Return to Himeji- The Keep Unveiled
When my family came to visit me earlier in August, I knew exactly what my top-priority destination was.
The keep of Himeji, Japan’s largest and most elaborate surviving feudal fortress, had just been reopened late spring after five years of restoration work. My family had never visited anywhere between Kobe and Hiroshima, my wife couldn’t remember ever having gone, and the last time I went the tower was still under wraps.
Old feudal Himeji’s city streets were centered and built around the fortifications. With the keep fully armed and operational, it’s abundantly clear how much the castle still dominates the city center.
Himeji was kept under a confusing “revolving door” of various lordly families in feudal days, and now I can guess why. Under a system where fortifications were highly regulated to keep the daimyo in check, perhaps the Tokugawas didn’t want anyone getting too comfortable with such a huge fortress.
A rather unique feature among surviving Japanese castles, the west wall served as the domain ladies’ quarters in addition to being a defensive bulwark. It was open while the keep was under wraps- check out my photos from the last visit.
One of the reasons for Himeji’s gigantic fortifications was because the castle was actually at a disadvantageous and difficult position to defend. With all those forested hills and mountains so close, line of sight was limited and attackers could “sneak up” closer to the walls before initiating combat. Himeji Castle needed withering firepower and a grueling climb to penetrate the keep.
Apparently the lordly family ran out of quality stone for building such huge fortifications, and in their desperation added millstones, stone hand tools…and even pilfered ancient tombs for their sturdy stone coffins. There are a few ghost stories circulating about Himeji Castle, actually…
One last look at the castle on the way out, showing the multiple towers and zigzagging walls. We spent a good five hours on the castle grounds, wearing out our feet and exploring one of Japan’s most unique sites.