On our way out of Kyoto we took up the opportunity to a stop off at a gorgeous hill-top castle in Himeiji (called Himeiji Castle). This castle is well known for the fact that it has never in it’s history been laid siege to and taken over, despite the fact that it was established way back in 1346. But this is probably because it has pretty damn formidable defences specifically designed to utilise the progress of weaponry power that took place in Japan around the time – namely the development of automatic guns. Which means that while earlier castles relied on a succession of moats and stone walls to keep out intruders, Himeiji, well ahead of the rest, developed gun-holes and protected lookouts that allowed defenders to pick off intruders one by one with modern technique.
But the castle, besides it’s brilliant protection mechanisms, was also generally beautiful. It had the extensive gardens and excessive number of rooms that you would expect of any modern day European castle – with room chambers that would have easily been considered luxurious in comparison to the everyday housing of the Edo period that we saw in the Museum of Housing and Living in Osaka.. But despite this, somehow, the castle in it’s entirety managed to retain that lovely Japanese simplicity. With it’s exposed wooden floor boards, plain white walls, a general lack of plumbing and electric work and long empty hallways. Although, to be fair, I imagine that the whole place would once have been much more lavishly decorated and fabulously furnished than was left for us to see. And had there been a royal family residing there today I am sure that so much space would not have been left so bare. In fact it was really a bit of a shame to find that even the most basic of traditional Japanese furnishings had been removed from not just a few, but actually all but one of the castles rooms.. so that although we could move more or less freely throughout the premises, I guess we didn’t really get a true insight as to how the wealthy lived here.. And it also meant that much of that magic, dollhouse-like quality that I would usually associate with royal residences was lost. Which was perhaps the real tragedy.
But, as a whole, Himeiji was none the less no disappointment and to see the labyrinth of gates and walls and the sheer size of the grounds was worth the stop alone. Plus, beneath a clear, blue sky day the castle shone like new on its hill-top perch, giving off an air of success and wealth which was rather astounding. And to accompany the majestic grounds was the tragic fairytale story of a princess Sen – a war widow twice over, who lost one of her children at a young age to illness, and eventually retired to monk-hood to see out the end of a life that had been full of despair in solemn prayer.. And alongside her tale was the rest of the castle’s history of residents too – making it very easy to lose a few hours here (which was a pleasant surprise to find, because in my travels throughout Asia thus far I have often found that English explanations lack at such touristic spots).
But we had another destination to reach before the day’s end, so we had to move on. Although, despite this, on our way out of the city we found an awesome outdoor food market that we had to stop at for a hour or two. So we nibbled at Naan bread and samosas and drank beer for a while, and watched the locals out enjoying the sunshine.
And then we re-boarded the Shinkansen and shot off towards Hiroshima.