Castles But Not As We Know Them

We visited three castles while we were in Japan: Hiroshima, Himeji and Matsumoto Castle. While they were all different from one another what struck me the most is how different they are in concept from the European style castles I grew up with. To start with they are predominantly made of wood, where as European castles are made of stone, however earth quakes were much less of a problem in Europe. The moats are much wider, instead of arrow slits they have arrow squares, triangles and circles and clearly the aesthetic is very different.

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I think the reason these differences leapt out at me is that Japan is the only country in Asia we visited castles, we visited many different temples and a few palaces but nothing you would call a castle. We enjoyed these visits very much, starting with the first in Hiroshima.

Clearly the castle in Hiroshima is a reconstruction as the original was destroyed along with everything else in 1945. It was actually partly because of that we decided to go and see the castle as we felt the need to do something different in Hiroshima.

As we arrived at the outside of the castle walls, we saw a dance squad outside. If I remember rightly it was a Sunday, which tends to be the day where hobbies are pursued in Japan and this dance squad was very impressive, they seemed to be doing the same routine over and over and each time one person would go out. I am not sure if it was a competition or if (since they were recording it) they were planning to edit the different numbers together for the video. Either way we enjoyed watching them.

The first part of the castle we could see was the reconstructed wall surrounded by a large moat, which housed a free museum, so of course we decided to check it out.

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The museum included reconstructions of what the inside would look like as well as a wooden model as an example of how the reconstruction was done. It also included a close up view of the dragons which sit on the ends of the roof (a commen theme between the castles, each bigger than the last) and a tenko drum.

Inside the wall was very quiet and it gave some nice views of the outside as well.

The museum was pretty small and before long we decided to continue on towards the castle. We past a secondary moat and wall before coming to a temple.

When we came to the castle proper, we found that the part that had been reconstructed was actually very small, however you could see the foundations of the other buildings that would once have stood there. Apparently at one of these there was a Pokestop for Pokemon Go, so it was a bit busy and I went for a wander around the grounds with my camera.

On my wanderings I also saw, what had become a familiar sight of locals getting wedding photographs. It had become familiar, but it was still nice to see.

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As I mentioned the castle building itself was quite small and we found out it would be quite expensive to go inside. We knew we would be visiting other castles during our time in Japan so we decided just to enjoy the castle from its grounds on the outside.

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The second castle we visited was much larger and we made the journey to Himeji for the specific purpose of going to visit The White Egret Castle.

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As with everything in Japan, there has to be a mascot and Himeji Castle is no exception. We kept seeing this little guy from the moment we stepped off the train to the moment we left.

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While Himeji has undergone extensive restoration work and cleaning, it is not a reconstruction and has survived not only the bombs of World War II but also major earthquakes. Visitors are able to see how much the castle has been cleaned and restored by a wall that was left in its original state.

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The castle grounds for Himeji are extensive and it was quite some way from the outer moat and wall to the castle itself. We enjoyed the walk though and there were some friendly cats around to give us direction. Seriously though the grounds include a zoo as well as many gardens. We did go to one of the gardens (as well as a separate garden entirely) and inside one of the walls in a similar, if grander scale to Hiroshima, however I will go into that in a separate blog or this one will become too long.

We found out there was actually a lights festival going on at the castle, and we saw a lot of areas set up for it, but unfortunately we weren’t able to stay till after dark as we were staying that night in Nara and didn’t want to be checking into our hostel too late at night.

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As we got closer to the castle we started to enjoy, not only the castle itself but also the surrounding architecture. The walls, impressive gates and it was here where we saw all the different shapes to aim weapons though.

The place was pretty crowded as you might expect for the most visited castle in Japan, so in some cases I was not as successful as I could be at getting a shot without people in it. I tried my best though. Just after getting through the ticket office there was a map which showed what the grounds would have originally looked like and you can imagine that bustling crowds are nothing new to Himeji. This was complimented when we were inside the castle itself by a model.

On our route up to the castle, seeing it from new angles, each giving us a new sense of awe, the walls and gates around in contrast seemed to almost be designed for a fun house, sometimes dwarfing us and sometimes having to stoop to get through. I think, however this was in a large part to do with the hill on which the castle is set as it is rather steep so from the attacking side it looked high, but from the inside it was small.

When we were very close to the castle, we found there were a few interesting features, however most people were passing them by. This was not the first time I had noticed with tourist attractions in Japan that the aim seemed to be less about actually stopping to see what was there and more about getting round them as efficiently as possible with a couple of selfies on the way. Anyway we stopped to see this well which was under cover and apparently 15m deep. There wasn’t much information about it, but I liked the aesthetic of it.

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It was also near here that there was a plaque in both Japanese and English that very few were stopping to read. It told the interesting legend about how there were problems collecting enough stone to build the foundation walls of the castle and when a poor old woman in the village heard of the problem she donated her hand mill stone, which was happily accepted. The story of the deed spread and stones were donated from all over the province. The tablet went on to qualify why this was only a story, and it could have only been a good luck charm, but it is such a nice story. There is a millstone you can see from the plaque and it has been protected by some wire.

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When we were this close to the castle we could appreciate its immense size, and I may have decided to try and be a bit artsy with my photos to illustrate that.

Entering the bottom of the castle was dark, this floor had no windows for obvious defensive reasons. There was not a lot in there, but it did feel very dark and quite cold after the sun we had been lucky enough to enjoy while we were walking in the grounds.

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Most rooms had the same layout, with the ability to pull sliding screens across and divide each floor into different rooms, however for the visitors it was all open. There were a few different features on each floor however like this trough which was used for water brought in from the well for washing and cooking in one of the lower levels.

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As we progressed our way upward, things had more of a defensive purpose. There were trap doors to send rubble down on attacking forces; weapons racks which were empty; a platform from which to stand and fire from the windows and near the top there were even little hidden rooms for samurai to hide in and jump out at the enemy as a last line of defence.

One thing this castle did have in common with European castles is that it was made in a time when people were generally smaller as shown with my husband for scale on a few of the floors.

Most of the interior although stereotypical, and beautiful through its simplicity, was practical. Some elements like the door below were less simple but highly practical, and perhaps slightly unusual for Japan some were highly decorative, like this recurring bolt.

Throughout our climb inside the castle we had two companions (after the windowless basement floor) the east and west pillars and the views from the windows. The pillars ware particularly impressive, as they were originally made of one continuous piece of wood from the basement to the second to top floor measuring about 26m. Unfortunately when one of these was replaced the tree broke and is now joined on the third floor.

When we reached the very top floor there was a shrine there. It was incredibly busy and since we are not religious we didn’t hang about long. Just long enough to get the least crowded looking photo I could of the shrine.

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The one way route took us quickly back down through the floors before passing through a kind of museum just before the exit. This is where the model I showed earlier was, however there was also a number of original ornaments from the castle which showed the repair it was in prior to restoration, as well as a wooden model that would have been used during the restoration to figure out how it went together. A short walk outside the castle we also saw a recreation of the dragon roof ends.

As we came out of the castle we were directed to the courtyard in front of the castle. The perfect place for all your selfie needs, or even just a few nice pictures of the castle.

We wandered around the grounds some more, as I hinted about earlier I will cover that in another blog post. However during our wanderings we did get some nice pictures of the general architecture as well as the main building which I wanted to share in this blog.

Finally as we were leaving the ticketed area of the castle we noticed that there were some foundation stones of a building which had burnt down, reminding us of our time at Hiroshima castle.

The final castle we visited was, in contrast with the White Egret Castle, known as the Crow Castle for its black colour, Matsumoto Castle.

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We visited Matsumoto Castle while we were staying in Nagano, and the mountainous backdrop is certainly the most dramatic. However the castle complex is much smaller than Himeji and it is based on a plane rather than a hill, so the castle itself is not quite so impressive, though still impressive in its own right.

We were able to get a joint ticket for the castle and the Matsumoto museum, however similar to Himeji I will only talk about the castle itself in this post.

Matsumoto, perhaps because it is a planes castle rather than on a hill has an even more expansive moat than the other castles and we decided to walk around the grounds a bit before going inside. We discovered more people playing pokemon go here, so it seams that castle grounds are a popular place for pokemon gyms.

We headed inside the gates and I am not sure if it was the time of year, but after the gardens in Himeji I found the gardens of this castle rather baron looking.

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As we waited in the queue to get into the castle itself we were entertained by some people dressed up in period costume. I got a photo of them from one of the windows inside the castle as well.

The layout of the inside of the castle was very similar to Himeji, although on a smaller scale. There was the usual collection of pre-restoration objects on display including a slightly smaller dragon roof end. However here there was also a large display of military history artifacts, including some rather scary looking guns, some helmets and a set of Go.

As with Himeji I couldn’t resist taking photos from the windows, particularly as the scenery here was slightly more impressive.

I also finally managed to get a few shots of the stairs to try and impress quite how steep they were. This was the same in Himeji, I just didn’t get a chance to photograph them there as there was too much a flow of people.

At the very top there was also a shrine, however this shrine had a story connected with it, and it was shown on a plaque in English. The story goes that a vassal on duty saw a woman in a vision, she was dressed in beautiful clothes and handed him a brocade bag. She told him that if on the 26th night of every month the bag was enshrined with 500KG of rice that it would protect the castle from the enemy.

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There was also one area that was very different from the other castles, we visited it on our route back down, this known as the moon-viewing room and while the rest of the castle was rather dark, this was light and airy, with large open windows, for viewing the moon. This room was a later installation, as you can probably tell since it is not very defensible.

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On exiting the castle we walked around a little within the inner grounds before heading to the museum.

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As I mentioned I will write about the museum in a later blog, however I will not leave it there as when we exited the museum we had the delight of seeing the castle in the sunset which was quite a special end to our castle adventures.

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While I can easily say that my favourite castle was Himeji Castle, each one was enjoyable and special in it’s own way and it was fun to see a completely different type of castle than I am used to. Needless to say there are many more castles in Japan, these were only the ones that we managed to visit during our stay, maybe one of them would move.

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