Enjoying since 1993 the status of Cultural and Historical Patrimony of Humanity by Unesco, Himeji Castle is a jewel of Japanese architecture, full of peculiarities and a very interesting history.
Located in what is now the city of Himeji, in Hyogo Prefecture, 50 km west of Osaka and 650 km far from Tokyo, Himeji Castle began to be built as a fort in 1333 by Norimura Akamatsu, former governor of the region, then called Harima.
In 1346, a small castle-shaped building was erected by Sadanori Akamatsu. This “embryo” of the castle, all made of wood, was very different from the current castle, but it lasted 230 years.
In 1580, Japan was going through a civil war, and two great "daimyô" (feudal lords) disputed the supremacy and control of Japan, dividing the country between those who supported Nobunaga Oda or Ieyasu Tokugawa.
Himeji Castle - Civil War
Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the military leaders of the Nobunaga Oda, took possession of the castle and promoted the first in a series of major renovations, aiming at the construction of a “modern” 3-story castle.
The death of Oda in 1582 and the death of Toyotomi in 1598 left open the way for Tokugawa's ambitions, who after winning the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, took power in Japan. Thus, in 1601, Tokugawa gave the prize to erumasa Ikeda , one of his generals and son-in-law, the provinces of Harima, Bizen and Awaji, who thereby became the new lord of Himeji Castle.
As Himeji Castle had been damaged during the civil war, and being its important location for the defense of the Tokugawa Shogunate government, Ikeda dedicated himself to rebuilding the castle, which thus took on the form it still holds today.
In the reconstruction, Ikeda implanted details in the Himeji Castle that modernized and improved the architectural and defensive characteristics, which made the castle complex an exemplary model of Japanese construction of the period.
In the most central and high part of a hill, a huge trapezoidal base composed of stone walls with inclinations ranging from 30 to 40 degrees was built to serve as the foundation for the foundations of a 7-story castle, called “daitenshukaku” .
This base, in addition to making it difficult for invaders to climb, allowed rainwater to be correctly directed, avoiding soil erosion and protected the taller structure from the effects of an eventual earthquake, since the wooden foundations placed on the base are malleable.
The White Heron OF Himeji CASTLE
The nickname "White Heron" comes not only from the decorative elements of the castle, with graceful and curved eaves, but mainly from its walls covered with white masonry.
Like the other castles of its time, Himeji was made of wood, but the masonry finish, in addition to giving it a white appearance, increased the thickness of the walls and modernized the castle by making it resistant to attacks with firearms.
As the use of firearms in battles began in 1549, previous buildings had to be retrofitted. It is estimated that there were 5,000 small castles in Japan in the 14th century, but all of them used only the fences and the moat as a means of defense, which became vulnerable with the emergence of firearms.
Around the castle itself, a network of paths full of steps, walled and tortuous and with several gates and towers, form a long labyrinth where even today visitors are lost. Finally, the entire area is surrounded by a wall and an external moat, with only one passage to enter or leave the complex.
The Himeji Castle complex
THE huge distance to be covered from the entrance to the complex, the thick walls and small windows in the castle, gates and towers reveal the concern with the “modern” firearms of the time. Until the middle of the century. XVI, the Japanese used a type of primitive shotgun, whose diameter of the barrel resembles the current bazookas and whose activation depended on the lighting of a wick, as in the old cannons.
Anyway, it was a heavy, uncomfortable, time-consuming and short-range weapon. That would change over time, with the introduction of the musket lock (the “grandma” of the current rifle detonation system, with trigger and dog), which made Japanese firearms more efficient and with greater range.
Slightly larger, square openings at the top of the sloping stone walls and at the base of the main building were used to throw stones at anyone trying to climb from the outside. In addition, several secret passages were built throughout the complex, which in case of attack allowed the feudal lord, his family, servants and soldiers to live with food and weapons stored for a long period.
Counting on Luck
But it was luck that gave Himeji its most valued characteristic, which is its state of preservation. Although the Castle was rebuilt by Ikeda with the purest defensive intent, the fact is that since then it has never been damaged by acts of war, even during the Second World War.
The reconstruction of the Castle took nine years, from 1601 to 1609, and it is estimated that it mobilized 50 thousand workers, with an estimated cost today of more than 2 billion dollars.
Being a unique construction of its kind in the world and with a degree of preservation that allows us today to experience a lifestyle of 400 years ago, Himeji Castle lives up to the title of World Heritage Site.