姫路城

Himejijô is located in the Japanese city of Himeji, Hyogo prefecture, about 50 km west of Kobe: you can get there by the Sanyo Shinkansen. It is one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan, and one of the oldest wooden structures in the world: so old, in fact, that it is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The story of Himejijô goes back to 1333, when the site was first used as a fort by Harima lord Akamatsu Norimura. It stood on top of a hill called Himeyama, about 46 m above sea level. The fort at Himeyama stood for almost 250 years, until 1581, when Kampaku Toyotomi Hideyoshi upgraded the fort to a three-storied castle.

Toyotomi was eventually defeated by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who saw Himeji as an important defensive point against the tozama domains. Tokugawa gave Himeji Castle to his son-in-law, Ikeda Terumasa, in 1601, and had Ikeda develop it into a labyrinthine five-story castle. The entire project took eight years to complete, and since then, Himeji Castle has not seen a single battle: it survived the Meiji Restoration and World War II without a scratch.

What's the secret to this amazing lifespan? In a word, plaster. Himejijô's nickname is "White Heron Castle" because its wooden walls are completely covered with white plaster, which makes them fireproof. The castle and its surroundings are also chock full of gargoyle-like shachihoko (fish with tiger heads), which are talismans against fire.

The main tower at Himeji is not that large, but the hill it stands on gives it an incredible illusion of size: it rises a total of 92 meters above the surrounding terrain. Simply finding one's way to the tower is very difficult, as it is built atop a mazelike structure of plateaus, walls, and embankments. This is, as you might imagine, by design: the idea was to make it as difficult as possible for the enemy to find their way around if they got inside the castle. While you can attempt to navigate the castle on your own, most people follow a guide. (There are English-speaking volunteers there if you decide to go: just ask for one.)

Once you get inside the castle, you can see muskets, samurai armor, and all sorts of wicked Edo era goodies.

Admission is ¥600 for adults and ¥200 for children 3-14.

For more, check out: http://www.himeji-castle.gr.jp/

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