Himeji Castle: Top Secret Ninja School??


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ~Gilbert K. Ches

A Castle in the Clouds

A Castle in the Clouds

James Bond:  “Do you have any commandos here?”  Tiger Tanaka:  “I have much, much better. Ninjas. Top-secret, Bond-san.  This [Himejijo] is my ninja training school.” ~You Only Live Twice

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-armored-door-and-internal-passageway-wmNinja training school or not, Jody and I recently made our way south from our stay in Kobe, Japan, to visit one of Japan’s most iconic castles:  Himeji.  Compared with Nijo castle in Kyoto (see The Last Samurai’s Castle for more), this is much more like castles with which most Westerners would be familiar.  Thick walls full of loop-holes for shooting.  Narrow passages and numerous gates armed with watch-towers and reinforced locking doors.  And a tall, hill-top Keep, full of weapons racks and murder holes through which heavy rocks and boiling oil could be dropped on invaders….

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-couples-selfie-with-the-white-castle-in-the-skyHimeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji-jō) is a hilltop Japanese castle located in the city of Himeji, Japan.  Regarded as the finest surviving example of historic Japanese castle architecture, it is comprised of a tight defensive network of 83 buildings dating from Japan’s feudal period.  The castle is often locally referred to as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō  (“White Heron Castle”), because of its brilliant white finish and resemblance to a bird taking flight – a somewhat vague analogy in my opinion.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-rooflines-wmHimeji Castle started as a small hilltop fort in 1333.  Replacing the fort was first a castle called Himeyama  in 1346, which was then remodeled into Himeji Castle in the 16th Century.  In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the same Samurai that built Nijo Castle in Kyoto, awarded the castle to another feudal Lord, who happened to be his son-in-law.  He, in turn, completely rebuilt the castle in the early 1600s to what we see today.  For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained largely intact and well-maintained, even throughout the extensive bombing of World War II and the 1995 “Great Hanshin” earthquake, both which seriously damaged nearby Kobe and the surrounding area.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-climbing-steep-stairs-wmIn fact, the city of Himeji was specifically targeted for bombing in World War II because an important rail terminal and line was located there.  On July 3, 1945, 107 B-29 bombers took off from airfields on captured Guam, Tinian, and Saipan to bomb Himeji.  During the raid, 767 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Himeji, destroying almost 65% of its urban area.  Himeji Castle, however, remained remarkably unscathed, even after one firebomb, which failed to ignite, was dropped directly on its roof.  As word of this seeming miracle spread, the castle became to be known as divinely protected.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-on-the-way-to-visit-the-castleHimeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining martial function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance of white plastered walls, and in the subtlety of the relationships between building dimensions and the multiple layers of rooflines.  In 2015, over 2.8 million people visited, so the castle can be quite crowded.  Our recommendation is stay away during Japanese National holidays and the New Year, and arrive early before tour buses start to que for the afternoon.  On busy days, numbered tickets are issued to control access based on scheduled admission times.  At times, the castle will run out of tickets.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-under-an-internal-gate-wmHimeji Castle was abandoned during the Meiji Period in 1871 and some of the castle corridors and gates were destroyed to make room for Japanese army barracks in the ensuing decades.  The castle was next auctioned to a private citizen who wanted it destroyed in order to redevelop the land.  Demolition proved much too expensive, and Himeji was spared.  However, it’s fate still unsecured since Japanese castles had become obsolete and their preservation costly and not a priority during post-WWII recovery.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-smiles-at-the-castleThe 6-story main Keep has two massive supporting pillars, one standing in the east and another in the west, each originally single trees of fir and cypress with diameters over three feet.  The inside walls of the Keep are literally covered with weapon racks (武具掛け bugukake), originally for holding matchlocks (17th firearms in Japan) and spears.  Numerous openings below windows can be found in the Keep called “stone-throwing platforms” (石打棚 ishiuchidana) strategically situated over the winding pathway up the hill.   Similarly, angled chutes called “stone drop windows” (石落窓 ishiotoshimado) are found here too, enabling stones or boiling oil to be rained down upon the heads of attackers below.  Within the Keep are small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places” (武者隠し mushakakushi), allowing defenders to hide and attack by surprise.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-shinto-shrine-on-the-top-floor-wmOne of the castle’s foremost defensive strategies is found in the design of the confusing maze of narrow pathways leading uphill to the castle’s Keep, as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.  Unable to scale up or penetrate through the steep and tall castle walls, attackers are necessarily funneled into a long, spiral pattern around the keep, an approach covered by loopholes and murder holes the entire way.  Originally there were 84 gates to slow intruders, but today only 21 remain.  Roughly 1,000 loopholes (狭間 sama) in the shape of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles are still found throughout the castle today.  Partly due to this focus on strong defense, Himeji Castle was never even attacked.

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The castle has been featured extensively in foreign and Japanese films, including the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), and Ran (1985).  In the television miniseries Shōgun (1980) it served as a stand-in for the fictitious feudal-era Osaka castle featured in the series.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-wooded-view-of-the-castle-wmWhile the castle is exquisite from a distance, and impressive from the outside, touring the Keep’s innards is an exercising in climbing up and down steep staircases.  While a visit here is in no way something that should be skipped, just don’t expect much in the way of explanation…or interesting things to see.  In other words, from an architectural and design perspective, seeing a 400-year-old original structure is amazing.  However, the castle is culturally void, having been stripped bare…which is how it is presented today after an extensive rehabilitation earlier this decade.

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That said, Himeji Castle still remains the most spectacular example of an original Japanese castle still in existence.  Even for someone who is not particularly interested in castles or history, a day-trip from Osaka or Kobe to Himeji-jo can be fascinating and well worth the expense and effort.

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Even if there really isn’t a Bond-san ninja training school located there….

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Hemiji-jo

Hours:  Winter 0900–1700, Summer 0900-1800 (April 27–August 31)

Closed December 29-30

Address:  68 Honmachi, Himeji City

Phone:  079-285-1146 (Himeji Castle Management Office)

http://www.himejicastle.jp/en/

Access:  Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station.  The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit via a 15-20 minute walk, or five minute ride by bus (100 yen one-way) or taxi (about 650 yen one-way).

The Last Samurai’s Castle: Nijojo


“I’ll tell you how he lived.”  ~Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

A young Japanese Emperor Meiji is featured in The Last Samurai, surrounded by his court in an immense and minimally-appointed tatami-floored hall.  The palace is unquestionably Japanese, with sliding door panels adorned with gilded scenes of cranes in flight and tigers crouched for an attack never to come.  But his is no movie set; these scenes were filmed in the historic 400-year-old castle of Nijo, located in the heart of the ancient Japanese capital city of Kyoto.

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō) is a low-profile castle built on the flatlands of Kyoto, Japan.  Although nothing like a castle in the Western classic sense of tall turreted guard towers and heavy drawbridges, it does boast two concentric rings of fortifications and thick stone walls, substantial palaces and several gardens.  The complex is sizeable covering about 70 acres, but with only about 85,000sqf of buildings to explore.  It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, all which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogunates, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to Nijō’s construction, which was completed in 1626 by his Grandson after the former’s death.  Although Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was considered the country’s capital, this castle served as the Kyoto residence and Court of the Tokugawa Shoguns (basically military dictators).  It continued in this role for 260 years until the Shoguns surrendered power to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, and today it remains an eloquent testimony to a bygone era of Shogun power and prestige.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Jody and I really enjoyed the expansive, well-kept grounds and gardens, and spent much of our timeat the castle wandering slowly through their various paths.  Groves of plum and cherry trees are found here among peaceful ponds and carefully-placed ornamental stones, and the castle serves as a prime blossom viewing spot in the spring when the time is right in late March and all of April.

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Building as the Japanese did primarily out of wood and paper, though, has its drawbacks, as evidenced by a sad history of destructive fire at most old Japanese heritage sites.  Nijō’s original 5-story central Keep was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750; the foundations can still be explored around the inner ring’s southwest corner.  In 1788, the “Inner Ward,” the area encompassed by the inner moat, was destroyed by a city-wide fire and remained empty, more or less, for the next 100 years.  After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial rule, an Imperial residence was moved there where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Chinese Kamon Gate

Chinese Kamon Gate

After entering the castle grounds from the outer east gate, visitors will soon find the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru outer ward secondary circle of defense.  The castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located here.  This Palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun.

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Surviving in its original form, the architecture and artwork found at Nijojo are arguably among the best surviving examples of Japan’s feudal era.  The palace consists of a series of separate buildings that are connected by an interestingly clever defensive design, the castle’s famed “nightingale floors,” corridors with flooring specifically designed to squeak aloud when stepped upon, alerting guards and occupants to potential intruders.  The rooms are floored with tatami mats and feature elegantly decorated ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and beautifully painted screens on sliding wooden-framed doors (fusuma), all intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the Shoguns.

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These fusuma paintings, dating to 1626, include some of the most well-known masterpieces of original Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber (as featured in The Last Samurai).  These depictions were painted by artists of the Kano tradition, which employed rich colors and large amounts of golden gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers.  The look and feel of this particular palace is routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when there is a necessity to depict a wealthy Samurai, and were also replicated for our own Western-produced mini-series Shogun.

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But there is some fact to The Last Samurai’s fiction.  In 1867, Ninomaru Palace, located in the castle’s “Outer Ward,” served as the site of handover of power in Japan from Shogun to the authority of the Imperial Court in early January 1868.  That year also saw the installation of the Imperial Cabinet at Nijojo, and the castle was declared a “detached” palace for the Emperor.  Honmaru Palace served as the location for the enthronement banquet of the Showa Emperor (Emperor Hirohito) in 1928, and is not normally open to the public.  A scamper up the stone foundation of the former castle keep located nearby provides fantastic views of the castle grounds.

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In 1939, the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.

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There is a reason why The Last Samurai was shot on location.  Visiting Nijojo, one is transported back to a different time and place, one when powerful Shoguns and revered Emperors ruled Japan in opulence.  One can imagine, indeed, “how one lived…”.

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Nijojo

Address:  541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Phone: 075-841-0096

Access:  JR Kyoto Station/Hankyu Railway Karasuma Station, or Tozai Subway Line Nijo-jo-mae Station

Hours:  08:45-16:00 closing at 17:00

Closed:  12/26-1/4 and Tuesdays in July-August & December-January

Fees:  600 yen, discounts for school children

Culture Club in Japan: Bunka no Hi


“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity.  By suppressing differences and peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death.  The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us.  Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life”

~Octavio Paz

There’s more to Japanese Culture than an SNL skit would lead you to believe

“Thanks for sharing,” Jody coyly says to me as the autumn winds blows and cold drizzle sets in just after sunset. Sure, I checked the weather and told her the high temperature for the day, along with the chance of rain we could suffer.  But she’s a smart, well-educated woman, and clearly should would understand the nighttime lows, especially given we’ve been sleeping with the windows open the last couple of days.

“Cold is a state of mind,” I flatly respond with my oft-repeated joke of how they taught us to embrace cold in Navy SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training. She does nothing but glance disapprovingly in my general direction.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, somber processional approaches

Earlier, things were different as the processional came into view as it passed over a rise in the roadway on the horizon. Even at this distance, the colors and pageantry of the parade already shine true in the bright afternoon Okinawan sun.  The crowd gathers has the spectacle closes, and slowly the somber sounds of Chinese horns, drums, and hand cymbals grow ever louder, setting the tone and cadence for all involved.  The pace is dignified and slow, and the King and Queen held high in their large, ornate litters.  And so went the Royal Ryukyu procession of guards, warriors, musicians, and dancers for the Chinese Investiture Envoys for the next two hours….

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, golden fans

The Ryukyu King

The Ryukyu King

And his Queen.

And his Queen.

The Shuri Castle Festival is certainly one of the biggest annual events on Okinawa. And there’s no mistake that it’s held in conjunction with the Japanese National Holiday, “Culture Day.”  For a day, the capital city of Naha is transformed into the Ryukyu Kingdom’s old hub.  The Ryukyu Dynasty Parade is truly a splendid sight to see.  A grand parade in brilliant period dress recreates the Ryukyu Kingdom’s most formal and picturesque procession.  In three groups — the dignified King and elegantly beautiful Queen’s procession, the dark and mysterious envoys’ procession, and the colorful and lively traditional arts procession — a throng of almost one thousand costumed period players parade along Kokusai Street in downtown Naha, the same route that has been traveled over the past six centuries.  The costumes are authentic, down to the same stitching used in robes and gowns worn in antiquity.  At the same time, traditional song and dance is performed free of charge and on-site at the castle’s park.  Clearly, to the Okinawans, this is more than just a chance to dress-up; rather, it’s a city-wide embrace and revival of the Ryukyu Dynasty in all its former glory.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, costumed happy dancers

Culture Day (文化の日, Bunka no Hi) is celebrated annually on November 3.  It is expressly set aside by the government to promote culture and the arts.  Events typically include art exhibitions, parades, and in Tokyo, even an Imperial award ceremony for distinguished artists and scholars.

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

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Still more to Okinawa than this....

Still more to Okinawa than this….

First held in 1948 to help promulgate the ideals of love of peace and freedom organic to the post WWII Japanese Constitution, its roots go much deeper. November 3 was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1868 when it was called Tenchō-setsu (天長節), a holiday held in honor of the birthday of the reigning emperor.  An interesting aside, the Emperor’s Birthday (天皇誕生日, Tennō Tanjōbi) remains a national holiday here, but with a differing date based on the specific reigning Emperor.  For contemporary Emperor Akihito (born in 1933), it is celebrated on 23 December.  During the reign of Hirohito (Showa period, 1926–1989, the sitting Emperor during WWII), the Emperor’s birthday was observed on 29 April.  Due in part to the nation’s reverence for Hirohito, regardless of how western history taints his role in the incitement and sustainment of World War II throughout Asia and the Pacific, that date remains a public holiday, but was renamed Greenery Day in 1989, and then finally Showa Day in 2007.  Coincidentally, and oddly enough, Showa Day also happens to be the same day in which the Allies’ International Military Tribunal for the Far East condemned key officials of the Imperial Hirohito government during World War II to death, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, back in 1946.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Chinese-inspired Seiden of the CastleShurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Shurijo Castle FestivalShurijo Castle prospered as the Ryukyu Kingdom’s center of politics, diplomacy and culture for 450 years, well into the late 19th century.  The castle was the residence of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s King and royal family, as well as the headquarters of the Shuri government, which traded with China, Japan and far-reaching Asian countries, shaping forever the distinctly Okinawa society.  Shuri also served as the heart of the kingdom, a center of culture and the arts, where classical court dance was born in order to welcome Chinese envoys and ambassadors.  After the Ryukyu Kingdom was unilaterally annexed by Japan in 1879, the King was removed from power and position, and the castle was relegated for use as a simple barracks for the Japanese army, falling into some significant measure of disrepair.

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Confederates in Japan??

Confederates in Japan??

The more appropriate standard.

The more appropriate standard.

A “National Treasure” before World War II, it was fiercely attacked for three days during the Battle of Okinawa since the Japanese military had located its headquarters in the castle’s underground maze of natural caves and tunnels. On May 27, 1945, Shuri burned for the fourth and last time, and was effectively razed to the ground by intensive shelling and bombardment.  Oddly enough, upon capture a Confederate battle flag was hoisted over the castle by the “Rebel Company,” Alpha Company of the 5th Marine Regiment, and there remained visible for three days until it was ordered removed by Marine General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., himself the son of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., who felt that all Americans helped to win the battle, and was replaced by a more appropriate standard.  For an interesting take on the role and continuing consternation over this odd intersection of flags, see Should the Rising Sun Finally Set.

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female straw hat dancerAfter the war, plans were set in motion to rebuild and recapture the past. Castle reconstruction began in 1958, and was largely completed in 1992 with the restoration of the complex’s main buildings.  In 2000, along with other gusuku, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  See more on the Castle and other festivals held there in my blog Hidden Harvest Moon.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, dragon-topped Seiden rooftop roofline structure

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female dancer and minature puppet shishimaiShurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, footstepsJody and I went down early and parked near the castle, then took the city’s monorail over to the parade grounds. We thoroughly enjoyed the parade for close to two hours, trying to take in as much of the show as our overwhelmed senses would allow.  Jody let me jockey for a better photog position, which is thankfully much easier here in Asian surrounded by rather polite Japanese.  While I’m still sorting and sifting through over a thousand photos taken on no less than three cameras, a few selected ones are included here to help demonstrate the pomp of the ritual.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, Eisa ghost dancer

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female Yosudake dancer traditional Okinawan costumeShurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, colorful female dancerAfter the parade we decided to try another one of the “Sam’s” eateries, a popular chain here on Okinawa, and enjoyed an overpriced but delicious teppanyaki lunch at Sam’s Anchor Inn while we recharged our bodies and reset our senses. Taking the monorail back to the castle, Jody finally was able to tour the inside of the primary buildings of the castle, and we both attended a few displays of traditional Okinawan arts on the stage nearby.  We were, on the one hand happy that there were very few Americans in attendance, but saddened at the same time by this lack of interest and participation.

King's Throne in the Seiden

King’s Throne in the Seiden

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male and femaleAlthough Culture Day is statistically one of the best days of the year weather-wise – in Tokyo there have only been three years with rain in something like 40 years – the forecast is often much different in the sub-tropics, including Okinawa. While the rain Sunday night didn’t keep the crowds away, it did cut short our enjoyment of the candle-lit grounds during the Shurijo Castle Illumination.  Jody’s sleeveless blouse, which threatened to lead to sunburn just hours before, was ultimately no match for the strong fall winds and cold rain of early November.

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

But she sure does have nice shoulders. And besides, it gave me a chance to hold her close as we strolled through the romantically candlelit castle grounds on the way back to our car to zoom away to a steaming bowl of Ramen and freshly fried gyoza.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Kankaimon gate and castle approach at night

And as we warmed our hearts together on the ride home and over a late dinner, reminiscing, mostly in silence, about the rich fabrics in the colorful cloth of Okinawan culture, I found myself thinking, “Thanks for sharing.”

Thank you, Jody, for sharing this day of culture with me.

See my Flickr Set Shurijo Castle Festival 2014 for more photos as I process and post them.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male golden fan dance

Love, Intrigue & Death at Katsuren Castle


“Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku.” Literally:  A bad (or wrong) wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest.  ~Japanese Proverb

Okay, it's not always the woman's fault....

Okay, it’s not always the woman’s fault…. This modern Asian wedding is just an all-around bad idea.

Every day on the way to White Beach back in 1999 I would pass what appeared to be ruins on a hilltop among the urban sprawl of Okinawa’s Katsuren peninsula.  Then for a few weeks, there was intense activity at the site, something which of course peaked my interest.  Finally deciding to play hooky from work one day, I turn my Honda Accord hatchback up the steep, crudely constructed concrete hillside road and barely made the climb to a grass and gravel parking lot.  And then my adventure really began!

Dramatic at Night

Dramatic at Night

It turned out that these ruins, once the site of one of the most significant castles of Okinawa which played a key role in Ryukyu history, were being hastily (and only partially) rebuilt, repaired, restored and cleaned in anticipation of a millennial celebration in early 2000.  And thus began my love affair with this castle that I admired during my daily commute to and from work, and to which I visited often with my family back in the early 2000’s when we lived on Okinawa for almost four years.

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One inescapable aspect of living on Okinawa is that the very ground is dotted with a plethora of intriguing castle ruins, reflecting in the present the rich Ryukyu past when regional kings fought a series of wars over their fiefdoms, eventually leading to the unification of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.  By some accounts, there are upwards of 500 documented sites that once held a castle, large or small.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

8583934564_5464537517_oOkinawan castles are often called gusuku, and are indicated by a “- ” suffix in writing. But “castle” is a bit of misnomer; a gusuku is more akin to fortresses of regional chieftains, dating to a time when Okinawa was independent from Japan, and more aligned with Korea and China.  Except for Shuri Castle, completely destroyed in World War II but impeccably restored to its rightful grandeur, most castles exist as ruins, many just mere crumbling stone walls.  Although little may be visible to the eye, the remains of the day reflect the strong history of Okinawa and remain culturally important.  In fact, all the places where gusuku once stood are regarded as sacred sites, still used as active places of worship and for religious and cultural ceremonies by local residents.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

14519091370_9947c54c7c_bUnfortunately, much of the specific history of most of the sites remains unknown, with little specifics being well-recorded.   Primarily, we know those that had developed into strong fortresses, having been led by powerful chieftains that grew in size and stature by subsuming lesser gusuku.  Three of the most famous chieftains in Okinawan history are Lord Amawari of Katsuren, Lord Gosamaru of Zakimi and Nakagusuku, and Lord Hananchi of Nakijin, all on the main island of Okinawa.  Archaeological excavations at their respective castle sites prove the power and wealth of these Sovereigns, and show their entrenched engagement with China and other Southeast Asian countries.

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14519173368_f6bc538061_bOne of the most popular sites among visitors is Katsuren Castle on Okinawa’s central eastern shore, dating to well before the 15th century. Katsuren Castle (勝連城 Katsuren-gusuku), also Katsuren-jō, is known in the Okinawan language as Kacchin Gusuku. Katsuren Castle was built on a large hill of Ryukyuan limestone, 322 feet above sea level on the Katsuren Peninsula of Okinawa. Not surprisingly, the castle offers magnificent panoramic views of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With water on two sides, it is sometimes referred to as the “Ocean Gusuku.” As a sacred site the castle contains a shrine of the Ryukyuan religion dedicated to Kobazukasa.

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14705473812_28e79f13bf_bIts walls, although massive and timeless, couldn’t contain the intense royal intrigue brewing there. According to rich legend and some historical accounting, King Sho Hashi considered the regional chieftain named Lord Aji Amawari of Katsuren, the 10th Lord in succession of Katsuren castle, a powerful rival.  Famous for fostering prosperous international trade, Amawari was also known as a cunning and politicized leader.   Legend has it that he pushed his predecessor, the 9th Katsuren Castle Lord, Lord Mochizuki Aji, off the top of the castle walls.  As Aji was considered a tyrant and was detested by the people, not only did Amawari assume Lordship, he also became a popular savior to the people of Katsuren.

Momoto Fumiagari

Momoto Fumiagari

momotofumiagariKing Hashi sent his daughter, matchless beauty Momoto Fumiagari, to marry the young Lord Amawari, as one means to keep Amawari in check.  Ah, I hear you sigh, a tale as old as time as lovers’ intrigue generally leads to ruin.  But as Awamari’s strength and popularity continued to grow, Hashi then moved his faithful disciple Lord Gosamaru, from Zakimi Castle in the north, to Nakagusuku, just south of Katsuren, to keep a watchful eye on his ambitious son-in-law. Amawari, whose dream was to unify the island under his control, eventually attacked and killed Gosamaru (with Shuri’s support), and then attempted to overthrow King Sho (of Shuri), but was defeated and killed in 1458.

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14702652921_f835efe616_bHowever, like in the genesis of all legends where truth is lost to time, the people of Katsuren today sees things quite differently. Amawari, popular among and compassionate to his people at the time, was a great threat to the King, and thus it was the King who held the hidden agenda.  In another example of revisionist history, the characterization of Amawari is being slowly transformed from one of traitor to hero.  Funny what a few centuries can do to rehabilitate just about anyone’s character.

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007In any case, the 10th Lord of Katsuren Castle, Lord Amawari, was abruptly killed in some sort of politically charged spat, no doubt involving the rivals of Nakagusuku and Shuri castles.  Oh, and surely over the girl (wink).  He was the last powerful personality to infect Katsuren, and the castle slowly fell out of favor and into slow decay.

www.pbase.com/dbh/okinawa; katsuren jo

14702565151_6f594ac651_bThe castle has 4 enclosures, each at a differing elevation. The first is relatively open, with the castle’s walls there being actively rebuilt during our visit.  The 3rd Enclosure, going from bottom to top, is most likely where ceremonies and rituals took place.  Moving up the large wooden staircase to the 2nd Enclosure, visitors find the foundation of a massive pillared building as grand and on par with Shurijo stood here, based on fragments of expensive Chinese and Korean pottery and colorful architectural decorations.  This level served as the core of the castle where the Lord and his Lady resided, and, in effect, served as the public “government” offices for the region.  Moving up some stone stairs to the uppermost 1st Enclosure, one finds the best views and smallest space, used for the safe repository of valuables according to most speculation.

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137516676_UcxJqCRkThe journey to the ruin’s highest level can be completed (mostly) via the modern, handsome and sturdy wooden staircase, but you may also elect the more authentic and exciting journey up the crumbly rock ramp that is immediately adjacent. Be forewarned though, this is not the day to be wearing your laid-pack island-time flip-flops; sturdy shoes for this adventure are a must.  The limestone is jagged and especially slippery when wet.

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

IMG_6741_jpgAs a religious site, Katsuren is still very active.  Numerous gods were worshipped in ancient Okinawa, believed to protect the island and the Okinawans in daily life, and many of those are still worshiped today.  Not surprisingly, there are a few altars at Katsuren, which continue to protect the castle and region.  Interestingly, the castle’s kitchen also is the site of the Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire.  The grounds also hold an entrance to a cave called Ushinujigama (”gama” means cave), which was most likely used as a refuge during war and natural disasters.  Finally, the Tamanomiuji-utaki stone at Katsuren Castle serves as a sacred shrine.  This stone remains an active place of worship, and is believed to connect underground to Ushinujigama, connecting two sacred sites together.

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Katsuren Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.  It was also declared a Designated Historical Monument (史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972.

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Although the wrong wife can lead to the ruin of her husband, hopefully you can visit Katsuren with a mate more well-suited.  And maybe, just maybe she won’t have a power-hungry father with an army at his disposal.  More likely the long journey involving a couple of U-turns, poorly functioning air conditioning and perhaps and a man who won’t ask (or take) directions will be the origin of any relationship rift(s).  Don’t be in a rush to physically get there, even though you have must visit this fascinating site.  The drive there can be frustratingly slow.  Nevertheless, it can be made a scenic and relaxing ride.  So adjust your clocks to Island Time, and take in some of the more rural areas of Okinawan on your way.

I have a good one.  Spouse, I mean.

I have a good one. Spouse, I mean.

But just keep one eye on that spouse of yours…. You never know what schemes may be hatched with the rich Ryukyu Kingdom history and colorful intrigue as their guide!

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting "Nightmare Castle!"

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting “Nightmare Castle!”

 

 

Katsuren Castle

Open: Closed Mondays and December 29th – January 3rd.

Address: 3908, Haebaru, Katsuren, Uruma-City, Okinawa Prefecture, 904-2311

Entrance Fee: Free

Phone: 098-978-2201

Directions: Exit the Okinawa Expressway at Okinawa Minami and make a left onto Highway 23.  At the Ikento intersection turn right onto Route 16.  Follow the road straight for several kilometers (be patient – it takes longer than you think or want!) until the roads starts uphill as it gently curves left ninety degrees.  Just after the road curves, you’ll find a sign pointing to the Katsuren Castle ruins on the right, with the museum and parking area on the left.

Map: www.jcastle.info/castle/zoom/110

See my complete set of photos in my Flickr stream here:  Katsuren Castle

Hidden Harvest Moon: Rain & the Shurijo Castle Autumn Celebration


Manga Moon

Manga Moon

“But even when the moon looks like it’s waning…it’s actually never changing shape. Don’t ever forget that.” ~Ai Yazawa, Japanese manga author

“I would believe only in a God that knows how to Dance.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Far Eastern Spectators

Far Eastern Spectators

Held annually on or about August 15 of the lunar calendar under the Harvest Moon (roughly coinciding with the fall equinox), the Mid-Autumn Celebration reproduces the Mid-Autumn Banquet Celebration, one of seven Sappou Shichien Celebrations once held during the historical Ryukyu Kingdom era which served to entertain and celebrate Sappoushi envoys from China.

More Modern Envoys...of a sort.

More Modern Envoys…of a sort.

Jody and I decided to attend this year’s festivities.  Up to this point, we have been rather overwhelmed with moving and settling on the island, trying to get by with what little we have (still no household goods!!), and with Jody trying to acclimate to her job at the Navy hospital.  However, we had been watching the moon’s slow and steady progression each night towards full glory, and concluded that the spectacle of the historical Shuri Castle, dressed and immersed in traditional Okinawan pageantry, under the harvest full moon during our 2nd wedding anniversary weekend was something we probably shouldn’t miss.  We were even surprised to find out that the admission was free, even though the event takes place in the castle’s central Una forecourt, normally requiring payment to enter.

Far Eastern Myth:  Rabbit in the Moon making Rice Cakes

Far Eastern Myth: Rabbit in the Moon making Rice Cakes

Ukanshin odori (“classic dances”) and Kumi Odori (組踊, Okinawan: Kumi wudui, “ensemble dance”) are performed under the harvest moon, and are a form of narrative traditional Ryukyuan dance.  Originating in the Okinawan capital of Shuri in 1719, the dances are founded on amusement and diversion for Chinese diplomats and envoys that traveled frequently between China and Okinawa at the time.  Tamagusuku Chokun, a Ryūkyū courtier (1684–1734), is credited with the establishment of kumi odori as a frequently presented court demonstration.  An amalgamation of several different types of East Asian dance, the kumi odori has continued to hold important cultural significant in Okinawan society, and remains today a prime example of native art sustained by and through the people of Okinawa.

Jody at the Shuremon Gate

Jody at the Shuremon Gate

Costumes & Pageantry

Costumes & Pageantry

The weekend festivities promised to bring the historical Ryukyu court to life.  Four show sets were programmed to take place Saturday evening between 6:30 and 9:00, each lasting about 45 minutes.  We arrived in plenty of time, and since this was Jody’s first visit to Shuri, we took our time wandering through and up the meandering path to the castle, passing through various ornamented gates and past massive coral blocked walls.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was not cooperating; rain was in the forecast, and overcast conditions prevailed.  The luminous moon was nowhere in sight, especially when our travel-sized umbrellas had to be deployed.

Castle Gate

Castle Gate

The Kingdom of the Ryukyus reigned over Japan’s southwestern islands for approximately 450 years from 1429 to 1879, although political collusion in these islands began to appear earlier in the 12th century, a period corresponding to Japan’s Kamakura era.  Through repeated fighting and reconciliation, local warlords known as aji were gradually reduced in number as power was consolidated by a few.  Finally in 1429, Sho Hashi defeated the major ajis to establish a unified nation, marking the birth of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus and the Sho Dynasty.

A Chinese Shishi Lion

A Chinese Shishi Lion

In the following years, the Ryukyus gradually evolved.  Through robust trade and growing diplomatic ties with China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, the Ryukyus developed as an ocean-faring nation, with Shurijo Castle as its political, economic and cultural center.

Far Eastern Décor

Far Eastern Décor

During this festival, when twilight has passed, the visual effects of Shurijo Castle Park are spectacular, with visitors able to appreciate the grandeur of the illuminated Seiden State Hall from the adjacent festival location in the hall’s Una Forecourt.  The view from the Western Observatory provides a spectacular and breathtaking evening view of Naha City’s lights from far in the south up the coast to even Cape Zanpa, who’s lighthouse beacon was clearly visible.

View of Naha from Shurijo's Viewpoint

View of Naha from Shurijo’s Viewpoint

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, our view of the stage, mid-Autumn FestivalAs we formally entered the Castle’s inner grounds, we noticed three lines of people just outside the forecourt, one for each of the gated entrances found there.  Noticing that the lines to the right (far side) were shorter, I elected the middle line, not really knowing what to expect.  For those planning to go, get there early and get into the line to the far left; this line provides easiest access to seating on the left side of the stage, where the dancers and musical performers can best be viewed.  The musicians are seated on the right of the stage (as viewed from the audience), facing left, which can obscure the theatrics for some of those seated on the right.

Our View from Stage Left

Our View from Stage Left

Costumed Guard

Costumed Guard

In 1469, some 40 years after the Sho Dynasty assumed power, a coup occurred, resulting in the 2nd Sho Dynasty.  In 1609, the Satsuma Clan of Japan invaded the Ryukyus with a force of 3,000 men and seized Shurijo Castle.  For the following 270 years, the Kingdom of the Ryukyus maintained a nominally tributary relationship with China, historically their main ally and trading partner, while in reality it was controlled by Japan via the Tokugawa Shogunate.  Finally, in 1879, the return to Japanese imperial rule with the Meiji Restoration resulted in the dispatch of troops to oust the Ryukyu King from Shurijo Castle and place Okinawa formally under the Japanese Emperor, officially establishing Okinawa Prefecture and ending forever the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, male performer of the Kajadihu dance, mid-Autumn Festival

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, the beautiful pair from the Shundo dance, mid-Autumn FestivalJody and I were able to attend the first three portions of the program, and unfortunately missed the most impressive dances that occurred later in the evening.  Not wanting to drive (and most likely get lost), pay the tolls (about $6 each way), and mess with parking downtown (quite expensive at the castle), we elected to take a military tour.  And although the provided bus was very nice and the driver excellent, the cost was probably higher than providing our own transportation, and oddly enough, the time of the tour did not coincide with the timing of the programmed events…thanks to the 10pm curfew imposed by the military on its junior personnel.  That combined with rain delays that caused the celebration to being twenty minutes late, resulted in our rather early departure.

Traditional Okinawan Music

Traditional Okinawan Music

Castle Grandeur

Castle Grandeur

Not really knowing what to expect, but having seen other forms of traditional Asian and Asian Pacific Islander dance across the Pacific Rim and within Asia proper, I was somewhat surprised at these particular performances.  The level of pageantry was not as I would have expected or desired (stage decoration, better sound, larger ensembles, period costumed staff), and the dances, while fascinating to watch and experience first-hand in such a powerful and historical location, are almost devoid of emotion and energy…at least by western standards.  Luckily, we had a guide, provided free at the venue, which helped explain what we were seeing and hearing.

Kajadihu Traditional Opening

Kajadihu Traditional Opening

First was Kajadihu, an “auspicious dance customarily performed as the first in programs presented on festive occasions.”  It is said to be the most preferred and popular of all the classical Ryukyuan dances.  It seems to portray a very old Okinawan couple, who moved very slowly, methodically, and nearly in unison, each with a decorated Japanese fan as a hand prop.

Amaka Dance

Amaka Dance

Another dance performed was Amaka, a dance presented along with a song about a married couple vowing their eternal love, although oddly enough, the dance calls for only a solo woman to perform.  This is a type of teodori, a dance emphasizing hand movements without props.  In this song and dance, the loving couple is compared to Mandarin ducks, regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity, playing together on a river called Amakawa.

Okinawa Sep 2013, Shuri Castle, performers from the Kajadihu open, mid-autumn festival

Shundo's "Ugly" Pairing

Shundo’s “Ugly” Pairing

Our favorite performance piece of the evening by far was Shundo, which involves two pairs of women artists, a beautiful pairing alongside an “ugly” one!  This is considered a “pair dance” and is the only piece in the Ryukyu classical dances that use masks – to make the ugly pair appear “ugly” – as props.  Although expressed in a humorous way, the melancholy and clunkiness of the ill-favored women runs throughout the work, contrasting with the gracefulness of the admired beauties.

Shundo's More Appealing Pair

Shundo’s More Appealing Pair

Next year we will be much better prepared, logistically and with our own expectations.  And we will hope for clear skies and a bright moon, whose beaming light would clearly make this a more spectacular evening for all to harvest.

Staged Performances

Staged Performances

p07_photo01Left:  Enormous moon sets the scene for “Jade Rabbit—Sun Wukong” from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. The giant disk, which became an expressive device in much Japanese painting, is a prominent element here. This image is from the allegorical Chinese novel, Journey to the West (Xi You Ji), in which the immortal monkey, Sun Wukong, transforms into a rabbit to fulfill his quest; the monkey taunts the rabbit in the moon.