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A hilltop white heron 400 years old

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Walking up the steep steps to the donjon, or main keep, of Himeji Castle, visitors are greeted by a panoramic view of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, a beautiful city that was once a huge castle town.

Himeji Castle is known as Shirasagijo, or White Heron Castle, because the main donjon and three smaller donjons resemble the bird.

The city dates back to 1333, when Akamatsu Norimura, head of a clan ruling Harima region, the ancient name of the region, built a fort atop Himeyama hill. His son, Sadanori, dismantled the fort and built Himeyama Castle in 1346.

Two centuries later, the feudal ruler of Harima, Kuroda Shigetaka, better known as Kanbei, did some remodeling work and Himeji Castle was born.

However, Hashiba Hideyoshi, later known as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, remodeled the castle again, building a three-story donjon in 1581.

After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Ikeda Terumasa was awarded the region by the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, for his crucial help in the battle. Ikeda, a son-in-law of the shogun, completely rebuilt the castle and the magnificent six-story donjon is what we see today.

In 1601, Ikeda ordered three moats to be dug around the building, and work on the complex was completed in 1609 at an expenditure of labor believed to have totaled 25 million man-days.

Although the castle is six stories, it appears to have only five stories. There is one basement level.

The castle that visitors enjoy today actually dates back to 1618.

In December 1993, Himeji Castle and Horyuji temple in Nara Prefecture were designated by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Himeji Castle has been well-preserved and is an excellent example of a Japanese castle as the stone and white plastered walls have been kept in their original form. Fortunately, it survived for nearly 400 years despite wars, fires and other natural disasters that have ravaged Japan.

A section of the center moat and the entire inner moat are still as they were in feudal times. The area within the center moat has been designated a historical site.

Family crests of the lords who contributed to the castle's construction or repairs adorn the oni-gawara, or devil ridge tiles, and maru-gawara, or circular tiles, that form the eaves of the castle.

The castle's walls and yagura, or watchtowers, have loopholes called sama through which warriors could keep watch and shoot arrows and harquebuses at a besieging enemy. Sama used by archers were rectangular, while those used by harquebusiers were square, round or triangular. The sama were larger on the inside of the castle wall than the outside to provide greater protection from enemy attack.

There used to be about 2,522 sama, but only 287 remain.

Facts about Himeji Castle

Height: The castle sits on Himeyama hill, which is 45.6 meters high. The castle is 14.85 meters tall, while the stone walls surrounding it are 31.5 meters tall. The donjon is about 92 meters above sea level.

Each of the two main pillars is 24.6 meters tall and about one meter in diameter

Size: The castle complex covers 233 hectares--about 50 times larger than Tokyo Dome.

Weight: 6,200 tons

Annual number of visitors: 820,000

Access: 20-minute walk north of JR Himeji Station.

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