Himeji, a thriving industrial port of 470,000, located on the scenic Inland Sea about 40 kilometers west of Kobe, has a world treasure at its center. With its tiled donjon and towers, its gates, earthen walls, massive stone foundations and ramparts, moat and grounds, Himeji Castle is a magnificent example of Japanese castle architecture. And Himeji Castle is, simply, the heart and soul of Himeji.

In 1931, Himeji Castle was designated a National Treasure, one of only four castles in Japan so honored. In 1993, it was one of the first structures in Japan to be put on the list of UNESCO World Cultural and Heritage Sites.

Because the layout of the castle’s white-plastered donjon and towers suggests the lyrical image of a white heron about to take flight, it is often called the White Heron Castle. Like all Japanese castles, it is built of wood, some 360 tons in all, and the white plaster that covers its walls serves as fire and water protection. Amazingly, it has known neither fire or battle in its centuries of existence.

In 1601, Ikeda Terumasa, son-in-law of Tokugawa Ieyasu, then ruler of Japan, built the castle as a five-storied donjon. It took nine years and 25 million man-days to finish the castle.

Its ingenious, labyrinthine gates and spiraling baileys were designed to confuse enemy soldiers. Enter the main gate and you seem to be going away from the castle. The closer you get to the main donjon, the farther away it appears to be. Even the donjon, with its lovely semi-gabled tiled roofs, was built to deceive. From the outside it appears to have five stories but in reality it has six plus a cellar.

Located on Himeyama, about a 10-minute walk north of Himeji Station, the castle is beautiful from all angles, in all seasons and now it is illuminated at night. English-speaking visitors can learn more about castle history and construction and the people who have lived there through the free guide service run by a group of volunteers dedicated to spreading appreciation of Himeji Castle. (Open daily 9:00 to 4:00; closed Decmber 29 to 31. Tel: 0792-85-1146)

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