I was surprised by the size of the city, because I expected something smaller, the size of a town or so, but Himeji is a metropolis with more than 500.000 inhabitants.
I originally planned to use my tent here, but since I didn't expect such a large city, I was surprised by the size of the urban area. In fact I walked with my heavy luggage for 2-3 hours out of the city, until I gave up trying to find a place to camp...
Himeji is a thriving town which lured many rich people into its city borders. The prices of accommodations are accordingly. Also there are no Youth Hostels or something similar, so it is really hard to find something cheap to sleep. For me I eventually decided not to sleep in Himeji but see how far the trains would take me this day...
Anyway Himeji is famous for its really wonderful castle, but that's basically it. There are some nice gardens around and you can climb on of the surrounding hills to get a nice view on the castle from afar, but apart from that there is nothing much to do in this town.
One thing I found quite nice is the huge road leading from the station directly to castle has many interesting statues on the sides.
I was finally able to see the much spoken about Himeji Castle and I guess I can say it stands up to its fame. It is a marvelous structure which succeeded in combining the height of art, beauty and architecture with practical usage and impossibility to take the castle by force.
One incredible aspect of the castle are its four sides. Depending on the direction you are looking on the castle it changes its shape and looks completely different. This almost magical achievement makes it impossible for an enemy to plan a proper attack, since he can not guess how the castle actually looks like.
But the magic does not cease here. When you enter and follow the huge road the seems to lead to the castle, you suddenly realize that it does not lead to the castle, although it looked like that when entering the huge gate. Instead it leads to many well armored gates and walls, which enable the defenders to take out almost any size of army.
after you enter you will be tempted to follow the straight road leading directly to the castle... or is it?
The true way to the castle is not obvious too find, and people who doesn't know that way won't find it. I have seen a documentary about the genius in Himeji's architecture, so I was able to find it. But it is like an optical illusion, you won't find it, if you don't know where to look.
on your right, you might spot this hole in the ground
a closer look reveals, that this hole hosts in fact stairs
leading to the real entrance of the castle
The inside of the castle is less ornamented and more practical, as it was common in Japan. So the interior is quite simple, but still bear some aesthetic in simplicity, I think. Also notice that the inside, the castle top, is completely made out of wood.
The castle itself bear more magic. It seems to have 5 levels but inside you are surprised to find more than that, including hidden floors and strategic floors, which allow to defend the castle from the outside as well as the inside.
During the construction of the castle also a lot of stories have gathered.
One of the problems for the constructors was to get stone for the castle, and it needed a lot. So they ran out of stone very quickly. At some point an old woman donated her only mill stone for the castle, which please the lord very much. Following her example many people including temples and shrines donated stone to the lord. That is why if you look carefully within culprits the castle's foundations and walls, you will be able to find many strangely shaped stones, like mill stones or temple stone lanterns.
Another story is about a female servant who overheard the plotting against the lord of two court people. She told the lord about it and the plot failed. As a revenge the two culprits charged her with theft and threw her into a castle well. From that point on people said to have heard her voice at night coming from the bottom of the well. Eventually the two plotters were convicted and the lord decided to enshrine the soul of the courageous servant. From that point on, no more voices could be heard at night.
Himeji Castle was not built at once but in fact in 8 steps under 8 different lords of 7 different clans. Every lord would improve the castle or fortifications a little more and add his own touch to it. Some were more talented and some less. One very artistic lord Sakai added a lot to the aesthetic of the castle and painted a lot of pictures, which can still be seen inside.
As is Japanese custom the lord making upgrades or repairs to the castle would use his clan emblem in every roof tile. Therefore keep your eyes open, when you walk around, depending on the emblem on the tile, you can tile which lord built this part of the castle.
The castle was build on a hill, where there was a prior Shinto shrine. After the first castle has been built, people started to get afraid, because they demolished a sacred shrine and superstition grew among the people. So it was decided that the topmost floor of the castle should contain the ancient shrine and be used as such by Shinto priests. This calmed the superstitious people down.
As if not strong and fortified enough, Himeji Castle also has a large ditch, that makes it impossible for people to access the castle without the bridge.
The lords family lived within the castle,the nobles within the inner wall and samurai and rich merchants within the outer wall. The rest lived outside the walls.
the three city walls of Himeji Fortress
the castle alone is huge
The castle always hosted a large amount of weapons including swords, spear and fire arms, as well as armor. Luckily they were never used, as the castle was never involved in the atrocities of war.
After visiting the castle, I strove along the nice garden next to it. It is a nice place to recover from what you have just seen and learned and meditate a little about it.
Alas the garden closes together with the castle at 5:30 pm, so that I could not sleep there. As I wrote above I tried for many hours to find a suitable place, until I eventually gave up, took a bus back to the station, entered a train west wards and saw how far it would take me this night.