Why visit Himeji Castle
As hard as it was to leave Kyoto, after a few days it was time to move on. My next stop was Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited castle in Japan.
I was super interested to visit Himeji for a couple of reasons. One, it had just re-opened a couple of months before, after going through a multi-year renovation that happens every 50 years and two, I wanted to compare the differences between Himeji and Matsumoto Castle.
However, it was not the architecture and history of the castle that I remember most about my visit to Himeji.
A Private Guided Tour of the Castle
Upon arriving in Himeji, I saw a sign for English led tours and went to inquire about it. A man who looked barely in his sixties was having his lunch at the tour desk. I apologized for the interruption, but was told to wait for a few minutes and then the tour would start. I thanked the man and stood in the shade waiting for the rest of the group.
After five minutes, the same man came out of the building with his hat on and a folder under his arm. He smiled and said, “Ok, let’s start.” I looked around for other travelers, but no one was there. This was going to be a private, free tour. What?
Toshi, my guide, was in his seventies (not sixties as he looked) and was a retired engineer and self-taught English speaker. He volunteered at Himeji on his free time to practice his English and to share with visitors the history of the castle.
As we climbed the many steps to the main building, Toshi shared his knowledge of Japanese culture, castle history, as well as, his personal stories. He may not have done so usually, but I was so intrigued by his background and the fact that he taught himself English that I must have asked him a thousand questions.
He talked about the trees, the food and his childhood while we climbed flight after flight of stairs. Toshi was quickly leaving me in the dust. Gasping for breath and needing a break, I asked him “How many times do you do this a day?” I pointed at the stairs. He smiled. “Usually once or twice a day. This is the third time today.” My mouth fell and then quickly shut closed. I breathed deeply and tried to keep up with Toshi as he swiftly climbed the wooden steps.
We toured the beautiful white buildings that make up the largest castle in Japan. Himeji Castle in all its whiteness is the stark opposite of Matsumoto Castle which is mostly black, but the interior is pretty similar, adorned with beautiful glistening wood floors and beams.
In the old days, the bigger the castle, the richer the lord and city attached to it. The fact that Himeji has existed since 1333 (with renovations of course), surviving through wars and natural disasters, speaks highly of its construction and defense system. Upon seeing the model of what Himeji castle and the area surrounding it used to look like, it’s clear why some of the most illustrious samurai of Japanese history have called it home.
Interesting fact: each of the walls provided a layer of protection from attack and each housed different “classes” of people from merchant, artisans to Samurai. Can you guess where each lived?
We peered into the window slots for the cool air coming in and looked at the newly renovated clay tile roofs and decorative statues. I commented on the new wires on these slots and asked if it was to keep the birds out. Toshi replied that the window slots had been outfitted recently with wires, because someone had dropped their camera through it. I got the feeling he resented it. I did too. When did one person’s mistake become a reason to change the structure of an entire castle? Are we going too far with all the barriers to “protect us” from our own lack of common sense? I think so. But I digress.
We continued our tour. I learned about sour plums, about samurais, about feudal lords, about cicadas. Did you know these insects live for years underground until coming out for the last season of their lives? Cicadas “songs” are the sound of summer in Japan and Toshi talked about them with fondness.
I also grew up with cicadas in a small town close to the Amazon. They used to cover tree trunks and sing so loudly it was deafening. At the end of the summer all that remained was the thousands of skeletal shells glued to the trees. This summer in Japan, I remembered that time of my life- funny how some memories resurface with smells and sounds.
Toshi used to collect cicadas for his school projects. He also learned classic poems by playing cards like the people who lived in the castle hundreds of years ago. We reminisced about our childhoods and because Toshi was a grandfatherly figure, I wondered if these would be things I would have learned from my own grandfather had he not passed away when I was a kid. I know so little about his life, but that is why I went to Japan, to try to learn what he couldn’t teach me.
A farewell picture
As we neared the end of the tour, I wanted to take Toshi with me for the rest of my trip. He was so full of information and funny jokes. I took a picture of Toshi for the blog and he insisted we take a picture together before we bid farewell.
You know, it’s funny that sometimes we don’t recognize the moment we will remember the most about a place as it happens. It’s afterwards, when we have told the story a hundred times that we see its importance.
Having a private tour of the castle was a huge bonus. It was made even more special by the connection I made with Toshi.
I am a firm believer that things happen in our lives at the right time. After I returned home, I spent a few months trying to process all the things I learned, the moments that stuck with me the most, and how I have changed over the last 15 months. I am still debating how the whole trip would have been different if I had traveled with more people instead of solo. Or if I had done this trip in a different time in my life. Or what would have been my impression of Himeji if I hadn’t seen that sign at the entrance or if I didn’t take the chance to do things differently…
We are a product of our experiences, but are our experiences also different as a product of who we are at different points in our lives? I think so. I also think Japan redefined travel for me, because I am a lot more interested in getting to know the people and sharing our connections versus just visiting the places as a local.
Japan has given me a lot to think about.
I would love to hear about your experiences connecting with someone in your travels.