finally, a castle. and stairs.

hikone castle Yesterday the rain lifted enough to allow me to wander around the grounds of Senso-ji for an hour and half.  The temple has a lovely garden full of small shrines on the other side from my hotel, something I had completely missed both the times I’d been through the grounds.  Also, it has very aggressive carp.

Japan has an impressive train system and yesterday it took me, via two local lines in Tokyo, the Shinkansen, and another local line from Maibara into Hikone, site of a feudal castle.

Japan once had over a thousand feudal castles, the military strongholds  of the shogunate.  Now it has only about a dozen remaining original castles.  Hikone-jo is one of these and it was saved from the destruction of many of the castles during the Meiji restoration because the emperor liked it.   Hikone-jo sits high on a hill and is constructed mostly from pieces scavenged from other local castles that the lord of Hikone defeated.   The keep dates from 1575 and the castle was completed in 1622; much of what exists on site is original, including massive 600 year old wooden doors on the gates.  It has unusual lotus-shaped windows and rather elaborate tile patterns on its roof and a design involving a sort of alternative symmetry.  The north and south sides are identical to each other, and the east and west sides are also identical to each other but different from the north and south sides.   The stairs to climb up to it are wide and broad and channeled with small gullies that remove water and probably were horrible for attackers on horseback.  It is also defended by three moats, one of which was filled in decades ago for mosquito control.  Once inside the castle, which is three stories tall, you must go up stairs that might as well be ladders they are so steeply pitched in order to reach the upper floors, an arrangement that would definitely have given the advantage to defenders.   (Of course you must also then go down these challenging steps…)  Inside, the beams and supports seem hewed from entire trees; the roof beams are naturally shaped and wavy rather than squared off.  The effect is one of a strength both graceful and imposing.

Unlike medieval European castles, Hikone-jo was not a residence and the shogun and his family lived in one of three nearby homes.  Two of these are near the castle itself and another was located nearer the village of Hikone, which nestles at the base of the hill below the castle.  The castle itself served an almost entirely military function.  Troops were housed there and our guide told us that to take and possess the castle was to defeat the shogun, which perhaps explains why the logical approach to attacking a castle built entirely of wood and plaster — fire– was not used more often.

At the very top of the keep, where only the highest ranked people were permitted, there is a small room where the shogun could meet with his generals and discuss strategy.  On either side of the room are two secret rooms not apparent even from outside the castle in which 57 soldiers could hide in case they were needed to defend the shogun.   Above the room, hidden near the ceiling and almost invisible is a small alcove.   This is where a pair of ninjas hid, also ready to defend their lord should the discussions become too heated.  Our guide assured us that the ninjas would merely leap into the room and encourage the participants to take it down a notch before someone got  hurt.   Somehow this doesn’t exactly jibe with what pop culture tells me about ninjas.  Still…a ninja nook! I think I need one of those in my house.

It is 6 am now and still raining and it will probably rain all day.  We travel by train again today, this time to Hiroshima.  Perhaps the rain is appropriate.

~ by gun street girl on October 31, 2010.

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