Saturday, July 11, 2009

Japan: Himeji

Since I was staying in Japan with my friend Lexi, who has been teaching English there for the last 11 months, one of the best parts of the trip was getting a more "insidery" view of Japan than a typical tourist might experience. For instance, Lexi showed me her favorite hidden-away antique shop, and I got to visit the school where she teaches. But I also did some straight-up touristy things, and of those, my favorite was the visit I paid to Himeji Castle.

Himeji Castle is the best-preserved castle in all of Japan; it was built in 1601. Unlike Western castles, Japanese castles are mainly constructed of wood and plaster. That's what makes it so amazing that Himeji Castle has stood for 400 years without being destroyed or burning down. To put things in perspective, Himeji was built at the same time as the Globe Theatre! And the Globe didn't even survive for 50 years--it burned down, was rebuilt, then finally destroyed when the Puritans came to power. People are obviously terrified that Himeji Castle could still catch fire, so there are fire extinguishers in nearly every room.

You have to take off your shoes when touring Himeji Castle and it was wonderful to be able to walk barefoot on those old wooden floors. Not knowing much about Japanese history, I was relatively unmoved by the artifacts assembled in some of the castle's rooms--documents relating to the aristocratic family that used to live in the castle, mainly. But I loved feeling history beneath my very feet.

Here are a few pictures that I took:

From a far distance as you approach the castle. There is a large network of walls, defensive fortifications, etc., surrounding the main castle building... and the city of Himeji at the base of the castle used to be entirely geared toward providing for the building's noble residents. Now, of course, it looks like any modern Japanese city. I tried to frame this image the way I envisioned a ukiyo-e printmaker would. How do you think it turned out?

A closer view of the castle. One Japanese name for it translates to "White Egret Castle" because of its swoopy, wing-like appearance.

The view out the window of the uppermost floor of the castle. I am not sure of the reason for these fish sculptures being placed on the roofline, but I found them very charming--the Japanese version of gargoyles? The roof tiles are also elaborately crafted, decorated with the emblems of several of the noble families who lived in the castle.

I was really amazed that we visitors could go all the way to the top of the castle and look out these uppermost windows. In most historic buildings in Europe and America, there are rooms that are blocked off--but you can see every bit of Himeji Castle. I should note that although this is the most-visited castle in Japan, it is still nowhere near as crowded or touristy as Versailles or the Vatican. You have the freedom to roam around a bit and take things at your own pace, rather than being pushed along by the crowd behind you. Also, very few of the visitors are Westerners, which again makes this feel less touristy than you might imagine.

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