Jan 4, 2007

In the White Heron Castle


Ok, this post is huge. If you tire of my boring and superfluous "words" you can just scroll to the bottom where there are lots of pretty pictures.

Himeji Castle is awesome. I'm just going to get that right out there. It's huge, for one thing, and the grounds are full of exactly what you'd expect from a Japanese castle- Various gravel paths dotted with spindly trees, moats and stone stairs, sloping walls and sloping roofs. It is, in short, the Platonic ideal of a Japanese castle.
I'd never been to a real castle before today (Okayama castle, having been reconstructed after WWII, does not count) so it was quite the thrill. I will admit that more than once I thought to myself "Wow, actual Samurai lived here! Woot!" Yeah, I'm a huge nerd.

I had this sort of pretentious romantic image of going to Himeji castle on New Year's Eve, wherein I would poetically and poignantly watch the sun set on 2006 from the storied ramparts of Japan's largest surviving castle.
This plan failed.
Everything was going very, very well on the morning of New Year's Eve- I got up a little earlier than normal, packed up my bag with my nalgene bottle, camera, and guidebook, and got ready to journey eastward via Japan's nice and efficient railways.
I chose a local train rather than an express, one that would gaurantee that I would have to get off at various intermediary stops. This, I thought, would be a great way to force myself to see some of the scenery and landscape here in the Chugoku region. This was actually a lot of fun. The local cars that I got on were hardly inhabited, and the rural Honshu landscape was crisp and visible under the bright winter sun. At one point, an obliging English-speaking stranger even helped me (totally unasked) with the schedule when he saw me looking at it like a confused duckling.
As I looked out the window on the train, I was quite surprised to see two things. The first was the sheer amount of hills and woodlands in the countryside. Whenever you see a map detailing world population density, Japan is always a deep red or purple, some color denoting that it is one of the densest places on earth people-wise. So, it was with a certain amount of dissonance that I looke out on the woodlands and hills, gazing at the all the trees. I do not say "surprise," because intellectually I knew that Japan had unpopulated areas, but definitely "dissonance." The second thing that I noticed was that there were a fair amount of rural towns that looked almost exactly like rural areas in the U.S. Certainly, the rice paddies and the Japanese style architechture was different, but I mean that they had the same sort of rural forgotten look that unpopulated American areas have. Fields full of sodden and broken things, rusting farm equipment and things that have passed from useful to trash via exposure to the elements. Despite years of recession, my image of Japan is still that of an economic powerhouse (and it still is, really- the economy has improved quite a bit of late) so passing what looked to be commonplace rural despondence struck another dissonant chord in me.
I got off the train in high spirits at Himeji. The castle is a straight shot from the station, with it and the station bookending the town's main road. There's something just downright tickling about seeing such an ancient building looming over a modern landscape. Ok, Europeans and Asians (who are actually used to such juxtaposition) probably don't think that there's anything unique about this, but as an American who comes from a town where things built in the 1800s are considered old, this was quite the thing.
I approached the castle, passing through it's immense outer wooden gates, crossed the park that stretched before it, and saw a nice little sign on the entrance that said:
"Himeji Castle
Closed Dec. 29-31"
When I mentioned this to Kori the Tomorrow Lady, she said that even ghosts need to have some time off. I suppose... stupid ghosts and their ghostly new year...

I was, obviously, able to eventually visit Himeji. I went out again today, and this time the castle was open.
When I got there, I saw my first ever Ugly Americans. All of the gaijin that I know in Okayama/Kurashiki are pretty polite, nifty folks who do their best to speak Japanese and make note of various cultural conventions, so I'd kind of forgot about what total dicks that Americans can be. I didn't have any 1000 yen notes on me, so I wasn't able to use the handy automatic ticket machines they had set up. I needed to go to a teller to make change, and wanted to ask if using my camera inside would be alright and if they had any English language info pamphlets.
So, I cracked open my phrasebook, thought about what I wanted to say, and asked for what I needed in Japanese. Yes, I could get change, use my camera, and they did indeed have an English info pamphlet. The lady was very helpful, and I think she got more than a little amusement from me stumbling through her language. Behind, a rather obnoxious couple leafed through the stack of Japanese info booklets and barked "You got English?"
Now, I suppose there are worse things that he could have said, but he said it in a fairly brusque manner, like he was annoyed that there weren't English pamphlets next to the Japanese ones. I noticed the lady just sort of thrust one in his direction, not really smiling so much. "Thanks," he said. I was a little put out by this. I mean, is a phrasebook really that hard to find? If you can afford a plane ticket across the Pacific, you can drop ten bucks for a phrasebook so you can ask for help in the local language. I was a little embarassed for them. I also got off on feeling rather holier-than-thou, as you can probably see.
Inside the castle's keep, I was further impressed with the sheer hugeness of the place. I walked around the various grounds and outer buildings for a good hour or so before I entered the main building. The main outer building was unfortunately unfurnished (those are the blank interior shots in the set below) but offered a good glimpse of what castle was like for the everyday folks who lived there. Various rooms were lined up, each of which would house about three or four soldiers, servants, or staff members. I couldn't help but think that it sort of resembled a college dorm, except with arrow slits and murder holes. Surprisingly, I found out that the castle had a medieval version of plumbing which included sinks and toilets, as well as a sort of makeshift sewage system. Nifty.
Inside the main building, there was an admonishment against camera use, so I don't have any pictures of the interior, unfortunately. The main castle's interior was set up like a museum, with several old wall hangings, weapons, official seals, and other such bits and pieces from the nobility set up in glass cases. I lingered as best I could at the exhibits, particularly at the exaples of calligraphy, none of which I could read, though I tried. I was surprised to see that they had a rack of firearms on display, as gunpowder weapons were banned for some time in Japan. But, in practice lots of people had them. The rifles were pretty sleek looking- each had a little cast-metal dragon as the striker, which was a nice flourish.
At the top of the castle was a small room, of which one function was that it was where the nobility would kill themselves in the evntuality that the castle was ever taken. But, Himeji never was. It even survived WWII with hardly any damage. In this room that was intended for desperate suicide, a small modern Shinto shrine was decorated with fruit and sake bottles for the new year. Various children took turns ringing the bell and running around, and several people (including myself) poked their cameras outside to capture the view.
As I was milling about in the uppermost room, I sort of wondered what Tokugawa Ieyasu would think of this. Sure, Tokugawa didn't build Himeji-Jo, but he was it's most famous resident. He wasn't a crazy guy, but he was fairly violent and ruthless- he famously ordered the capture and execution of every one of Osaka's defenders after that city fell. And, then he founded a government that was essentially a military dictatorship and pursued a policy of isolation and (attempted) autuarky for over a century.
So, I wondered what this soldier-executing, military-dictatorship-founding, isolation-pursuing guy would think if he knew that there were a bunch of happy, bell-ringing kids running around his special suicide room. Or if he knew there were a bunch of foreigners with cameras going "ooh" at his stuff. Or if he knew that UNESCO (another bunch of foreign barbarians) had declared his old place to be a "World Heritage Site." I think he'd probably be a bit put out, honestly, which amuses me for some reason.
I eventually went downstairs and did another walk around the castle grounds. I sat a while outside, and eventually made my way back to Himeji station. I went back to Okayama, exhausted.


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4 comments:

Colin said...

Beautiful picutres; beautiful writing.

--Colin

Joseph said...

:-( I'm looking forward to seeing the pictures when I'm out from behind the damned Sudanese firewall. I do love me my castles, though, so I'm quite excited to see what a Japanese castle looks like.

Your thoughts on Tokugawa reminded me a little bit about our trip to India a few years ago. All around the country are these fabulous palaces, built by the various rajas. With the coming of colonialism, though, and the waning of their power, the rajas couldn't really afford them any more. A lot of them are now luxury hotels. They're quite nice, although you gotta wonder how their ancestors would feel about things.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

nicely written, nice pics.

I love getting out of the city or the suburbs and seeing rural and cultural Japan. I don't know which impresses me more.

it sounds like a beautiful day trip. sorry the damn lazy ghosts wouldn't let you in on New Year's.

if you were a ghost in that castle you'd need time off to drink too, wouldn't you?

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