to the Koko-en gardens. This was constructed in 1992 at the exact site of the Lord’s West Residence. It was different from the other gardens we had visited in that it is more like a garden we are used to. There are nine different gardens on this 3 hectare spot. What do I mean by a garden we are used to? There are flowers, trees, a seedling garden, a tea garden, vegetable gardens and a huge pond which was being vacuumed by a man who was standing up to his waist in the water. He was driving the huge koi carp of various colours to swim round and round the pond.

We walked around various of the gardens and decided to get the bus back into town. We found an Italian restaurant and we had a pizza for lunch followed by Ben and Jerry's ice cream..

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Then it was on the local train to Kobe. We were staying in a Relais & Châteaux boutique hotel, the Kobe Kitano Hotel. It was more like an auberge than a hotel. We were pleased to find they had already placed our two suitcases that we had sent from Hiroshima, into our room.

We had a room on the second floor right near the spiral staircase. Our room was in the eaves and there was just enough space for Don to avoid hitting his head! Then we walked round to the shul (more about that on Saturday’s blog). We found a vegetarian Indian restaurant called Kusum on Happy Cow. They have a big sign up - vegetarian food only. We had read that this restaurant serves only what the owner decides to make that day. What the write-up didn’t tell us was that nobody speaks to you, your tasty food arrives, you pay and that’s it. They were watching Indian TV which was all about their elections. I started a conversation about Narendra Modi winning and the family seemed very animated and started talking politics. I guess we had picked a winner!

Then back to the hotel and to bed.

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