Himeji Castle, Japan

Himeji Castle's keep. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007
Himeji Castle’s keep; after a restoration during 2010-2015, it reportedly looks even brighter today. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

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...it looks good, but
Osaka Castle: It looks good from the outside but inside, well, it’s kind of fake.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2005

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 in infrared
Himeji Castle in infrared.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

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.

Members of the University of Delaware's 2005 Kobe Study Abroad program hamming it up for the camera
Members of the University of Delaware’s 2005 Kobe Study Abroad program hamming it up for the camera at a castle gate.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2005

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.

Beetle booth in Himeji
Beetle booth in Himeji

The Keep

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.

The keep's ornate gables are a big part of what makes Himeji Castle so much more beautiful than most European castles
The keep’s ornate gables are a big part of what makes Himeji Castle so much more elegant than most European castles.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

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.

Forget Osaka Castle's lazyvator- Himeji Castle's keep is only accessible the old fashioned way
Forget Osaka Castle’s lazyvator- Himeji Castle’s keep is only accessible the old fashioned way.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2005

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!)

View from the keep
View from the keep.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

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.

Kinshachi (金鯱).
Kinshachi (金鯱) in infrared

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.

You have to climb to the top of the keep to collect the souvenir stamp
You have to climb to the top of the keep to collect the souvenir stamp.  The stamp I collected in 2005 was similar but did not display the date.

The Making of an Infrared Panorama

Himeji Castle Panorama. Click for larger view.
Himeji Castle 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.

Central image of three
Central image of three

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.

Comparison of an egret (left) and a heron (right)
Comparison of an egret (left) and a heron (right).  Lowell Silverman photography, 2009 and 2013

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?

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5 thoughts on “Himeji Castle, Japan

  1. As a reader and with growing interest in photography, I would like to know where is the best angle to take the perfect photo and which photo you use photoshop to edit. Probably share a bit of skills and it would make your site stand out from the rest of the other blogs 🙂 Please drop by my site https://lifeofaminion.wordpress.com and give me some feedback. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, I will try to mention those aspects in future posts. I’m generally not a fan of extensive post-processing and I tend to mention it if something major like HDR was performed. As a general rule, my edits are very basic. On color images I often straighten horizons and may crop. Some images I run through levels to bring back that “punch” that digital photography sometimes seems to lack compared to film. This is often necessary when shooting through vehicle windows. Occasionally my white balance is off and I correct that.

      I’m pretty sure the color images on this page were not corrected at all. The light on my visit in 2007 was very warm and some images not posted here I cooled down the white balance because the colors almost looked too warm to be believable! All my infrared images require a bit of post-processing. Most need dust spots removed because the camera’s self-cleaning mechanism was removed during conversion. I usually run the photos through levels after converting them from RAW. I usually bump up the contrast slightly when converting them to black and white to mimic the high contrast of the old Kodak High Speed Infrared film.

      Liked by 1 person

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