Monday, April 10, 2006


Sunday, March 20, 2006

“The castle has a five-storey main donjon (heavily fortified central tower) and three smaller donjons, and the entire structure is surrounded by moats and defensive walls punctuated with rectangular, circular, and triangular openings for firing guns and shooting arrows. The walls of the donjon also feature ishiotoshi—openings that allow defenders to pour boiling water or oil onto anyone who made it past the defensive slits and was thinking of scaling the walls. All things considered, visitors are recommended to pay the admission charge and enter the castle by legitimate means.”
—My Guidebook’s Entry on Himeji Castle

My guidebook also has a decided opinion on the city of Himeji, which is, more or less, don’t bother. I thought Himeji machi (the city of Himeji) could have been interesting: there were several odd statues that lined the sidewalk. Unfortunately, I can’t give a very definite opinion, because all I saw of Himeji machi was what glided past my vision as we walked hurriedly to Himeji Castle.

It was our last day, and we had wasted half of it on the Shinkansen, just getting here. By the time we reached Himeji, it was perhaps 1:00 or so, and we had to be back at the station by about 3:00. We all rushed straight for the castle without any thought of exploring the city.

Himeji Castle is called the white heron castle, because of its white walls and its elegant form; in 1992 it was named a World Heritage Cite. My brochure demurely says that the castle is “a good representative of all the castles in Japan.” Put another way—the way my guidebook put it—if you se one castle in Japan, it should be this one.

Unfortunately, I didn’t end up enjoying Himeji Castle nearly as much as I thought I would. The first and foremost reason for this was that I was getting sick.

It started as a pain in my belly. I just thought I’d eaten too much for lunch; within a few hours my stomach would digest it and I’d be fine.

So, I wandered around the castle. It wasn’t as pretty as I thought it’d be: in particular, I didn’t care for the grey roof tiles (grey is such a bland, boring color) and the surrounding trees were bare and leafless, pointing spiky branches at the sky. The insides were also fairly bare. I guess after having my expectations built up so much, I was a little disappointed. Also, it was my third castle I’d seen in Japan (the second was Nagoyajou, which I didn’t blog), and so I was becoming old hat at exploring castles.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t boring. There were many interesting details in the castle, like the stone coffins integrated into the walls and the haunted well. The many ways the castle was built for defense, from the strategic position of the storehouse (at the weakest point in the castle so that if it were attacked no one would be harmed) to the racks for holding weapons inside the main donjon (the lord kept a good stock of pistols); albeit, the defense was wasted as the castle suffered not one war.

One of my favorite buildings was the West Bailey built for Princess Sen, who was the granddaughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu.* We went their early on, while I was still feeling in fairly good health, and it was cool and quiet. The floors squeaked mercilessly, convincing me I would fall through them at any point. There were bars at the window.

“Those were to kept out the arrows, in case of an attack,” Julie explained. “It was considered cowardly to kill a woman.”

“But wouldn’t that be the attackers problem?”

Julie shrugged. “It’s one of those things that would be better to prevent. Say, you’re a powerful lord and an enemy, trying to attack you, accidentally kills—“

“Your wife, mother of your first born son and heir?”

“Or even one of your wife’s maids. Now she’s sobbing and upset because her maid is killed.”

“And if you don’t go out and killed whoever attacked, she’d call you a coward.”

“And write angry poetry.”

“But is angry poetry really that bad?” I asked.

Julie stared at me. “Have you ever read angry poetry?” She shuddered.

But by the time we reached the main donjon, despite the beautiful view, my stomach was beginning to pain me considerably. Climbing up five stories of cold, nearly vertical stairs, did nothing to help it.

After we finished with the main donjon, I confessed that my stomach hurt. It would come in flashes; points where it ached so much I wanted to sit down; after a few minutes the feeling would reside and I’d feel a bit better. I told Julie, and we rested more often. Even so, I barely made it back to the station.

We were a little late, and I was nauseous. But everyone was really nice. Someone carried my luggage up to the Shinkansen. Julie let me eat all her mints, which was the one thing that assuaged the pain. I made it through the three hour Shinkansen, primarily because I was so entirely focused on listening to Julie’s second Les Mis CD. But as soon as the train came to a stop, I knew I was far from better.

The Shinkansen took us to Nagoya Station. Unfortunately, I still had to get to Ozone. It was 11 minutes by JR train, and then a fifteen-minute walk home, in the dark. Now, I had no one with me, and I was lugging around a fifteen-pound luggage, feeling worse than ever.

This was how bad I felt: just climbing up the stairs to the train platform made me feel ill. I had to stop and rest. Waiting for the train outside, in the cool air, it wasn’t too bad. But riding the train was miserable. I was wearing my heavy jacket and the train was hot. Worse, it kept filling up with people. Once, a man smelling of fried seafood sat right beside me and I thought I was going to throw up right then and there.

I ended up throwing up in Ozone Station’s bathrooms and was grateful for that. Afterwards, I felt better. I was able to walk home without. I thought I was cured.

But that very night, I woke up feeling alternately burning and freezing.

So, I took it easy the next couple of days and was fine after that.

*Another brief history lesson: After the Heian Era (see Miyajima), Japan entered its feudal age; the Shogun was the highest governing body in Japan (though the Emperor and the aristocracy still existed) and the samurai became ever important. Perhaps the most famous of all Shoguns was Tokugawa Ieyasu. His two predecessors (Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi) had succeeded in unifying Japan after a bloody civil war, but neither had left behind successors. So, at around the year 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu took control. His family would reign supreme in Japan for the next two hundred years, known as the Tokugawa peace. (Incidentally, this was when most of the castles as we know them were built; the “peace” aspect of it explains my frustration at a lack of bloody battles.)


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