Himeji Castle, located in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, is situated on 45.6 meter high Mt. Hime, overlooking the Harima Plain. The main tower group, covered in white plaster, is said to resemble a white egret taking flight with its wings spread, hence Himeji Castle’s other name of Shirasagi-jo, or “White Egret Castle”. Of the 12 remaining original castles across Japan, Himeji has the most remaining structures. Of those, the main tenshu keep and ko-tenshu sub-keeps and were designated National Treasures in 1931, while another 74 buildings are registered as National Important Cultural Properties. Along with the Horyu-ji Temple, Himeji Castle was registered as Japan’s first World Heritage site in 1993.
A castle was first established on this site during the Nanboku-cho period. During the Sengoku period, Oda Nobunaga ordered his vassal, Toyotomi Hideyoshi to strengthen the castle with a three-story tenshu. In 1600, following the Battle of Sekigahara, Ikeda Terumasa (1565-1613) was awarded the castle, along with 520,000 koku income. Over the following eight years he built what we see as Himeji Castle now. Himeji was surrounded by three defensive moat systems, a soto-bori, outer moat, naka-bori, central moat and an uchi-bori, inner moat. JR Himeji Station is a kilometer from the current castle site, and is where the soto-bori, outer moat, and main castle gates once were. From this main gate, to the tenshu required the breaching of 19 of the castle’s 84 gates along a confusing maze-like layout. This outer moat had a circumference of 11.5 kilometers. The current remaining parts of Himeji castle are all contained within the inner moat from the uchi-kuruwa bailey on in.
Tokugawa Ieyasu had placed his trusted son-in-law, Ikeda Terumasa, in Himeji, and ordered the expansion and strengthening of the castle as part of his future plans in attacking Osaka Castle, where Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son and heir, Hideyori, was preparing for the inevitable battle for supreme control of the nation. Himeji was strengthened and enlarged to obstruct the many western-based Toyotomi loyalist who would be liable to send reinforcements to Osaka, hence it was to be an imposing and impressive castle.
Work on Himeji Castle’s symbolic white tower commenced in 1601, and was completed in 1609. It is the largest remaining Edo period built tower keep, standing 31.5 meters high, on top of a 14.8 meter high stone base. The entire complex covers 140 meters east to west, and 125m north to south. This main keep complex is configured in a box shape around a small central courtyard, with the main tower connected via watari-yagura, corridors to three smaller outer ko-tenshu sub-keeps. This complex consists of the dai-tenshu, or large tower keep, the nishi (western) ko-tenshu, inui (northwestern) ko-tenshu, and higashi (eastern) ko-tenshu. Approaching enemy can be observed from within the main keep, and attacked with matchlock guns via the downward facing geta-zama or “ishi-otoshi” hatches that protrude out over the stone walls.
The main tower contains seven floors inside, with only five visible from the outside. uppermost floor of the main tenshu incorporates shoin-zukuri architecture, a style favored by the samurai caste, indicating the formality of the structure.
As with most castles, and indeed with their weapons and armour, the samurai displayed a masterful amalgamation of military functionality with aesthetically appealing design that has remained most visible to this day in the iconic Himeji Castle.