Himeji Castle was probably the first part of Japan I ever saw. I don’t remember it happening but I’ve been watching Bond films all my life, and "You Only Live Twice" is on UK television a couple of times a year without fail. In the film, for those who haven’t seen it, Bond follows the bad guys to Japan and tries to blend in by covering his 6-feet 2-inch frame with lashings of fake tan and the generous application of Just For Men hair dye. He is given a Japanese wife (”In Japan, men come first”) and ninja training. All very dubious and barely believable, but then this is Bond, and this was the ’60s.
The ninja training scenes were filmed around Himeji Castle, one of only four castles in Japan deemed to be national treasures, and certainly the biggest and most photogenic of them all. Himeji lies on the Tokaido Shinkansen line just west of Kobe, in Hyogo Prefecture, and the castle is a few minutes walk north of the station. The approach road is at a slight angle, so if you are on the left side of the street the castle will suddenly appear, regal above layers of stone walls and white buildings. It is often called White Heron, after the majestic white face it presents the world.
Although castles and more primitive forms of fortification existed on the site from at least the 14th century onwards, the current castle complex was declared complete in 1618. It shares with the other three National Treasure castles the fact that work was completed after the Battle of Sekigahara and the end of the civil war, thus never having to actually face armed foes - circumstances which contributed to its long survival.
For me - a history geek and castle junky - Himeji is what it’s all about. Nearly all castles in Japan were rebuilt in the 1950s, but in most cases they only rebuilt the donjon and enough walls to hint at military strength. The donjon was the command center in case of attack - defensible, and high enough that the generals at the top could survey the whole battlefield and issue instructions accordingly. People rarely actually lived inside them.
At Himeji, however, the buildings required for daily life have also been preserved and are included in the extensive tour route. It adds a whole new dimension to the castle experience. Rather than simply seeing where the samurai would’ve fired arrows and rifles from, or where rocks would have plummeted onto the heads of unsuspecting troops, or where the daimyo (lord) would have issued his commands, you can see where Princess Sen, eldest daughter of the second shogun, passed the long afternoon hours, where the ladies-in-waiting slept, where the guards ate and drank between watches.
The path winds through some beautiful gardens, presenting the castle from various angles and elevations. It takes in numerous points of interest including the Harakiri-maru which, as the name suggests, was the place where those so ordered would have carried out seppuku. The well stands as a reminder of one of the more grisly aspects of feudal life in Japan.
One delightful feature of Himeji that sets it apart from many other castles is the stairs. The castle is big enough to allow at least two sets of stairs on each floor, permitting separate up and down flights and thus avoiding the mad bottlenecks and long queues that can be so frustrating at other locations.
Himeji town has more to offer than castles, and even has more to offer the film buff: up in the hills, overlooking the town, stands Engyoji Temple and its network of support buildings. It was here that many of the scenes in "The Last Samurai" were shot. Orange Shinki Bus No. 8, which stops in front of the castle, trundles to Mount Shosha ropeway. A combined round trip ticket costs 1,300 yen and can be purchased at the Shinki Bus Terminal (next to the train station).
From the ropeway, it is a short walk to the temple. It stood on the mountain for nearly a thousand years before fire razed it in 1921. The current building was finished in 1932. It’s an important point on the pilgrim trail and is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. Beyond Maniden, the main temple building, stands Daikodo, which was once a training center from priests, but is now more famous to many as part of Ken Watanabe’s mountain village in "The Last Samurai." While I was there I watched a very bored priest answer questions about Tom Cruise from a group of girls. The film may have increased the number of young visitors, but I got the distinct feeling the people who live and work there thought it all a massive distraction. It was with undisguised scorn that he described how Tom Cruise would be helicoptered to and from the site every day.
Himeji makes an excellent day trip destination for both the Japan resident and the tourist. Its close proximity to the Kansai hub and its shinkansen connection provide speed and simplicity to one of the most rewarding spots in Japan.
Those with an interest in visiting should move fast. From autumn 2009 until sometime in 2014, the castle will be undergoing renovations. While the castle will remain open during this period, some buildings will be periodically closed to the public while the donjon will be shrouded in scaffolding and hidden under a tent. It has been rumored that the renovations will include the installation of an elevator. Hopefully this isn’t the case but if so, I’d recommend making the effort to visit soon before this priceless relic of Japan’s past is butchered in the name of modern convenience.© Japan Today