Third in a series about journeys to Japan in 2005 and 2007
A Beautiful Survivor
Among Japanese castles, one reigns supreme in size and, arguably, in beauty. One of only a handful of original castles left in Japan, Himeji Castle (Himeji-jō, 姫路城,) is also the country’s largest. While Europe’s stone castles have some staying power (even when they fall down over the centuries, the ruins are often something graceful like Old Sarem in England), time has not been friendly to Japan’s more graceful stone and wood castles. Over the years, most Japanese castles fell victim to wars or were abandoned.
Osaka Castle, for instance, has had a run of bad luck. It’s been destroyed (and subsequently rebuilt) at least four times over the centuries: 1615 (war), 1665 (lightning), 1868 (war/revolution) and 1945 (war). Today’s Osaka Castle is a modern reconstruction built of steel and concrete. It looks nice enough from the outside, but the interior just doesn’t have that authentic feel – not when there are elevators, air conditioning, and a gift shop inside!
Himeji Castle has beat the odds. It has survived wars, weather, revolutions, earthquakes, and attempts at urban renewal, remaining virtually untouched since 1618. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and reopened this spring after years of restoration work. Himeji Castle is sometimes referred to by its avian nickname, 白鷺城 (Shirasagi-jō or Hakuro-jō) variously translated as “White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”. (See note at the bottom of this page for further discussion of this rather esoteric subject.) I have to admit that, as beautiful as this castle is, I don’t see any resemblance to flapping wings or lanky shorebird features, nor does Himeji-jō look any more birdlike to me than any other Japanese castle.
Home of the Yukata Festival
My first visit to Himeji Castle was on June 22, 2005, together with the rest of the University of Delaware study abroad group. Our professors timed the visit to the castle to coincide with Himeji’s Himeji Yukata Festival. A yukata is a summer kimono, a lightweight version of the traditional Japanese robe. A handful of students in my group acquired yukata during the trip and wore them to the festival. I want to say those wearing yukata got free or reduced-price admission to the castle during the festival, but I don’t remember for certain. There were many stalls set up in Himeji selling food and wares. My favorite had to be the beetle booth; it seems Japanese youths collect rhinoceros beetles and sometimes have them engage in battles, a kind of shoving match.
Himeji Castle has expansive grounds with a moat and various other fortifications. The most impressive part of the complex, of course, is the six-story castle keep which soars to a height of 152 feet (46.4 m) above the castle grounds.
Unlike Osaka Castle, with its creature comforts and elevator, visitors who wish to get the panoramic view from the top floor of the keep or earn the right to collect the coveted official Himeji Castle stamp will have to climb the stairs to the very top. It may be a small detail, but I also appreciated that the castle gift shop was in a small building by an entrance gate, not inside the keep like at Osaka Castle.
On the plus side, you don’t have to climb all the stairs at once. The keep’s floors have various exhibits including old fashioned weapons. The interior’s wood details are impressive and underscore how lucky the castle has been to escape fire all these centuries. (Actually, I’ve read conflicting things about just how vulnerable Japanese castles really are to fire; if they’re like heavy timber/mill construction buildings in the United States, the thick wooden structural elements may be difficult to set on fire. On the other hand, those thick wood structural elements sequester a tremendous amount of energy and may be virtually impossible to extinguish once they actually start burning. Either way…no smoking nearby!)
The top floor of the keep provides unparalleled views of the castle complex, which is spectacular, and the surrounding city of Himeji, which isn’t.
The observation level in the keep also gives visitors a close look at the castle’s kinshachi (金鯱) which are a sort of cross between a tiger and a fish which, for reasons beyond my comprehension, are said to ward off fire. Of course, who am I to argue with success? The kinshachi track record at Himeji Castle has been flawless for four centuries.
The Making of an Infrared Panorama
It was overcast during the 2005 visit and the castle did not stand out against the sky. The light was considerably better during my return visit to Himeji Castle on the afternoon of November 2, 2007. It was just as well since I’d become more serious about learning to take better photographs in the two years between trips. I’m still embarrassed that on my first trip to Japan, I was actually so concerned about saving space on the paltry 640mb of memory cards I had at the time that I spent most of the trip shooting at the medium resolution, 1024×768, not even making use of the 2 megapixel Canon PowerShot A40’s lackluster maximum resolution of 1600×1200. As a result, even some 4″ x 6″ (10.2cm x 15.2cm) prints show noticeable artifacting. During my 2007 visit, however, I was better equipped with a color Canon PowerShot S2 IS and a new Canon Digital Rebel XTi modified to shoot infrared. I’d like to think I had a better eye for a good photograph as well. Himeji Castle proved to be the perfect subject for infrared photography.
My favorite shots from the afternoon were a series of three photographs in a row of the keep and surrounding trees. The castle’s keep caught the late afternoon light brilliantly. Surprisingly, the foliage around the keep did not reflect infrared light particularly strongly, nor did the background clouds. As a result, the structure stood out well from its surroundings and the image has an intense, brooding look that was not present in full color. Shooting three images allowed me to achieve a higher resolution for later printing than simply cropping a single wide angle shot would have.
When I returned home, I painstakingly stitched the three images together in Adobe Photoshop Elements: converting each image from RAW, lining each image up as a separate layer, and slowly blending the images together at their boundaries. (Back then, Photoshop’s Photomerge algorithms were rather poor and there would frequently be stitching errors when the program tried to merge a panorama automatically. Modern versions of Photoshop have vastly improved the Photomerge function and most images can be flawlessly stitched automatically in a fraction of the time of doing it manually.) I converted the image to black and white with the portrait preset, which applies a sharper look that I felt preserved fine detail in this case.
The finished product, printed 12″ x 36″ (30.5cm x 91.4cm) is proudly displayed above the mantle in my home.
Fun (Maybe) Ornithological/Translation Note
As a avid birder in my youth, I’d point out that “white egret” present in some translations is rather redundant. In English, a heron is a wading bird with a long neck and usually long legs, and egrets are a type of heron with light coloration. Species that are predominantly dark (presumably camouflaged against terrain to make them more difficult for their predators to see) are generally known simply as herons, while species that are white (presumably camouflaged against the sky to make them more difficult for their prey to see) are generally known as egrets. I say “generally” because there are heron species with some individuals displaying white coloration morphs and at least one species of egret with a dark morph…not that anyone outside the birding world cares about such minutia.
Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC, long the internet’s best Japanese dictionary, sensibly defines 白鷺 (the kanji for white plus the kanji for heron) as “heron with all-white plumage (incl. egrets); white heron”. Seeing then that 白鷺 itself means “white heron” or “egret”, I would argue that the accurate translation of 白鷺城 is either “Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”. Now wasn’t that interesting?