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).

Xi’an’s Fortified City: Another Brick in the Wall


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“All alone, or in twos, The ones who really love you Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand And some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists Make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.” ~Pink Floyd, The Wall

“So is this fog, smog, or just outright pollution,” I asked our guide Jessie in Xi’an, China. “Yes,” he responded, smiling knowingly yet uncommitted.

The thick blanket of haze’s assault on our senses that windless morning initially obscured the majesty of Xian, as well as the sun. The pollution in urbanized China is at once offensive and inescapable. I will literally never complain about our Environmental Protection Agency ever again; clean air and water are worth the cost and bureaucratic oversight. It was that bad there….

China 2014, Xian, main gate of the old city wall illuminated at night WM

Although Xi’an is probably best known for the relatively recently discovered “Terracotta Army” on its outskirts, in my opinion it is the restored and refurbished ancient city wall and its surrounding City Park that are the premier attraction there.

China 2014, Xian, Jody riding the ancient city wall WM

China 2014,_2803China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall at night WMRiding on a modern mountain bike over cobblestone roadway that’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, thoughts of what the wall has withstood cycled through my mind: war, famine, disease, earthquakes, political upheaval and the very rise and fall of numerous dynasties. Yet today, when you examine the wall’s surrounds, you realize that on both sides – inside and out – lies urbanization not too different from any other city that you’d see in Europe or America. The hustle and bustle of a city full of cars and commerce, and throngs of people rushing about in the chaos of their day. Of lovers and tourists walking hand-in-hand and camera-in-hand. And of tall apartment towers and swank condo buildings, but also of quiet residential areas and timeless temples of ages old.

China 2014, Xian, panoramic city wall from one corner WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody poses in front of the city wall nightThe fortifications of Xi’an (西安城墙), an ancient capital of China, represent one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese city walls, and one of the only centuries-old, large-scale complete walls left in the world. Construction of the first city wall there began in 194 BCE, and enclosed a large area of roughly 14 square miles. Although parts of the wall today date back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, what we see today was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370, and encircles a much smaller city area of just over 5 square miles. The wall measures about 8.5 miles in total length, averages about 39 feet in height, and between 49-59 feet in thickness at its base. It remains one of the largest ancient military defenses in the world.

China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall illuminated WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the city wall WMEven after China’s capital was relocated, the city remained an important military stronghold until contemporary times. Just like the Great Wall attempting to encircle the entire country (see Heroes of the Great Wall for our adventures on that fortification), the Xi’an City Wall was originally built for defense, with watchtowers, a deep moat and drawbridges.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin exploring part of the massive old city wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in front of a wall watch towerChina 2014, Xian, flags decorating the old city wall WMEvery 120 meters or so there is a watchtower and rampart which extends out from the main wall, 98 in total. Each is designed with a sentry building to provide a sector defense from which soldiers could protect the city without exposing themselves to hostile forces. The distance between towers is critical; it is just about twice the distance of arrow flight back in the day of the wall, allowing soldiers from consecutive towers to completely cover the wall. On the outer side of the wall there are almost 6,000 crenellations, small holes from which troops could fire while remaining protected behind the cover of the wall. On the inner side, parapets provide fall protection. Corner ramparts and watch towers, higher and larger than the others, are located on each of the wall’s four corners due to their strategic importance in defending the salients of the fortification.

China 2014, Xian, Jody bikes the city wall early smoggy morning 2 WM

China 2014, Xian, Chinese latern on the old city wall WMWeapons 500 years ago lacked the power to break through such a wall. The only way to take such a fortified city was by attacking and entering through a wall gate. At Xian, the city wall includes four main gates: Changle (“eternal joy”) in the east, Anding (“harmony peace”) in the west, Yongning (“eternal peace”) in the south, and Anyuan (“forever harmony”) in the north.

China 2014, Xian, drawbridge illuminated at a city wall gate WM

China 2014, Xian, selfie in front of a city wall gateEach city gate has three gate towers called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outer most is Zhalou, used to raise and lower drawbridges that would span the moat. Jianlou is next and serves as a robust defensive outpost of the wall with many windows for firing arrows. Zhenglou is the inner and most massive tower, and serves as main entrances to the city at each gate.

China 2014, Xian, Jody at a city wall gate smiling

China 2014, Xian, beautiful Jody at a city wall gate smilingChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe south gate, Yongning, is the most beautifully finished and the site of important greeting ceremonies and other traditional pomp and circumstance. It was also the only gate used when armies returned victoriously from their expeditions afar. The South Gate Square was only recently improved and opened in the fall of 2014. Our hotel was located immediately adjacent to the gate’s square and City Park grounds, and we enjoyed beautiful evening views from our hotel bar on the 10th floor as the entire city wall is trimmed with gold lights and illuminated red Chinese lanterns in a perfect a mix of grandeur and elegance. There are regularly scheduled shows and performances held here, from warrior parades to orchestra recitals. Viewing of these performances is included in your ticket fee. We, unfortunately, didn’t have the time available to enjoy any of these short but powerful 10-15 minute acts.

China 2014, Xian, Chinese decorations along the city's ancient inner wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody and Kevin at an old city wall gate selfieChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe City Wall has been rebuilt three times: in 1568 with bricks, in 1781 with today’s gate towers, and restored more recently in the 1980s. The impressive City Wall Park has been built between the high wall and deep moat. Beautifully landscaped and well-appointed with classical Chinese architecture accents the majesty of the wall, a stroll through the park is a must, both in the day and at night. The park has become a favorite spot for locals, and we enjoyed seeing the elderly doing their traditional Chinese exercises and meditation early in the morning, and then groups of people spontaneously dancing in the evening in what can only be described as some sort of folk-based jazzercise! Couples here walk hand-in-hand, and street vendors sell snacks and sweets at night, while the area is bordered with high-end cafes, coffee shops and tea houses open during the day. This park is really a great place to see the nature of local life in today’s Xi’an.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated old city wall WM

One of the best ways to experience the wall is by bicycle. Bicycles can be found for rent at the main gates, and perhaps is the most popular way to take in the entire length of this fortification, which takes 1½ to 2 hours at a reasonable pace (we double such guidelines since we stop and take photos so often). A cash deposit is required to rent a bike, and rentals are for 100 minutes, although you can ride longer by paying more for each additional 10 minutes spent riding. Both single and tandem rides are available to rent. Bicycles should be returned at the South Gate before 20:00; the other gate rental sites close at 1800.

China 2014, Xian, early morning bikes on the old city wall WM

While you will be cycling on relatively flat ground, as a centuries-old structure built without the assistance of modern equipment, the ride can get quite bumpy where the wall’s cobblestone surface is somewhat uneven. The wall also has a changing pitch depending on your location, although this is hardly noticeable. If you do have issues providing your own power or have small children in tow, wall sightseeing is also available by electric golf cart.

China 2014, Xian, early morning stroll along the old city walls WM

The Wall can be ascended from any of the gates, and once on the wall you can tour the whole rectangle it forms. Here is a hiking itinerary around the wall starting from the South Gate as a basic reference.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated city park along the old city wall WM

After visiting the wall by day and at night, and while enjoying an almost private bicycle ride with Jody along its wide elevated avenue, I was struck by how this fortification, designed and built as a physical barrier to obstruct those wishing the city harm, now serves as a symbolic connection between not just China’s past and present, but between the historically isolated China and the outside world.

China 2014, Xian, city wall gate at night WM

While this blog’s opening lyrics by Pink Floyd concern more personal struggles with intangible metaphorical walls, the moral of their rock-opera no less applies: though there will always be personal and social barriers erected out of fear, oppression, pain, and isolation, it’s the job of every socially conscious individual and community to never rest in their efforts to tear down the walls that separate us.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in the city's wall park

Visit the City Wall at Xi’an. Although still a physically imposing barricade, you’ll find that it now does more to bind us together…than split us apart as it historically has done.