A fortress to be reckoned with


From the soaring beeches in the forests of northern Honshu’s Shirakami-Sanchi to the funereal Buddhist gloom of Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture, those who let UNESCO be their guide will find no dearth of variety among Japan’s World Heritage Sites.

Of the places in this country that make it onto UNESCO’s list, one of the most spectacular was among the first to find itself thus honored — the castle of Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture.

This structure entered the UNESCO list 13 years ago as the finest example of a castle from Japan’s warring feudal period. While aesthetic appeal is not the first thing that leaps to mind in conjunction with military technology, Himeji Castle is a conspicuously graceful structure.

Japanese generally regard this fortress as the most elegant in Japan, an elegance that is reflected in the sobriquet that it, as a good Japanese castle, possesses: “White Heron Castle.” And anyone actually able to recognize such a bird in this building can consider themselves truly blessed in having such a vivid imagination.

As architecturally attractive as it, this doesn’t detract from its military efficiency — Himeji would have presented a formidable challenge to an attacking force in the 17th century. None of its outer walls are freestanding, but are built instead into the hillside, meaning that they could simply not be breached. Around the central donjon — the inner tower — a complex and cunning system of towers, turrets and outworks was constructed so as to put assailants into vulnerable positions and throw them into confusion.

That system likewise confuses modern tourists as they make their way around the intricate topography of the site. It is not until you reach the top floor of the donjon, with the castle spread out before you, that the whole layout begins to make sense. And then, from here as well, you have a view across the unpretty urban sprawl that is Himeji.

Island-strewn sea

Beyond the ugly smokestacks, though, there stretches the blue expanse of the Inland Sea in its glittering, island-strewn beauty.

Elaborate though the defenses were, they were never actually put to the test. The castle was never attacked. But that we can see the structure today is no small wonder — after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, many Japanese castles were dismantled. Himeji’s somehow was spared.

The fortress also survived World War II, when Himeji’s military and industrial installations made it a natural target, and much of the city was destroyed. A single incendiary bomb could probably have torched the entire structure, but once again its luck held out. And in the more recent calamity of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which ravaged nearby Kobe, it emerged once again unscathed.

The castle that we see today is certainly an imposing structure — and it’s the biggest wooden structure in the world. Or such is the claim of the Himeji Tourist Association. Go to Nara, though, and you will find Todaiji being touted as the planet’s biggest wooden building.

Whichever is true, constructing Himeji Castle was a mammoth effort. The present structure was completed in 1609 with 18,000 men working a total of 30 million man-days. Major restoration work was carried out from 1956 to 1964, giving the castle its present, pristine appearance. During that project, modern workers came across the rice bowls, chopsticks, pipes and knives that had been left behind by their building forebears three and a half centuries earlier.

The castle is for most people pretty much the only reason for coming to the largely unremarkable provincial city of Himeji. Such a paucity is there of additional attractions that the English-language tourist guide is obliged to list a cemetery among the must-see sights.

Nine gardens

One little jewel that Himeji does possess is mostly ignored by tourist throngs bused into the city. Hard by the grand castle is a garden called Kokoen. Even those who tend to look askance at gardens would find it hard not to be charmed by Kokoen — a charm that is all the greater for the tranquil respite it offers after the bustling crowds at the castle. This is as delightful a piece of contrived nature as you are likely to find, with bamboo groves, jade-green pines growing among lava boulders, stepping stones across placid ponds, stone lanterns and small wooden pavilions standing beside the many paths. Entire landscapes are presented in miniature, as in streams with 15-cm-high waterfalls, tiny rapids and a small beach of rounded stones leading into a carpet of bright velvet moss.

Built on the site of a former samurai residence, Kokoen consists of nine separate gardens, each with a different character, and finding your way among the labyrinthine paths of the garden is no less taxing than at the castle next door. Being a Japanese garden, it is one in which the changes effected by each season are fully appreciated. As the pamphlet notes, this is “a garden full of history, nature and romance.” The copy writer, though, must have got a little carried away that day since, attractive and tasteful though it is, the garden has a “history” that goes back only as far as its year of construction, 1992.

Eel eatery

Within Kokoen is located the restaurant known as Kassui-ken, which is without a doubt the place to enjoy the local specialty of Himeji — anago (conger eel). The anago is prepared kabayaki style like regular unagi eel, being boned, broiled and served with a thick sauce on rice. It arrives in a lacquered box and has a more delicate, less rich flavor than unagi.

Lunch spots do not come much better than Kassui-ken, with golden carp sliding through the waters of its pond, sunlight striking Japanese maples and the magnificent castle as a backdrop. In all, it’s the kind of place that will remind you why traveling in this country can be such a delight.