A towering achievement
Himeji Castle has reopened after a five-year restoration
Imagine a pair of gigantic chopsticks about 26m high, tapering from a diameter of 96cm at their base. This, give or take some clever joinery and a lick of plaster, is all that has kept Himeji Castle — about 50km west of Kobe in Hyogo prefecture, and one of Japan’s most important historic buildings — upright for the past 400 years through earthquakes, bombing raids and the vicissitudes of time and climate.
I am standing beside one of the “chopsticks”, darkened and polished by the years. They are surprisingly rough hewn for such an otherwise precision-crafted building. I mention this to one of my Japanese companions. “Perfection is not regarded as beautiful in Japan,” she admonishes. This is the notion of wabi-sabi, the beauty of imperfection or asymmetry, which, it seems, even has a role in a feudal fortress.
The survival of Himeji’s main tower is all the more remarkable when you consider that most of the rest of Japan’s castles are replicas, but even the giant pillars (one fir, one cypress) that provide its core structural support have their limits. For the past five years this World Heritage Site, home to five of the country’s eight designated National Treasure castle buildings (the main tower being one), has been shrouded in scaffolding during an extensive restoration to the tune of the equivalent of more than $28.2 million. It opened again at the end of March, unquestionably the event of the century in the surrounding town of Himeji.
My first sight of the castle comes as I enter Himeji by bus at night. Floodlit, it resembles a ghostly Alp — colossal, jagged, a shimmering, brilliant white. I explain to the Japanese woman seated next to me that I will be writing about the castle, and she applauds: it is the first indication of the immense pride the locals here have in the “White Heron”, as the castle is nicknamed.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great unifier of Japan, ordered the construction of Himeji in 1601, on the site of an existing fort, as part of his strategy to build one castle per province. Ieyasu’s peacekeeping plan was so successful that Himeji’s defences, a combination of moats, baileys, towers and winding, walled alleyways (83 buildings in all) have never seen combat, unless you count the fight scene in the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which was filmed here.
If you recall, Bond (Sean Connery) stays undercover at a “ninja training camp”, necessitating highly dubious oriental make-up plus an accommodating Japanese bride. Ninja connections to historic buildings in Japan can often be rather flimsy, but Himeji is different. A troop of ninja, the spy caste who originated in the secretive mountain communities of Mie Prefecture, were resident in the grounds of Himeji. As a lower caste of warrior, ninja were not considered worthy of a place in the castle itself, plus their secretive nature kept them apart from the rest of castle life. Nevertheless, the ninja spirit of concealment and stealth is evoked in the building’s architecture.
“It was designed so that attackers could be surprised from behind,” my guide, Kazuya (Kenny) Haga, in heavy black cape and bowler hat, explains. The layout is ingenious, with spiralling paths, blind corners, hidden hatches and “trick” gates that can be blocked with rubble within seconds. The Portuguese had introduced guns to Japan a few decades earlier, and so the castle also has gun holes, as well as archery slits and floor hatches through which one could pour boiling water on attackers (“Never boiling oil,” Kenny says. “It would stain the plaster”).
With the completion of the restoration, of course, Himeji resumes its place as one of Japan’s major tourist attractions, expected to attract up to 10,000 visitors a day. I am the first outsider to see inside the tower since its restoration.
“I am so happy, so excited,” Kenny exclaims as we approach the main tower, passing through 10 gates, with budding cherry blossoms and fully laden grapefruit trees alongside. He is on his first visit since the restoration, too. It is raining, which, as Kenny points out, allows us to see the complex drainage that keeps the water flowing through the building — useful in case of fire.
At the main tower, I am surprised to find the rooms inside almost entirely empty. I remember from a previous visit there being various display cases. “This time, we have removed everything,” says Kenny, proudly, holding up his iPad. “See?” Instead of displays of weaponry and armour, visitors will download an app that provides an X-ray view of the castle’s woodwork wherever you point your phone or tablet, along with reconstructions of how people lived here.
We climb from the basement up through a further six floors, only five of which are visible from the outside, another of Himeji’s sleights of hand. At the seventh floor, there is a lookout, and a Shinto shrine; the view is fabulous.
When it was built, Himeji had three moats, the first more than 1km from the castle itself, along with a system of watchtowers, and homes for about 10,000 samurai families and, further out in the castle grounds, the troop of ninja. It took 10,000 workers to build the castle using pine and granite from the surrounding mountains. That granite base, combined with a highly flexible wooden structure, has helped Himeji sway when earthquakes have struck.
Unthinkably, in the late 19th century there were plans to tear down the castle and replace it with army barracks; later, the castle was auctioned off but its demolition turned out to be too costly, and again it survived. The town was extensively bombed during World War II, but the castle stood, as it did through the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe and surrounds in 1995.
These days, Himeji Castle is a national treasure and artisans from across the country were employed to create replacement clay tiles, and attend to the woodwork and plaster. Those chopsticks have received extra special attention too. One is original, a single piece of cypress. The other was replaced during a previous restoration 50 years ago. They found a fir tree of a suitable length, felled it, and began to transport it from the mountains. But despite the technical advances of 350 years they could not bring it to Himeji in one piece. It snapped en route and so, today, you can see a clear “S”-shaped join where the repair was made. A perfect wabi-sabi solution.
TELEGRAPH MEDIA GROUP • jnto.org.au • feel-kobe.jp • hyogo-tourism.jp • himeji-kanko.jp/en/
The restored Himeji Castle