Kyou wa, Peter-san wa Doko?

Where's Peter Today?

13th Oct 2004: Day 7-- Himeji Castle

Leaving Kyoto to continue our journey onwards to Kurashiki, we decided to stop at the little town of Himeji, just to the west of Osaka. A short walk up the road from the railway station, you can see the imposing outline of Himeji Castle, one of Japan's best preserved castles.

In the grounds of the castle is a zoo and a big grass square. A permanent fixture at the foot of the square is a tiered stand for school trips to line up on and have their photo taken. At the base of the castle a group were preparing for a bonsai tree festival.

When we bought our tickets for the castle, the woman in the kiosk beckoned over to an old man standing nearby and he came over. Mr. Yoshida introduced himself and said that he'd be our guide to the castle. He spoke impeccable English and wore a badge explaining that he was a volunteer guide.

Himeji Castle is one of the most ingenious that I have ever visited. Most castles in England are fairly obvious affairs, with big battlements and gates to hold a frontal assault at bay. They are solid-looking and imposing. Himeji Castle by contrast looks delicate and beautiful but hidden within are numerous design features that are aimed at fooling any would-be assailant. Some were very subtle devices such as sets of stairs that are uneven in pace and height so that advancing soldiers are forced to run up them whilst looking at the steps rather than their enemy. Another ploy was to deliberately draw soldiers into areas where the passageway becomes compartmentalised and progressively narrower so that men become trapped and squashed and then a small defending force can fight the attackers one at a time. Another particularly ingenious trap was a outside path that is concealed by having corners of very similar rock facing but with a false path that looks more obvious. The pathway is lined with slots for firing arrows through and leads to a dead-end. So the hapless attackers run down the false path and are rained upon by archers only to discover that it is a dead end and they must then go back and run the gauntlet again!

The inside of the castle itself was no less ingenious in design with passageways designed to slow and contain an invading force and various escape routes designed to allow the non-combatants to flee to safety without having to traverse the main corridors. At the top of the castle was a lavishly decorated room, now a shrine, but previously the last hold-out for the Shogun, who if all else failed and the battle was lost, would prepare to commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment) before the enemy could get to him first. 

Happily, Himeji Castle has never been sacked and nobody has ever had to use the top room for it's intended purpose so it was turned into a shrine instead. Mr. Yoshida showed us the proper way to make a prayer and we offered our respects.

One thing that became quickly apparent about the castle was that they were very paranoid about fires. The almost completely wooden construction (apart from it's sloping stone base walls) meant that fires, accidental or otherwise, were a real danger to the whole building. Measures designed to avoid fires were evident throughout the place. These included making sure there were no shrubs or trees planted next to walls and even selecting the trees that did surround the castle to be the type that would burn out quickly and then stop. Some measures were less successful… The bronze fish mounted on the roof corners were designed to ward off evil spirits and fire but unfortunately have a tendency to attract lightning! Now the fish have lightning conductors attached to reduce this risk!

Mr. Yoshida confided in us that for many years he was an international businessman but when he retired, he decided to come back to his home-town of Himeji. As he'd grown up going to the school next to the castle, he thought that one way he could return something to his community was to volunteer as a guide to show English-speaking tourists the wonders of this fabulous historic treasure. He really did know the place inside-out and if you ever get the chance to visit the castle, it's well worth seeking him out.

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Prepare For Take-Off

Day 1 -- Tokyo

Day 2 -- Mikawa-Anjo

Day 3 -- Nagoya

Day 4 -- Suzuka F1

Day 5 -- Kyoto

Day 6 -- Kyoto

Day 7-- Himeji Castle

Day 8 -- Kurashiki

Day 9 -- Hiroshima

Day 10 -- Nagasaki

Day 11 -- Nagasaki

Day 12 -- Kagoshima

Day 13 -- Kagoshima

Day 14 -- Tokyo

Day 15 -- Tokyo

Day 16 -- Tokyo

Homeward Bound

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