Monday, 25 November 2013

Exploring Himeji Castle Undercover

While enjoying an overnight stay in Kobe, Jules and I finally decided to visit famed Himeji Castle. We had been meaning to explore this historic landmark for quite some time but with the castle currently going through a massive five-year restoration project and covered in scaffolding, we weren’t quite sure what we might actually see. I had seen the castle from a distance in all its glory just a few months after our arrival in Japan while passing through on the bullet train and in hindsight we probably should have visited then before the work had begun. Still, the opportunity to view one of the truly great historic buildings of Japan could not be missed and so on a delightfully sunny autumn day, we took a comfortable 40 minute local train ride from Kobe to Himeji to see it close up.

Also known as ‘The White Heron Castle’ because of its distinctive white walls and a roofline that resembles the spreading wings of the heron bird, Himeji Castle remains quite a remarkable example of fourteenth century architecture. Although the building has undergone a number of major restorations during its long life, it has successfully managed to survive wars, fires, bombing and earthquakes and unlike other castles in Japan, remains almost perfectly preserved. Not surprisingly, the castle was designated a national treasure in 1931 and granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993 (the first landmark in the country to do so). It remains the most visited castle in Japan and has provided the setting for a number of major movies including the James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice' (1967) and 'The Last Samurai' (2003).

As Jules and I exited the train station, we could see a huge box like structure on a nearby hill, which we knew was Himeji Castle because of the painted representation on the outside of the scaffolding cover. Memories of our visit to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany flashed back, where we were also prevented from viewing an historic castle due to renovations. As we got closer, the sheer scale of the restoration work became increasingly evident although what also became clear was that the scale of the grounds would still provide plenty for us to see. Also there was the added bonus of tourist numbers having been greatly reduced, which would make our tour around the castle far more leisurely than what would normally be the case.

As it turned out, our Japanese hosts had also made every effort to compensate for all of the restoration work by providing a very unique perspective on the castle exterior. They had sensibly installed a glass sided exterior elevator to take visitors to the top of the building from which you could descend by stairs while viewing architectural details at close quarters as the restoration was continuing. This allowed us to see the meticulous work that was proceeding by artisans who were using traditional building methods to repair plaster walls, woodwork and thousands of ancient roof tiles. While much of the exterior work appeared to be coming to an end, there would still be at least two more years of work to be done as attention now turned to the interior.

While Jules and I would have loved to have seen Himeji Castle without the encumbrance of scaffolding and coverings, we certainly did not leave disappointed. We had been provided with a unique close-up perspective of the exterior of the main building that others would not normally experience. The grounds were magnificent and we were able to venture inside several outer buildings to gain an insight into the lifestyle of those who lived there during ancient times. We admired the sheer scale of the stonework that had been pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, on top of which ancient builders had created one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. Likewise, we knew that with all of the work that is currently being undertaken, this piece of Japanese heritage would soon be uncovered to once again be admired by visitors for many centuries to come.

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