Japan’s most photographed castle. We certainly lived up to the statistics.
We wanted to go to Himeji Castle on both of our previous ventures but the entire castle was under renovation in both 2011 and 2013. Most of the work had been completed by 2014 and all of the scaffolding surrounding the castle had been taken down, so even though the main keep was still going to be off-limits, we made it a point to visit Himeji this time.
Stepping off the train and into the cool November air, I think we expected something akin to Osaka but found something far more old-world. Himeji had all the trappings of a sleepy seaside city like Hiroshima. The sky was a bit overcast as we walked a mile or so from the station to the castle, down a beautiful boulevard lined by statues.
She explained that she was a volunteer tour guide who needed to accrue hours taking individuals on tours of the castle before she could be promoted to guiding groups. There are a few organizations who perform tours like this, but I’m guessing she was with the Volunteer Guide Association of Himeji Castle. Having to accrue hours for the privilege of volunteering for more demanding work seems like something we’d come to expect of Japan. She wanted to know if we minded her leading us around on a guided tour that should take around an hour and a half.
We looked at each other…we hate guided tours, but her sense of enthusiasm won us over. We weren’t sure how long we were planning to spend at Himeji Castle– an hour and a half-long guided tour seemed excessive, so we told her we accepted though we were in a bit of a hurry. Elated, she said she would try to keep to our schedule and with the way she beamed at her fellow volunteer guide awaiting his own tourists to snag, she seemed genuinely honored that we accepted her offer. We immediately felt bad about pressuring her for time.
We never got her name, but “Mae” rings a few bells.
Thus began our personalized guided tour of the entirety of Himeji Castle.
She was constantly cognizant of the time and kept worrying that she was taking too long, so we reassured her that we were enjoying the tour (and we were!) and that we would stay as long as it took to see the rest of it. We did our best to relieve her of the burden of trying to meet our initial deadline, by now feeling really guilty about pressuring her in the first place.
Mae gave us a general sense of direction and we decided how long we wanted to spend at each exhibit rather than the other way around. She followed us around like a doting mother, giving us small facts about some exhibits and entire backstories about others as warranted.
In one of the courtyards a ninja made the rounds, posing with children for pictures every so often.
Much of the tour focused on the life and trials of Sen-hime (Princess Sen), the grand-daughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Forced into a strategic marriage with the Toyotomi clan of Osaka at the age of 7, her husband (Toyotomi Hideyori) later found himself at war with her grandfather during the Summer War (Sekigahara). Ieyasu’s ambitions of Japanese unification were stronger than his desire to spare Sen’s husband or his family. Sen-hime fled Osaka as Hideyori and his mother committed suicide, their clan falling around them.
Princess Sen lived to the age of 70.
There was a small exhibit where you could learn about the physics behind the high, sloped stone walls that comprise the base of Himeji Castle. The walls were designed as such so that invaders below could not get a good look at what might lie in wait above. A second exhibit demonstrated the Japanese method of connecting interlocking beams of wood without using nails (basically locking them together in a complicated puzzle mechanism), and a third allows visitors to make etchings of two of the major family crests. We made some. Mine were terrible.
The castle roofs are adorned with the various crests (mon) of the multiple ruling families who had inhabited and expanded the castle. One such crest (not pictured here) incorporated the insignia of the Christian cross, as the leader of that clan had converted to Christianity.
One of the neatest things about Himeji Castle was that this was probably the first place we’d been to where you can actually go inside the baileys and wander those old, Japanese-looking hallways you see in movies where ninjas and samurai and Wolverine end up duking it out and destroying endless vases and tatami walls.
Shoes must be removed before entering this part of the complex. They provide you with some slippers but they were very uncomfortable, and then I got stuck carrying them. Ditch the shoes and walk in your socks.
The interiors of Himeji Castle are deliberately twisty and confusing as a defense mechanism; anybody unfamiliar with the layout would be lost easily. Himeji Castle is a historical testament to the concept of tower defense– its entire structure is that of a spiral, to force invaders to take the longest path humanly possible and allow defenders to reduce or eliminate their numbers before they reach the goal.
One funny note– the western bailey had dual purpose. It served as a reinforcement for the weakest point in the perimeter of Himeji Castle (of the three concentric circles that comprised Himeji’s perimeter, all three circles shared what amounts to a tangent at this point). The western bailey also served as housing for women. All throughout the corridors, one could find holes in the walls to shoot through as well as trap doors (ishiotoshi) for dumping rocks or boiling water down on invaders below. The cutouts are visible in this photo of the outside of one of the reinforced gates.
The womens’ quarters started out very, very small. As we made our way through the bailey towards Sen-hime’s personal turret, the rooms gradually became larger and larger to befit the occupant’s relation to Sen-hime. Her personal servants resided closest to her, so they received the benefit of a larger room. Anybody else at the far end of the bailey just got a tiny closet.
Holes for firearms (sama) also lined the walls on the outside of the castle as well. This made sense, but I noticed they were all different shapes– some were rectangular, some were triangular, some were circles. I asked Mae about it; she said this was to accommodate the variety of firearms to be deployed against invaders. The rectangular holes were for archers, triangular for matchlock rifles, and (speculating) circles were for observation or cannons.
Himeji was never actually used for defense in any military conflict and has withstood fire, earthquake, and repeated bombings by Americans. Some damage occurred during World War II. As you approach the western bailey, you can still see the unassuming hooks in the walls from where Japanese forces strung up massive dark ghillie nets to obscure visibility of the castle grounds from the sky. I believe one of the exhibits inside also has old photographs of what the complex looked like while this was going on.
Mae led us to an exhibit near the keep where three generations of Shachihoko were on display. It was interesting to see the gradual change in design for the fish creature over the centuries. The latest iteration was definitely the most streamlined, and in the best condition.
It’s always amusing how the addition of a mustache to one’s appearance always makes them look so much more menacing. Many samurai helmets we’ve seen have push-broom mustaches and the wax figures of Japanese captors at Seodaemun prison all had mustaches. Lee Van Cleef’s mustache was iconic in his villainous Western roles, to the point where he served as inspiration for Liquid Ocelot in later versions of Japanese-produced Metal Gear Solid.
Okiku was said to have been a servant girl for one of the ruling families. Part of her job responsibility was to care for some golden plates held dear by the lord of the castle, whom she was secretly in love with. When she caught wind of a conspiracy to kill the lord, she informed him, but the conspirator turned his sights on her. He stole one of the plates so she would get blamed, then found himself as chief investigator. She was tortured and killed at his hand and dumped in the well.
Okiku’s ghost is said to have risen from the well every 2am and screaming the numbers of the golden plates she once cared for, to the point where the lord himself was eventually driven insane by the racket.
It’s always awkward fighting our instinct to want to reward exceptional service in Japan. Customer service at home is always underwhelming and demanding of reward for what barely constitutes a half-hearted effort. At the end of the tour, we knew better than to try to tip Mae and had no gifts to offer (doubtful she would have accepted one anyway) so we were relieved when she pulled out a notebook from her bag and asked us to leave feedback for her.
It was an easy way to provide validation in exchange for the service she provided. We left her a nice note, complimenting both her English and her thorough understanding of Himeji’s history. She really knew her stuff and we appreciated her enthusiasm and patience. I know there were quite a few jokes traded at my expense when I would hold up everything trying to recompose pictures.
In the end participating in a guided tour wasn’t so bad. The hour-and-a-half-long tour turned into three hours! Himeji Castle’s history is incredibly rich, and there are so many more stories to tell of the events that occurred within its walls than can possibly be conveyed on plaques alone. Mae was able to tell us many of the stories the signage didn’t.
Our day wasn’t over though– far from it.
We’d been to Osaka Castle twice and Himeji Castle once. Having Mae along for our tour of Himeji really made it a defining moment in our trip– by now we had become well accustomed to Japanese above-and-beyond service, but having Mae tag along with us for twice the length of a normal tour without any of us noticing exceeded even those expectations. We truly had a lot of fun.
Mae, wherever you are, we appreciate all you did for us. We wish you the best and hope you get your promotion!