A tow­er­ing achieve­ment

Himeji Cas­tle has re­opened af­ter a five-year restora­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - MICHAEL BOOTH

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

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