I’m not sure what to make of castles. On the one hand, if you live in a war-like age, with enemies all around, it makes sense to live behind walls and fortifications. On the other hand, we’ve all seen fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings. The invading forces *always* manage to win. Always. They come in with ladders, battering rams and superior forces and eventually the castle gets overwhelmed. And even if you manage to hang on for a while, eventually the enemy cuts you off from water and supplies and you starve or die off from thirst. No, castles don’t seem like a great strategy to me – unless your foes are completely inept and catapulting cows at you instead of boulders like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then a castle is not a bad idea. 😊
It’s with castle-skepticism, then, that I approach Himeji Castle in Western Japan. Dating back to the 14th century, Himeji is regarded as the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture. Built on a hill, the castle is known in Japan as Hakuro-jo or Shirasagi-jo (“White Egret Caslte” or “White Heron Castle”), due to its brilliant white exterior and its resemblance to a bird taking flight. I will say that Himeji is an impressive sight. As I exit the train station, I can’t miss the castle, about ½ mile away along a straight roadway – elevating, level by level, above the city like a wedding cake for Godzilla and his kaiju pals. The walls are perhaps the most impressive – rock fitted upon rock and canted at a steep angle so ninjas would find it difficult to scale. As I move through the castle grounds, I’m struck by how the entrance winds and winds, with multiple switchbacks – making it all-the-more perilous for potential invaders. Looking up, I see dozens of slots where archers could fire their arrows, or where hot oil could be poured. Although Himeji is a highly-effective defensive castle, it’s also extremely beautiful – clearly the famed Japanese aesthetic was operative even back in the feudal age, whether it was poetry, tea ceremony, or the making of war. Interestingly, the inside of the castle isn’t quite as interesting. There’s some nice polished wood and a few swords to observe in protective cases, but otherwise, it’s pretty spare: no tapestries, no armored suits, no spooky portraits with eyes following you up the staircase. The view from the top, though, is fantastic – especially in the spring during cherry blossom season or in the fall, when I am there, when the maples trees are displaying their bright autumn colors.
I don’t think I’d want to live in Himeji, but I suspect that wasn’t really the point. The castle was likely more of a symbol to the town. “We’re here, we’re big, we’re bad. No one is going to think about attacking a big, beautiful castle like this. And don’t you dare try throwing a cow at us!”
(The fact that first syllable of castle is “cast” is an interesting coincidence. When you break your arm, for example, you put a cast on it to protect the injury until it’s healed. If you leave the cast on too long, however, the bones and muscles atrophy. I think it’s the same with walls and castles – yes, they keep you safe – at first — but they also open you up for stagnation. What emotional walls have you built around yourself as protection from childhood traumas? How might they be holding back? How might they be isolating you? Is it time, perhaps, to reexamine those fortifications – to thank them for their service and to then move beyond the walls?)