Himeji; Paying a visit to the White Heron Castle and its ghosts

We were hoping that Himeji, our next destination after soggy Takayama wouldn’t be so much of a disappointment. There weren’t as many trains to get there - only three - but we experienced our first and only train delay just after boarding in Takayama, on the way to Nagoya. The train sat on the tracks for an hour and we missed all our onward connections. It’s good thing we had the rail pass - I wonder what Japan Rail does for people normally in that case? We never did get an explanation for the delay - just another little unsolved travel mystery. The second two trains were bullet trains, and we got to ride one of the pointiest ones - the Hikari Rail Star. It might even be pointier than the fastest bullet train, the Nozomi (which our pass doesn’t cover), I’m not sure.

I’d have liked to stop at Nagoya to see the Robot Museum, but Sayaka told us it had closed recently due to lack of interest. Lack of interest in robots! In Japan! Something is very wrong. Nagoya is her home-town, though, so I had to accept it.

We reached Himeji in the early afternoon. We were there to see the famous Himeji Castle. We had our packs with us, of course, but Japan never bought into the terrorism hysteria and there are big, beautiful, coin-operated lockers in every train station. It’s a straight walk from the station to the castle. It appeared like magic - one moment it wasn’t there, the next we looked up and there it was, soaring above the city on a little hill. It was, truly, one of the loveliest buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s constructed in a pagoda-like style, with sweeping layered rooflines with upturned horns. The roof tiles are all in silver-grey and they gleam in the sunlight. It’s striking, but harmonious with its surroundings. Called the “White Heron” castle for its shape, it’s a magnificently elegant piece of architecture. I haven’t been so moved by a building since the Taj Mahal (a cliché, I know, but if you’ve seen the Taj you’ll understand - and if you haven’t, do).

We followed the spiral path up the hill through the gardens to the main keep. The eaves of every roof were faced with round capping tiles with the embossed crests of the vassal families of the lords of the keep, who assisted (or were obligated to assist) with its construction. The main keep was mostly empty except for a few museum-style exhibits along the walls. I was pleased, since that made it possible to see all the construction details (or re-construction, since the castle was completely restored in the Fifties and Sixties). All the inner construction was of beautiful dark polished wood with a spicy smell like cedar. We climbed to the top floor and looked out over the roofs of the castle, pointed with fish ornaments, and across to the white city surrounding the forested hill. There wasn’t time to linger as much as I’d have liked - we’d arrived too late in the day and now the castle was being closed.

Though charming, the White Heron isn’t without its dark side. Outside the main keep a small outbuilding was marked on our map as the hara-kiri quarters - the designated area for the ritual suicide of dishonoured samurai. On the grounds, too, was a well with a ghost story attached. According to legend it’s haunted by the spirit of Okiko, a servant girl who helped to foil a plot against the castle’s lord by one of his advisors. Brutally tortured by the traitor and thrown into the well to die, her ghost wailed until it was propitiated by worship.

I was enchanted with Himeji and would have liked to spend the night, but we hadn’t been able to find anywhere cheap to stay, so we had to catch a train to Kyoto. Even there, we couldn’t stay in Gion, my favourite neighbourhood, and the hostel was cramped and unpleasant. It wasn’t really the Kyoto we’d fallen in love with the month before, but we were only there overnight, so we tried to pretend we weren’t in Kyoto at all.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
Nine Years Ago Today:
Rotorua, New Zealand
Country #42
Destination #294
Don't like using the map? Navigate through continents, countries and locations using the tree below.
Thrill to the exploits of our infamous sidekick Spidey (a small gentleman adventurer himself) in photo-essay form in his very own gallery!
Contact via Email:Contact via Email
Follow on Twitter:Follow on Twitter
Locations feed:Locations feed
Dispatch feed:Dispatch feed
Photograph feed:Photo feed