2014
06.11

HIMEJI

SYNOPSIS:  About manifesting Taro.  About a half-restored castle, a garden, a view and an English speaking volunteer guide with a  few insights into Japanese culture.

This morning I found myself sitting under a shady tree not far from the castle trying to figure out a good game plan for the day.   Museum first?  Castle first?  Garden first?  Anything else of interest?  — when I heard a voice saying:  This is a nice spot to sit, isn’t it?  And before long a very agile, talkative and fidgety 70ish year old guy sat next to me chatting.  It was a bare ten minutes later when I had half of his life story:  He was originally from Seattle, but had come to teach English in Japan some 23 years ago, where he met his second wife, another Japanese English teacher.  And now, in semi-retirement he gives tours at the castle and places around.  He loves travel and photography and has documented the 5 year restoration progress and captured some of the beautiful seasonal changes in this, one of Japan’s most important castles.  So, look out for the link on the right side of the blog — when I figure out his site, I will post it there for you to check out.

He had been in Dresden, my hometown, and just as if he had planned this all, he whipped out a Himeji city guide all in German — just for me.  Believe me, this is the first guide in German I have seen anywhere.  English yes, but the Germans and the French ‘d better speak English or they are out of luck here as far as tourist information is concerned in Japan.

One good suggestion after another came my way and ultimately, Taro (I guess that is his Japanese name) took me to the castle where he hooked me up with an English speaking volunteer guide, a friend of his, before he rode off on his bike again!  Wow, where did he come from just when I needed him?!

I heard at night when I returned to the hostel that a guy from the coffee shop had been looking for me.  Haha!  Taro’s last name is Starbuck — no wonder this translated into the “guy from the coffee shop”.  Hilarious.  Too bad I missed him.

Himeji Castle is one of the only twelve original keeps that are left in Japan of about 50-some castles still around.  The others have been rebuilt after fires or war damage.  And most of the once 600 castles are gone anyhow; many by decree for destruction issued during the Meji Restoration in the late 19th Century.   It is only recently, that restoration projects take the utmost care to use authentic materials and techniques that were known at the time.  Castles which were restored in the 60’s and 70’s were poured in concrete such as the one in Osaka…

It was just my luck that the 5 year restoration project at Himeji was still 8 months away from completion.   The central keep was not accessible.  But the views of the castle are nonetheless spectacular and the moats as well as a watch tower with an impressive long hall used as living quarters for maids in waiting when the “queen” lived here for a while, were open for visitors.

I hadn’t planned on looking for a guide, but how could I refuse Taro’s enthusiastic help.  Rie lead me around — an English teacher herself.  She volunteers on weekends as castle guide to practice her English and to have the opportunity to talk to some native speakers.  We talked about being teachers and about a few more things I was curious about in Japan:  the peace sign, for example.  Rie mentioned that every baby is taught to do the “peace” sign as they grow up when photos are taken.  I think it is a fair assumption to say that the original meaning as a peace sign, for most young people, has long been lost.  But I will investigate this further.

The Municipal Museum of History displayed a great set of models of the 12 original keeps in Japan and Himeji is by far the most impressive size-wise and in its overall impact.  There are three main castle types in Japan: mountain castles, castles built on hilly areas and flat ones.  Himeji is one of the hillside castles.  With its pronounced curves and its white colour it was nicknamed the “heron” castle as it looks like a bird with wings, sort of.

The castle is outfitted with a lot of fun booby traps: the general layout of entrances is always done in zigzag pattern.  Nowhere can you charge ahead for long.  But even more so — the zigzag often completely obstructs entrances.  Unless you know your way around you don’t even know where to turn.  It’s quite astonishing.

Of course, there are the trap doors where you pour tar over your enemies, should they have found the entrance and gotten that far, and you can throw stones at them, too, from above.  There are hundreds of openings for guns and arrows and the ingenious part is that they are all angled differently so there is absolutely no blind spot.  There is also a variety of shapes for these openings, presumably to assist soldiers to find their spot in a hurry.

There were three big moats and the castle really was a spread out castle town.  In the innermost moat the lord and his entourage would live during times of war.  In the first surrounding moat there would be soldiers and crafts people.  And still within castle grounds a lot of town folk could set up housing.  All of these subsidiary homes are gone.  That creates an almost parklike area which would have been unrealistic at the time.  Himeji was built in the early 1600s in about 10 years.

The recent conservation project was mainly an outdoor project: all walls were cleaned and cleared of any vegetation that had made its way into cracks.   Severely damaged walls were knocked down and rebuilt in the old ways — the white plaster used on this wall is actually a careful mixture of all kinds of plants and binders which ultimately is fire proof!    Every roof tile was taken down, numbered, washed and put back if intact or replaced if broken.  Tiles in Japan are an art form in itself.  I am photographing a variety of roof details here and there and some day soon will have a picture essay on roofs.  The fish-finials so typical for this area — in Okinawa they were more lions than anything else — stand a good 8 feet tall and they had to be recreated.  Potters worked on them for month.  I can appreciate a sculpture that size and all that can go wrong.  If you don’t let it dry evenly, cracks will occur in the firing and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

And finally, there was a garden where there once was an aristocrat’s house.  It’s a relatively new garden, which a professor from Tokyo designed following Edo Period garden designs.  It was a pleasant end to a long, hot day.  One problem with these gardens is that they are conceived as “strolling” gardens.  What I really needed was a “sitting” garden.  Where are all the benches to sit and enjoy the view?  Well, I found a stone bridge and sat and put my feet into the water, attracting instantly about ten huge carp — when a few minutes later a guard whistled at me!  No feet in the water.  I was reminded of Germany…  Rules and regulations.  What’s the harm done?  So I had to stroll again.

My hostel is just a couple of blocks from the second moat and the night before I had spotted a Shinto shrine nearby with lots of steps going up a hill.  But the effort promised a great view of the castle at sunset and so I went for it.  Except for the mosquitoes, who had a feast on me, the views across town were spectacular and the sun was just right.   The mountain top above the shrine was also some utilities plant area — I could not figure it out as all information was in Japanese.  But once again I was impressed how an area that could have been ugly and industrial was landscaped as to provide a parklike setting.  I enjoyed it.

At the hostel there were a few new arrivals and a lively gathering was about to unfold.  I joined them and will tell you about the hostel and its guests tomorrow when I will be on a boring transit day again.  Good night.