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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 Hideyoshi—one of the three "unifiers" of Japan—built 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 balls—which had a fairly limited range but were devastating from close-range—the 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

Himeji Castle plan

Plan of the Castle, drawn by Timothy M. Ciccone


The approximate location of the castle is 34.838214' N, 134.693195' E (WGS 84 map datum).


Most images copyright 2003 Timothy J. Olker

Certain images copyright 2003 Kerk L Phillips

Nishi, Kazuo and Kazuo Hozumi. What is Japanese Architecture?
  Kodansha International, 1983. Tokyo and New York

Last Name, First Name Subject
  Publisher, yyyy. Locale

Kinoshita, June & Nicholas Palevsky. Gateway to Japan (Kodansha Guide)
  Kodansha International, 1998. Tokyo

Turnbull, Stephen & Peter Dennis. Japanese Castles 1540-1640
  Osprey Publishing Company, 2003. New York

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sara posted on Fri Feb 06, 2015 12:51 pm:


Ava posted on Sun Nov 09, 2014 3:16 am:

I think it would be useful just to have a bit more detail as well because I have to do a exam on it and I am studding

Levi posted on Sat Oct 11, 2014 6:46 pm:


persondoinghistorydayreport posted on Mon Apr 28, 2014 12:35 pm:

Im doing this as an assignment: extra facts: its in the very center of Hemeji city and it represents harmony between humans and nature

gia posted on Mon Apr 28, 2014 12:29 pm:

it took 263 years

jenny posted on Tue May 14, 2013 8:58 am:

does anyone know how long did it took to be built?

katty posted on Wed Mar 13, 2013 5:42 pm:

I also need to know who originaly built it too!!

Website: enatural
Katty posted on Wed Mar 13, 2013 5:39 pm:

How many rooms does it have? Kind of helpful but also not!

Website: enatural
Bubblegame posted on Wed Aug 22, 2012 5:38 pm:

Is this really worth this... if we visit here where do we go next?

taylor posted on Mon May 14, 2012 10:08 pm:

I am doing an Japanese assignment on Himeji castle anyone with information please send it to me at

bob posted on Wed Mar 14, 2012 10:16 pm:


Tina posted on Sat Apr 02, 2011 11:11 pm:

how many rooms does it have bed rooms? bathrooms? I need to know this dont help at all you people should find out!

zack posted on Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:13 pm:

shut up little kids this is in basic english using good adjectives. Thank you whoever made this

hiya posted on Thu Oct 14, 2010 6:05 am:

you should defintely add more to the ground plan- eg. details

shnee posted on Sat Oct 02, 2010 2:54 pm:

yay very helpful!!!!

Jazmyn posted on Wed Sep 08, 2010 11:07 pm:

Thank you for putting this up it's been really helpful.

lisa egan posted on Tue Mar 30, 2010 12:08 pm:

i like pancakes and this is a helpful resource

Website: yahoo
John posted on Mon Mar 15, 2010 1:08 pm:

sorry it got cut off...............

John posted on Mon Mar 15, 2010 1:07 pm:

Hi, I am currently doing a project on this, although I don't qualify me as an expert, I do know the basic history. Maybe you should try :

Valeria posted on Wed Feb 17, 2010 2:47 pm:

I think it should be made in a content kids doing research projects can understand cuz i feel stupid reading big words

Lilu posted on Thu Jan 21, 2010 5:34 pm:

Can you answer who originaly built it

xxx posted on Tue Nov 17, 2009 4:07 pm:

ya should add some description to the grond plan...

Sari Moke posted on Thu May 28, 2009 9:43 am:

You need to make this easier for kids to read. I am doing a cl*** project and don't get any of this stuff. Help me out