As I might have mentioned at some point, I love medieval history. Having studied the Vikings through to Elizabethan England for history at uni, it’s an amazing, disturbing and rather dysfunctional period of history, but what period isn’t? However, when it comes to anything but medieval Europe, I’m at a bit of a loss. Consequently, if asked about medieval Japan, all I could tell you was that there was some unpleasantness, a civil war, lots of people in armour and many in their pyjamas grabbed their swords and got stabby! For many it didn’t end well…
Yes, I know, for those Japanese historians amongst you, not a very detailed picture of the Shogunate! However, I recently had the chance to visit a number of castles in Japan and to read up on some of this history.
I started the day in Hiroshima. I visited the rebuilt Hiroshima castle, which I found out was in fact the main target of the Americans, not because they were trying to capture the castle from the Shogun, but because the Imperial High Command was based within the castle grounds.
The restoration work is amazing with the entrance and main keep having been rebuilt from scratch with original materials. The time, effort and care that’s gone into this is astounding and something you have to see to really appreciate. Hiroshima, in medieval times, was a centre of trade and power and its huge defensive advantage was the fact that it’s on an island. It may be difficult to see today, but as with many medieval Japanese castles, there are several outer layers that make up a fortified walled town before you even get close to the castle itself.
This layering of walls, outer perimeters, moats and fortified townships is often seen in European castles, but not to the same extent that the Japanese castles were. This gave a massive defensive advantage for the incumbent in the castle as they could still grow crops and have fresh water for longer periods of time before an enemy could get close to starving them out through a siege.
One interesting feature I saw in Hiroshima, that you don’t find in European castles, was that of the sliding wooden doors. These were a feature in the outer perimeter of the castle. If an enemy got in here, the guards could swiftly slide open the doors, fire a volley of arrows, then slide them shut. The outer-side of this part of the castle had holes in the walls for doing the same, but the rapid attack and withdrawing feature meant far more arrows could be poured on a visiting enemy.
As with European castles, Japanese castles have a keep, or an inner tower that’s the most secure part of the castle. For Japanese castles, these are massive wooden structures which are built up with progressively smaller levels until you reach the top, giving the classic and unique tiered look of the castle.
From Hiroshima I travelled to Himeji, less than an hour by bullet train and it was here I found the most stunning castle I’ve ever seen. One family held this continuously for 120 years and standing at the front entrance, you can see why. This is a grand imposing structure that can be seen from anywhere in the city, except now through skyscrapers. In its day, it would have commanded unbridled position in the Himeji skyline. Now world heritage listed, you really have to go there and experience it for yourself to understand the sheer size, scale and defensive capabilities of this castle. This left every European and English castle for dead that I’ve visited so far in terms of layout, design, functionality and standing the test of time.
To get to the keep is a relentless uphill climb through layer upon layer of walls, gates barricades and watch towers, all of which could decimate your army. Even if you managed to get inside the first or second layer, you still continued to have to battle through so many obstacles to try to even get close to the keep. I guess when you’ve got samurais and ninjas wanting to break in and kill you, then it makes perfect sense to build so many fail- safes into your house.
Himeji Castle, A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Himeji castle is distinctively white in design, which I can imagine on a moonlit night would have been a glowing beacon for the surrounding villages. This is a stunning and well-preserved building which is steeped in history. Despite massive cities having developed around both Hiroshima and Himeji castles, there are still obvious remnants of the original fortified townships. It’s easier to work out with Hiroshima, as you just have to look for the natural water ways. However, generally if you find a canal or small brook that’s been built with amazing stonework, then the chances are you’ve reached one of the defensive lines of the castle, often so far away from the castle itself. Without the context of the castle design in mind, it’s just another waterway next to a city street.