難波の南蛮、戎橋の夷。

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.

Voila!

Et voila!

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.

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Even the “castle box” of the renovation period failed to perfectly convey how titanic the keep is.

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.

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The walls of Himeji are intricate, layered, and confusing, winding back and forth as the gates get progressively smaller up to the keep. Defense in depth, as they say.

The walls of Himeji are intricate, layered, and confusing, winding back and forth as the gates get progressively smaller up to the keep.  Defense in depth.

Up on the keep, looking to the west wall.

Up on the keep, looking to the extensive west wall.

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.

The main floor of the keep, which goes up six floors and down one. Truly titanic.

The first floor of the keep, which goes up six floors and down one.  It utterly dwarfs Hikone, Kansai’s other famous surviving castle.  All those studs are racks for hanging arms- this place was packing heat.

A more open section of the first floor.

A more open section of the first floor, with the entrances to the armories.

Up on a higher floor (third or fourth), the keep is still spacious enough to have raised sentry platforms.

Up a few higher floors, the keep is still voluminous enough to have raised sentry platforms.

Vast and spacious, featuring more sentry platforms and interesting grillwork.

Vast and spacious, featuring more “half-floor” raised platforms and interesting grillwork.

View from the top westwards.

View from the top westwards.

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.

Southwards to the city center, still clearly built around the castle.

Southwards to the city center, still clearly built around the castle.

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Even up on the inner fortifications, that keep foundation is titanic.

Even up on the inner fortifications, that keep foundation is titanic.

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…

There's something very iconic and decorative about the smaller castle walls, with their varied portholes for defensive weaponry.

There’s something very iconic and decorative about the smaller castle walls, with their varied portholes for defensive weaponry.

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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.

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One response

  1. Wayne Heidenreich

    Thank you Daniel for this wonderful photo essay.

    September 10, 2015 at 2:48 AM

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