Sunday, 21 August 2011

Preview: Himeji Castle

Anyone who has spent time in the backwaters of satellite television, when asked about Japanese castles will likely think of the same one: Takeshi's Castle. For the uninitiated, Takeshi's Castle was a Japanese gameshow in the late 80s, featuring a hundred volunteers undergoing a variety of challenges, with the select few survivors having the opportunity to defeat Count Takeshi and his guards and take his castle. In true modern Japanese style, the challenges were improbably ludicrous and vaguely humiliating, usually involving wearing large restrictive costumes, falling into pools of mud or water, getting manhandled by Takeshi's guards, and often taking what appeared to be very painful knocks upon dramatic failure of awkward and arbitrary challenges.

The central conceit of having to undergo a series of challenges to have the opportunity to storm a castle was not a notion plucked from the ether, and ties in with many of Japan's real castles of the past. Granted, warriors in the 15th Century didn't have to dress up as a whale and cycle round a twisty path while getting pelted with balls, but they did have to negotiate a deliberately confusing maze of pathways in the castle grounds, and each of the numerous gateways were intentionally built small so that attackers had to file in virtually one-by-one, therefore were easier to pick off. Some of the walls they passed were hollow and had samurai or ninjas hidden inside ready to pick them off - always a nasty surprise. Attacking a Japanese castle was like running a gauntlet of deadly obstacle courses - rather than the brute power of big stone buildings on top of a hill, as per the European style, the Japanese liked to get tricky with their castles when thinking of defensive strategies.

Still, for one reason or another, it wasn't enough for most Japanese castles over the centuries. Wars, heavy bombing during World War 2, politics, disrepair and a shift in priorities created various offensives that traditional defences couldn't repel, and of a total of around ten thousand castles that once stood, a paltry hundred or so remain now, and just twelve remain in their original condition. The largest and most famous of these is Himeji Castle.

Himeji Castle is notable not just for still existing, but also existing in its original form. Sure, it's had some refurbishment, as would be expected for a 400-year-old structure, but unlike all other comparable castles that remain in Japan, it's not a replica. The castle we see today is the castle that was built, if not in its first incarnation as a fort in 1333, then in its final remodelling around 1618. How important is age and originality? It's a topic I touched on in my entry on Kinkaku-ji, and is one that will preoccupy me throughout my travels. Because there is no answer. However, age does enhance the appreciation of a building: a pile of bricks five thousand years old is better than a pile just five days old. If you bought an antique vase just to discover it was only actually made a few years earlier, you would ask for your money back. The product might look the same but... it's different.

So for now I think we can assume that a castle that has survived the ravages of wars and politics upheaval is inherently more impressive than one that didn't but was rebuilt anyway with non-contemporary techniques and materials. But, you know, it doesn't really matter anyway, because Himeji Castle isn't some dreg left over in an empty pint of mighty castles, it's the delicious final taste that remains from a fine pint that has unfortunately been dropped and smashed on the ground. Or something like that.

Sitting on a hill smack bang in the middle of Himeji, a modern city of about half a million people, Himeji Castle is elegantly poised over its realm like... well, how about a white heron? Because that's how Himeji City is commonly known, as Hakuro-jo, or "White Heron Castle". I don't know if white herons spend much time looking over cities, or really what they look like beyond some eyes and a beak, but Himeji Castle is certainly very white. The name is said to be because the castle resembles a heron in flight, which to be honest I don't quite see, or perhaps is due to the large population of night herons that once lived in the area. As night herons are white, with the crown of the head being black, this would indeed bear some sort of similarity to the black-tiled roof of the white castle. More prosaically however, in Japan, castles are usually named after they city they are located in, hence Himeji Castle is in Himeji, with name Himeji itself relating to Mount Hime, on which the castle rests.

Comprising of 83 buildings, with the main keep six storeys and 46.4 metres high, the Himeji Castle we see now was a considerable remodelling of an existing castle, and was completed in 1609. It is built of wood, stone, plaster and tiles, with a little concrete to secure the base of the keep added during a 20th Century restoration. A remarkable fifty million man-days were required for the eight year construction, which would mean something in the region of twenty thousand workers would have been used, probably many more unless the same men worked daily for the entire time. Due to civil war in the 16th Century, stone was hard to come by and so some of the older parts of the castle were actually built partly from gravestones and stone coffins, emptied I would hope. The shining white plaster walls were intended to dazzle any approaching enemy, with the plaster being fireproof and deflective of arrows. The entire castle grounds were completed in 1618, and take up an area of 233 hectares, which as I like comparisons is the equivalent of about 9000 tennis courts, or 15 All-England Lawn Tennis Clubs at Wimbledon.

How much did all this cost then? How about yours for 23 yen?

That's about £1500 in today's money, and was the sale price for Himeji Castle in 1871 when put up for auction. In 1869, massive political upheaval in Japan saw a restoration to imperial power and the abolition of the feudal system, and this meant many castles were destroyed or abandoned. Himeji Castle was the latter, and its new owner, following the auction, didn't intend to live in it like a lord and surround himself with wenches, as I would, but planned to knock it down and develop the land. It's not unlike deciding to knock down Edinburgh Castle and build some flats. Fortunately, Himeji Castle proved too resilient and the owner decided it wasn't worth the effort. It was still under threat during the late 19th Century, as the government wanted it torn down, but an army colonel stepped in and successfully campaigned for it to be spared. A stone monument in honour of his intervention was built, and is on the castle ground today.

Currently undergoing further restoration for the next few years, Himeji Castle may have quite a lot of scaffolding around it when I visit - the white heron is on crutches. Hopefully the scaffolding won't hide all the beauty of the castle, for its graceful form and distinctive bright white make it a treasured piece of Japanese heritage, and it is renowned as an architectural masterpiece of its time.

I'll be visiting Himeji Castle in March and will give a fuller account of its history as well as my own impressions then.

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