Himeji Castle

On Tuesday, en route from Miyajima to Kyoto, we stopped at Himeji Castle, a “Japanese castle complex” as Wikipedia describes it (and it is more castle-complex than just straightforward castle, for sure). The castle dates from 1333, but….between remodels, earthquakes, and being bombed in WWII, the dates of what one actually sees gets a little fuzzy (ask Don, he’s got it all down pat). However, it is still pretty significant and a great stopover for architecture students because, as Wikipedia says, “The castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture, comprising a network of 83 buildings with advanced defensive systems from the feudal period.”

Here’s the map:

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Also, Wikipedia tells me it is also known as “Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō,” meaning White Egret Castle or White Heron Castle, which strike me as really lovely, poetic nicknames, and pretty spot-on, I’d say. I kind of love those names for a castle.

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Plus, y’all, there is an actual moat around the castle. Like, there-be-dragons-and-stuff moat.

What more could one want?!

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Don’s class on the lawn of Himeji Castle.

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Family portraits.

I pretty much made us pose for selfies every time we turned a corner and had a good view of the castle, because it was so pretty. (Which was not necessarily too often, because, as Don explained, there are few angles with a head-on view of the castle, to confuse  invading intruders who would therefore not have a direct approach. Pretty clever – and complicated.)

But the views kept getting better and better as we got closer and closer. So there are a lot of selfies.

Also, at some point  in the above photos, Aardvark, definitely her father’s daughter, held her fingers over my head, a classic Don move, which cracked me up. And from now on, in nearly every picture, you will see her holding something over someone else’s head. A lot of times, it’s three fingers. Because she’s 3. In a few photos at Fushimi Imari-Taisha, it’s a rock. I’m not quite sure she gets the bunny ears thing. But she knows it cracks me up, and so every time she does it now, she says, “I’m doing this so you remember to smile!”

The castle itself was pretty impressive. (As far as ancient castles go. It’s the first castle I’ve been to in Japan, and it’s nothing like the many castles I’ve been to in Europe. But in terms of medieval castles, I think it’s my favorite so far.)

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That weird not-window thing up there? That was designed so that castle inhabitants could drop things like rocks, knives, etc. out of it, down to any invaders trying to climb the wall.

Inside, the castle walls were lined with thousands of racks for storing swords, on pretty much every floor. It’s hard to imagine how crazy life must have been back then, with all the threats and fear in daily life. I’m not sure castle life would have been worth it….

Once inside the castle, we got to visit each floor, all the way up to the top. It was only like six or seven stories, but they were incredibly steep. (I was so afraid for Aardvark as she was climbing down, because I really can’t stress enough how steep the stairs were – many adults were apprehensive about it, and of course, you’re climbing up and down in slippery socks, because shoes had to be removed before entering, but you’re carrying your shoes with you in a bag, which means at least one hand is not free to break a fall…) but at each break, she would turn to me,  hold out her hand, and say, “It’s ok, baby, it’s just a few more steps, sweetheart!” [She’s really into pretending she’s the mom and I’m the baby. We must get her more friends in Japan her age….] It was pretty adorable, because I was obviously not nervous for my own sake.)

Almost immediately afterward, everyone – strangers, students, everyone around us – complained about how much their calves ached. We didn’t notice it during the climb up or down, and we’ve been averaging about 7-8 miles of walking every day for the last month and a half, so you’d think walking up stairs would be no big deal, but apparently Himeji Castle really wore everyone out. I assume that was one more layer in their defense mechanisms?! Tire your enemies out so they collapse in exhaustion upon finally storming the castle…

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There are fish on the roofs of many of these old buildings. They are a water symbol, and were thought to ward off fires, which were hugely destructive, especially in this era long-before fire brigades and readily available water.
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