Hyogo’s Himeji-jo Castle: Impregnable Castle that is Japan’s First World Heritage Site
In December of 1993, Himeji-jo Castle was the first World Heritage Site to be recognized in Japan along with the Horyu-ji Temple of Nara Prefecture.
A period of 5 1/2 years was spent to restore the castle in a great project called the “Major Heisei Restoration”. The castle had not undergone a restoration in 45 years. The castle reopened on March 27th, 2015, reborn as a castle with an even more distinctively white appearance. Its grand stature has given it the nickname “Shirasagi-jo (White-egret Castle)” and its beauty can be compared to a soaring white egret.
Not only is the Himeji-jo beautiful in its external appearance, as it was a castle used in actual battle, the interior holds many militaristic devices as well.
This article will introduce highlights of the Himeji-jo based on my actual experience of walking through the castle grounds. I hope for you to enjoy the article as you are joining me on the walking tour.
Hishi no Mon (Gate of the Water Caltrop)
This is the Hishi no Mon (Gate of the Water Caltrop), a distinguished gate worthy of being a front entrance. It shows the air of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 – 1603) and its grid windows and white walls show extravagance. The stone wall is only on one side of the gate which is an extremely unique style.
Once you go through the Hishi no Mon, there are a series of gates that lead to the main castle tower in the order of “I, ro, ha”, the old Japanese alphabet derived from a Heian era poem (794–1179).
I no Mon (Gate of I)
The I no Mon (Gate of I ) is a gate that can be seen immediately from the Hishi no Mon. It stands as if it is almost inviting the enemy in. If you look closely, you will see it has a decorative finish much like the Hishi no Mon.
Ro no Mon (Gate of Ro)
Right after the I no Mon follows the Ro no Mon. The series of mud walls depict a curve. This structure makes it easier to counterattack from the sides in case of enemy intrusion.
Shogun-zaka Hill and Ha no Mon (Gate of Ha)
Before you come to the next gate, the Ha no Mon (Gate of Ha), there is a hill commonly called the Shogun-zaka. This is a spot that has been used as the setting of many historical drama shows, such as the popular drama “Abarenbo Shogun” which aired overseas as well. The white wall has many triangular and square openings which were used to shoot arrows and guns through to attack the enemy.
After the white wall, you are able to clearly see the castle tower and it seems like your final destination is near, but there are yet a series of gates.
Ni no Mon (Gate of Ni)
The Ni no Mon (Gate of Ni) is low in height and difficult to enter as it stands on a hill. You can see that the gate emphasizes its defensive function over beauty.
Ho no Mon (Gate of Ho)
The Ho no Mon (Gate of Ho) is even lower and more enclosed than the Ni no Mon. It is the final gate leading to the main castle, so the gate only opens on one side and is a sturdy build plated with sheets of steel. In any case of enemy intrusion, there is a device to close the entryway with sand and gravel.
Finally to the Main Castle Tower!
After going through many gates, we finally get to the main castle tower.
Items that were exhibited in the interior of the castle were removed in the restoration of Heisei so it looks quite empty. On the other hand though, it illustrates the point that the castle was not only beautiful but was fully equipped with militaristic functions.
There are toilets and sinks in place so that people could remain in and live in the castle tower in case of a siege. It is said to be rare for the main castle tower to be equipped with these two elements.
On the wall there is an area to hang weaponry such as firearms and spears. It is a simple structure that allows for weaponry to be placed so they can be easily removed in case of emergency.
As we are nearing the upper most stories, there are an increased number of devices to attack the enemy. One of such devices is the Ishiuchi-dana an area where warriors can climb up and aim at and attack the enemy on the outside.
The Upper Most Level in the Main Castle Tower
From the outside, it is difficult to determine how many stories the main castle tower is made up of. It is actually made up of 7 stories in total; 6 stories above ground and 1 story below ground. The 6th floor, which is the uppermost story, has many windows and you can see the beautiful view around the castle and of Himeji City.
There you will notice a series of white building and walls that winds around; this is where you realize that the main castle tower is not the end of the tour of Himeji-jo.
27 Turrets and 32 Mud Walls
The white building and walls we saw are turrets and mud walls which are both designated as important cultural assets. The 27 turrets were used as armory in time of peace and as a station for attack in times of battle. The 32 mud walls were often used for defense as it could be made inexpensively. Both elements had militaristic functions, but because they are covered in white lacquer, it also adds to the beauty of Himeji-jo.
How did you enjoy the tour of Himeji-jo?
The Himeji-jo is more often pictured as a white and beautiful castle, but in fact it has experienced numerous scenes of battle. It has survived due to a number of calculated militaristic structures and is an impregnable castle that even survived air raids. I would encourage you to visit the World Heritage Site of Himeji-jo, which is equipped with beauty and functionality to appreciate from these two different perspectives.
Hours: 9AM to 4PM (Gate closes 5PM)
*Summer Season (April 27th to August 31st): 9AM to 5PM (Gate closes 6PM)
Closed: December 29th, 30th
From JR Himeji Station North Exit, take the Shinki Bus. Get off at “Otemon mae” stop and walk 5 minutes.
From JR Himeji Station or Sanyo Himeji Station, walk 20 minutes.