I bring you a tale…
…the tale of a town. And in this town, there was…
…and in the box was arguably Japan’s most famous castle. For it was undergoing renovation, you see.
The discovery that Himeji Castle was closed to the public was a real disappointment for me when I first heard. As a student, I missed out on visiting Himeji right before the renovation. It will take a little while, so it might be a year before I can actually venture inside. Still, I felt Himeji was the last truly major city of Kansai I’d yet to visit, so I had to go nonetheless.
A little background. Himeji lies along the southern coast of Hyogo Prefecture, a bit west of Kobe, Hyogo’s capital. Much like Hikone, whose castle I mentioned in an earlier post, Himeji was a decent city by Edo age standards. Like Hikone, it was the center of a domain awarded to a samurai who had served the Tokugawa in their decisive battles. Himeji was a relatively respectable city for its time, but further grew in stature in the early 20th century as the city expanded and industrialized. As a port and factory city, it was one of the US Army Air Force’s extensive bombing targets. Much of the city was destroyed, but through strange fortunes the castle was not. One napalm canister even broke through the roof of Himeji Castle, but failed to ignite. Now a city of 540,000 , Himeji continues to be the fourth significant city of Kansai, after Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe- as far as metro area is concerned.
You know me and cities. I had to see what it was like.
First stop, though, was the castle, since it has closing hours and the city doesn’t.
The main keep was, as mentioned, closed for renovation. A section of the western castle wall, however, had served as the detached residence for the lady of the domain, and this was open.
The keep may have been closed to visitors, but one could still travel up the scaffolding to see the actual structure in its state of maintenance.
The top of the scaffolding also affords a good lay of the land.
So what is Himeji the city like, then?
Well, it’s a very typical Japanese middling sized city in a less urban surrounding. The downtown buildings are all postwar and nondescript, with no skyscrapers. The city center is dense, but very limited in area, so if you walk a block or two you feel like you’re in more of a country town.
The difference between Himeji and other cities of its size I’ve visited is in the people.
There was so much foot traffic for a city this size, and so many young people. When people speak of a Japanese population decline, what they don’t know is it’s not entirely new. The rural areas, on balance, have been losing people since the 1950s. What’s new is that many regional cities, medium sized cities in the middle of relatively rural areas, are now losing people like never before. Himeji, though, is holding on to a certain vitality, with a good deal more youth and new families than the national average, and a very slow but steady growth pattern.
I’ll gladly return when the castle’s open.