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Storming the keep of Himeji Castle

The fortress tops my list of the Seven Wonders of Japan, and the locals like to party too

by Simon Bartz

“What are your three favorite things about Himeji Castle,” I ask my guide, Ayumi Miyazaki, an elegant middle-aged lady, as we slurp down tempura soba in the dungeons of Himeji Station in Hyogo Prefecture, prior to walking the 15 minutes up the main drag to the town’s famous fortress.

“It’s impossible to tell you here,” she splutters. “You have to see it. You have to walk it. You have to behold the magic of this castle.” Then she takes a rapid series of short breaths and adds: “I’m sorry. I get very excited when I talk about the castle.”

Pretty much everyone in Himeji seems justifiably proud of the immense white edifice that towers over the city. And now, if you asked me to list the Seven Wonders of Japan, Himeji Castle would easily top anything I’ve seen on my travels.

It is perfect architecture, like it was built by the gods — from the five-story donjon (seven stories inside) at its epicenter to the beautiful details, such as the tiles on its eaves, each one bearing the crest of a lord who helped build the castle, to the walls, many of which are slightly curved, making them resemble gigantic open sensu (fans).

Much later, in the courtyard beside the 47-meter-high donjon, Ayumi says, “Now I can answer your question. First, it’s one of the few original castles left in Japan; most others don’t have so many buildings left. Second, the high technology and wisdom used to build the castle. And finally, just look at it! It’s beautiful! It’s beautiful!”

“It’s difficult to find an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) open at4 p.m. — even in the center of Himeji,” says Ayumi.

“Back streets are the way to go,” I say. “There’s bound to be some dive open.”

Down an alley I hear laughter and the clinking of glasses and I peer through a crack in the back door of a tiny eatery and see heaven — a counter packed with boisterous people. “Perfect,” I say.

We are shoehorned into small spaces at the counter. The mustachioed and well-oiled man on my right immediately identifies himself as Katsuki Ikeda. He tells me that I’m the first gaijin (foreigner) to ever visit the place, and after admiring my tattoos he pulls down his trousers and shows me a small flower blossoming in his groin region. The chap on the left of me with slicked-back hair and big white teeth, Yasuaki Kishino, says in his gruff tobacco-mauled voice, “This is a proud moment for me. The first opportunity in my whole life to talk to a gaijin. Let me buy you drinks today.”

Izumi Hasegawa, the radiant, beautiful middle-aged owner clad in a kappogi (traditional long-sleeved apron), says she started the izakaya nine years ago and named it Kei after her mother.

They ask what I’m doing in town and I tell them I’m writing about the castle. Katsuki says, “I’ve got a book on Himeji Castle; I’m going to get it for you.” And with that he rushes out and returns about 10 minutes later with a weighty tome. “Take it,” he says. “It’s a gift from me.” “Are you sure? It looks old and maybe rare and valuable,” I say. “I want you to have it. Please.”

Yasuaki chips in again, “Did you notice that the floors are slightly slanted in the donjon?”

“No.”

“Well, after five years of construction the castle was so heavy that the base sank down and it made the whole thing lean to the side.”

“I’ll roll some marbles next time,” I say.

Eight beers in and Katsuki is leaning to my side, and then hugging me like a brother. I pat him on the head.

“This is the party place where the fools get together,” jokes Izumi with a smile as she pours me the finest shochu (rice wine) the house has to offer.

Himeji Castle — also known as Shirasagi (White Egret) Castle as it’s thought to resemble an egret in its tall, white elegance — was originally ringed by three walls. Within the inner wall were the lord’s residence, the government offices and the fortress. Between there and the middle wall was where the middle- and upper-class samurai lived. Then, the more vulnerable area inside the outer circle contained the dwellings of lower-class samurai, merchants and craftsmen. The peasants lived and toiled in the rice fields outside the 187-hectare walled area, the lords watching them with puffed-out chests from the donjon.

Nowadays the outer wall is long gone, and inside the central area is now a large open space surrounded by cherry trees, where hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) parties are held in spring.

First constructed on the 45-meter hill Himeyama in the mid-14th century by the Akamatsu family, the present castle was built between 1601 and 1609 by the baron Ikeda Terumasa. In July 1945, fires from the Allied bombing of Himeji damaged the castle. In 1950 restoration began and was completed in 1964.

It takes Ayumi and me about two hours to complete our tour, and all the time she gets me to imagine I’m an invading soldier (in reality, such a scenario never occurred. Shortly after the castle was built, Japan endured an unprecedented period of peace and the castle was never sacked).

It goes a little like this: “Imagine you fought all the way up here. Now you have a moat before you. The defending soldiers are blocking the path that way, so your only option is to go into the moat. The water is 2 meters deep and Japanese were shorter than that, so once they dropped into that moat there was no way to survive.”

And, as we turn another corner, the path narrows to a width of four meters. “This would create a bottleneck and it would be easier to kill you — firing arrows, guns and spears from the portals above and perhaps throwing oil or boiling water on you,” she says, seemingly thrilled at my theoretical demise.

She points out a secret turning I had failed to spot and announces, “In the heat of battle you would just keep on storming up. You wouldn’t think to take a little detour off behind your right shoulder would you?”

I shake my head. She smiles triumphantly and adds, “Well, that route takes you close to the donjon.”

We pass a massive storehouse used to stockpile foodstuffs, which has one of the castle’s many wells inside it.

“How long could you survive on salt, brown rice and water?” Ayumi asks me.

“With no alcohol I’d be a seppuku case after a week,” I say.

“But what about vitamins?”

I shrug.

“Well, they planted special trees such as gum trees, and in an emergency they could make tea for vitamin C.”

Descending a flight of short, steep steps, Ayumi tells me that the main square beside the donjon lies ahead, but then grabs my arm. “Why do you think that you are going down? Well, you’ve been climbing all the way here and suddenly you are going downhill — you are tired and it would confuse you and you’d tumble down.”

I almost do collapse down the steps.I feel embattled by information and am dreaming of beer, but in her role, Ayumi is on a roll.

At the doors to the donjon, she says, “Once these thick iron gates close, this fortress turns into an iron box. It has kitchens, bathrooms and food, and under attack you could stay here until your allies came to the rescue. And if the worse came to the worst, the plan would be to commit hara-kiri, set it on fire and turn it into a tomb. That is why the new government after the 1868 Meiji Restoration destroyed many castles. They wanted one government and no threat. We destroyed our history so we don’t have so many traditional things. I wish they’d preserved the castles like you did in Britain.”

Inside the donjon, I navigate a multitude of rooms displaying swords, calligraphy, a letter from Hidetada Tokugawa (1579-1632; the second shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate) thanking Lord Tadakatsu Honda for clothes received as a yearend gift, muskets hanging from walls, et al. The best thing, though, is the incredible view of the surrounding lowlands.

Then we take a mosey around to the Harakiri-Maru courtyard. The name suggests it was an area used for ritual suicides, and there’s a well that was likely used for washing severed heads. But the building also served as a crucial defensive post protecting the rear gate.

A man in a silver shell suit enters the izakaya and Katsuki tells me, “He’s a top man around here” — his last words before he slumps unconscious on to the counter, the sake having finally got the better of him.

The “top man” tells me that a corridor leading to the lord’s bedchamber was purposely built with a squeaky floor (“uguisu-bari,” he says, literally “singing floorboards”), so when the lord was enjoying a concubine, enemies wouldn’t be able to catch him naked and defenseless, without the right kind of sword in his hand.

The sake is getting the better of me too, and I tell owner Izumi she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in 12 years in Japan. Then I tell her that if she’s available I’ll marry her here and now.

“I’m married, but next time you come to Himeji, then maybe I’ll be free,” she says, strolling away but with her eyes fluttering toward me, and the whole izakaya erupts in laughter. She then tells me she’ll be visiting her daughter in Tokyo soon and gives me her card.

“I’ll tell you a real love story, to do with the castle,” says Yasuaki. “A feudal lord had a set of 10 dishes that he was particularly fond of, and his lover — the servant girl Okiku — wasn’t sure whether he loved her, so to test his feelings she deliberately broke one dish. She thought that if he loved her he wouldn’t go mad, but he got so upset that he killed her by throwing her down a well outside the donjon. She came back as a ghost every night, counting one to nine for each remaining dish, before returning down the well to the netherworld. But she didn’t bear a grudge against him, didn’t want to scare him. It was because she felt miren (a lingering attachment).”

For weeks after my Himeji experience I suffer miren — not just for the most magnificent castle I have ever seen, but for my new friends there — and, of course, for Izumi. But I resist the temptation to call her and the miren still consumes me. Haunting and intense.

Himeji Castle is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (5 p.m. from May to August). Adults ¥600, children ¥200. A tour takes about 1 1/2 hrs. You don’t particularly need a guide as English pamphlets are available at the castle shop. Izakaya Kei is at 301 Ekimae-cho, Himeji. Himeji Station is about 30 minutes from Shin-Osaka Station on the shinkansen and tickets are approximately ¥3,000. simon.bartz888@japantimes.co.jp