Himeji Castle: Japan’s Finest Surviving Early 17th-Century Castle

Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages
January 3, 2021 Updated: January 3, 2021

Since 1333, a fort has stood on a hill summit in Himeji, in west Japan, where Himeji Castle now stands. The current castle was built between 1601 and 1609, and all previous structures were demolished. 

The early 17th-century castle is the finest surviving example of its kind. Primarily built of wood, the castle is also known as Shirasagi-jo (White Heron Castle) due to the white plaster that covers the castle’s earthen walls. Inside, a series of sliding panels (fusuma) and folding screens (byobu) divide the interior space into rooms. 

The castle grounds graciously stretch across 41 square miles and contain 82 fortified buildings around a Tenshu-gun, or keep, a last refuge at the heart of the castle. The Tenshu-gun is further fortified by a series of gates, moats, ramparts, and high stone walls. 

A maze of meandering paths and walkways lead up to the castle through meticulously manicured parks and gardens, for public and private use. Each route to the castle had been thoroughly thought out to maximize military defenses. Sometimes a path narrows or even turns back on itself, all to confuse intruders and for the castle defenders to easily spot danger. Likewise, the meandering paths meant that the castle archers could easily shoot their enemy from the many small windows. 

The Japanese believe in living in harmony with the natural world, and touches of nature are expressed throughout the castle architecture. For example, some of the roof tiles feature butterflies on family crests. And a creature called a shachihoko, with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp, appears on the corner edges of the roof gables, giving the castle roofs the distinct Japanese silhouette.

But the creature is not just for show. According to Japanese folklore, a shachihoko summons rain and is often found on buildings to protect them against fire. A similar creature, called a chiwen, can be found on traditional Chinese architecture dating as far back as the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.–A.D. 220). 

Two shachihoko, mythical Japanese creatures with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp, protect Himeji Castle from fire. (Cyrus_2000/Shutterstock.com)
Meandering paths and walkways on the Himeji estate are part of the castle’s elaborate defense system. (Thiti Wongluang/Shutterstock.com)
A detail showing Himeji Castle’s elegant yet functional wooden architecture. (Pixeljoy/Shutterstock.com)
Numerous small windows help the military spy encroaching enemies. (Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock.com)
A shachihoko. (jflin98/Shutterstock.com)
Family crests of the ruling families feature on the roof tiles of Himeji Castle. (artincamera/Shutterstock.com)
A corridor inside Himeji Castle. (Cyrus_2000/Shutterstock.com)
Japan’s national costume, the kimono, is on display in Himeji Castle. (Kit Leong/Shutterstock.com)
Japanese armor inside Himeji Castle. (tera.ken/Shutterstock.com)