Himeji Castle (built 1601-09 onward)
The castle at Himeji is an iconic image of Japan and one of the finest examples of fortress architecture in the world. It stands at the center of Himeji city, a strategic point along the route to the western provinces of Honshu (the main island of Japan). The castle was built atop a natural 45-meter hill called Himeyama, and its main donjon (tower) rises an additional 31 meters. From afar, the graceful rooflines of its white towers resemble a flock of herons in flight, suggesting the castle's proper name"Egret Castle" (Shirasagi).
The site of Himeji Castle had been occupied by various fortresses for many centuries prior to 1581, when Hideyoshione of the three "unifiers" of Japanbuilt a three-story donjon there in 1581. When the Togukawa Shogunate rose to power in 1600 following the battle of Sekigahara, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu rewarded his son-in-law Ikeda Terumasa (1564-1613) with the fiefdom of Harima (modern-day Hyogo prefecture). With the Shogun's blessing, Ikeda began construction of the present castle in 1601 and completed the fortress in 1609, using materials from the older fortress of Hideyoshi as well as resources gathered from around his province. The construction was of such magnitude that the supply of good quality stones grew scarce, and Ikeda's engineers were forced to loot gravestones and even coffins to gather the necessary materials.
When it was completed in 1609, Himeji Castle was one of the most formidable fortresses in the world. The central Donjon rises six stories from a massive stone foundation and is connected by corridors to three smaller towers that enclose a heavily fortified courtyard. Guarding the approach to this central compound (Hommaru) are a number of twisting gates, walls, and subsidiary towers that posed a daunting obstacle to any would-be attackers. This inner compound (Ninnomaru) was further protected by a wide moat that enclosed the Sannomaru (outer compound), which was in turn circled by two larger moats that that protected parts of the city and the homes of high-ranking retainers that served Ikeda and his descendants.
Ironically, Himeji Castle was built at a time when endemic warfare in Japan was nearing an end. After the establishment of the Togukawa Shogunate in 1600, Japan entered a period of protracted internal peace. But in 1601, when the castle was begun, there was no guarantee that war woulad not resume, so the fortress incorporated the most up-to-date military technology of the period. Of central concern to the engineers was the need to protect from firearms, which had been introduced to Japan by Portugese explorers in 1543. The distinctively white exterior of Himeji Castle is the due to plaster that was used to make the walls more flame-retardant. To protect against musket ballswhich had a fairly limited range but were devastating from close-rangethe engineers built numerous switchback gates to prevent attackers from approaching the central compound. Unlike earlier castles, the walls and the gates incorporated a number of loopholes to allow the defenders to fire down at the attackers from a safe position.
Another far-reaching consequence of warfare in the 16th century was the rise of castle-towns. The need to command resources quickly from heavily-populated areas encouraged the daimyo (feudal lords) to move out of mountain fortresses and into "flatland castles" out on the plains. The need for "flatland castles" encouraged the development of better fortifications to keep attackers away from the central compounds where the lords resided.
With their tall donjons and urban locations, flatland castles were inherently more visible than their mountain predecessors. Accordingly, feudal lords spared little expense in making their castles as beautiful and liveable as possible. Himeiji Castle was given lavish ornamentation and equipped with kitchen and toilette facilities in the main tower. Although it was not intended for permanent living, the accommidations were far better than fortresses of the past.
In East Asia, the castle as an architectural typology is unique to Japan. In neighboring Korea and in China, the development of fortresses focused almost exclusively on walls and gates, with very little centralization. At Himeji, as in most Japanese castles, the walls and fortifications are designed to prevent access to the central citadel. In Korea and China, walls were built to enclose regions of space such as cities, but there is no central command post that catches the eye quite like the Japanese castle does.
Plan of Himeji Castle
Plan of the Castle, drawn by Timothy M. Ciccone
Most images copyright 2003 Timothy J. Olker
Certain images copyright 2003 Kerk L Phillips
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