Thursday, October 13, 2005

Himeji Castle

I went to Himeji castle in Hyogo prefecture a few weeks ago - and I was stunned. It's easy to grow cynical of Japanese castles, since usually they're constructed from concrete and are only a couple of years old. They may look pretty from a distance, but up close the moulded cement and tour guides makes them feel more like a Disneyland ride than a real piece of history.

Himeji is different. Although it's also been reconstructed several times in its history, the architects have thankfully shied away from the concrete route, and have instead re-used the original building materials where its been possible, as well as employing traditional construction techniques. The results are more than worth it - finally, a Japanese castle that feels like it's more than ten years old.

The other main difference from the other castles I've visited is the size. Himeji towers above the surrounding landscape, and the courtyard alone provides plenty of opportunity to explore before you've even reached the main building. The suicide quarter was particularly interesting - some people think that this area was where samurai would disembowel themselves if the castle was ever captured. Luckily for the samurai, Himeji has never fallen.

Right next to the castle is "Koko-en", a garden which was built in 1992 to commemorate the hundred year anniversary of the establishment of the Himeji municipality. In general I haven't been impressed with the Japanese gardens I've seen (see http://anenglishmaninnyugun.blogspot.com/2005/07/fake-plastic-trees.html) but, again, this was different.
 
For a start, it was quiet. The 9 neatly sculpted gardens were separated by a maze of walls and hedges, so that even when it was busy it was easy to feel like you were on your own. Plus all the gardens had a different theme, such as the "bamboo garden" and the "tea garden", which meant I never reached the dreaded stage of "garden fatigue" (similar to the oft-mentioned "temple-fatigue", but in this case the victim develops a sort of temporary blindness where he or she no longer has the capacity to appreciate yet another delicately trimmed shrub or tastefully sculpted pond).
 
Koko-en may not be on any top five list of gardens in Japan, but as far as I'm concerned it was the best one I've seen, and I'd definitely recommend it over the more famous, but ultimately slightly-disappointing Kenroku-en in Kanazawa. Koko-en may only be a few years old, but the thought that's been put into it more than makes up for the lack of history.

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