By Lee Langley
The first time I went to Japan I was given a list of things I must be sure to see: Buddhist temples, zen gardens, Shinto shrines, torii gates, samurai houses… Nobody mentioned castles. It was only by chance that, on the shinkansen from Kyoto I noticed that it stopped at Himeji, a town with a castle described as the largest in Japan.
I got off the bullet train and walked about ten minutes up a very ordinary road through the town. What I saw next I have never forgotten: poised on a hilltop and clinging to the slopes was a dazzling white castle, its pearly ceramic roof tiles gleaming in the sun. This was Himeji castle, “the white egret”, which survived earthquakes, typhoons and the bombs of World War 11. The finest example of 17th century castle architecture in the whole of Japan.
Exploring Himeji from its entrance to the topmost roof, I could see the castle spread out before me, cascading down the hillside, a maze of more than 80 interconnected buildings – turrets, corridors, keeps; the swooping tiled rooftops resembling a bird taking flight. It has a grace and charm unmatched by any other castle; fiercely fortified and designed to fend off attackers, it retains a fairy-tale delicacy.
After that introduction, I made a note to check out other Japanese castles.
Matsue was a case of serendipity: I wanted to see the home of Lafcadio Hearn, the Irish-Greek expat who wrote with such knowledge and understanding of Japan. He lived in Matsue with his Japanese wife for a while, and the town has a museum devoted to him. I discovered the castle was not far away. But how different it was from Himeji! Matsue is one of the few remaining castles with a wooden structure, and Hearn described it as “an architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities…crested at its summit, like a feudal helmet, bristling with horned gables and gargoyled eaves and tilted puzzles of tiled roofing…”
It certainly looked menacing: dark, brooding, surrounded by a moat. On the yellow water a black swan, crimson-beaked, drifted slowly past. The total effect was wonderfully atmospheric and sinister. In its heyday Matsue must have seemed a daunting destination for its enemies, with steep staircases that could be pulled up to block off and trap intruders. Today, visitors can explore the interior, stocked with historical artefacts, and take a forty-minute boat ride from the moat through the town’s network of waterways.
I found Okayama castle on a return visit to one of my favourite places: Kurashiki, with its potently charming old town. A twenty minute train ride away is Korakuen, officially designated one of Japan’s three great gardens, with vast lawns, lotus ponds, lakes, winding paths and tea-houses. Okayama castle lies just outside the boundary of the garden but Korakuen uses the Japanese technique of “borrowed landscape”: the castle across the river lends its presence to enhance the garden’s landscape. Grey, black and white, the elegant, six-story castle floats serenely above the treetops, watching over local families wandering the paths and (as I was lucky enough to do) viewing the splendours of flowering trees in cherry blossom season.
Japanese castles evoke a vanished world of feudal lords, ancient weaponry, wars, and the dangers of daily life. All this just a street or two away from modern blocks and high speed trains. There are many castles to enjoy – over a hundred – of which twelve survive in their original form, unreconstructed. One of these days I intend to go back and catch up with more of them.