May 11 2010 by Sam Lowe
It has been several years since my visit to Himeji Castle, but my memories are vivid because it is such an architectural wonder. It was built in the middle of the 14th Century, gradually enlarged over the years, and was registered as the first Japanese world cultural heritage site by UNESCO in December 1993. Among the reasons for the selection were the multiple towers and its magnificent shape.
The castle, frequently dubbed the White Heron, also served as a fortress and houses an astounding number of smaller buildings within its walls. Since it has stood there for more than 400 years, it is no wonder that time and the elements have taken their toll. Some repair work has been done over the centuries, but now the time has come for a major restoration. Under the auspices of Himeji City in Hyogo Prefecture, a three-year refurbishing project will get underway next October.
The huge scaffolding that will eventually cover the entire complex is expected to be in place by November so the interior and immediate surroundings of the castle keep will be off limits to visitors. But other areas of the grounds will remain open.
This is good news for those who hold such magnificent structures in deepest esteem, because it means that access to the castle won't be completely forbidden. Although entry to the main tower was shut down in April and will probably remain closed until the project is completed in March 2014, visitors may enter through smaller towers, tour the gardens and see some of the 74 national treasures contained inside. And even if you can't get inside for the time being, don't let that stop you from going there. The exterior is so amazing that it's well worth the trip from Kyoto, the largest nearby city. But if you can contain your enthusiasm, the interior of the castle will be partially reopened to visitors in early 2011.
Also, an observation deck and an elevator will be provided inside the scaffolding so visitors can watch the repair process using traditional techniques. A few of the areas worth visiting require some huffing and puffing because of the rather steep inclines leading to them, so special accomodations for guests in wheelchairs and those in our age group who have climbing difficulties will be provided.
The castle traces its history back to 1346 but due to wars and familial disputes, it didn't take its current form until 1601. When the feudal system was abolished in Japan in 1871, the castle was sold at auction for 23 Japanese yen. It was bombed twice during the latter stages of World War II but escaped with no damage. Miraculously, a firebomb that landed on the top floor didn't explode.
The castle has been featured in several movies, including "You Only Live Twice" (1967), and "The Last Samurai" (2003). It was also the setting for the television mini-series "Shogun."