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Discovering the lost Himeji castle town

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

An old bridge runs from left to right across the remains of a moat, with Himeji castle faint in the background.
This bridge is on the map. While it looks in keeping with the castle aesthetic on the deck, underneath is a more robust and modern structure.

A few weeks ago I went to Himeji armed with a history book. Within its bilingual pages was a map of the city from the 1800s, showing how the castle town was laid out at the end of the previous century.

A map of Himeji Castle Town from before 1816. The map shows where samurai and lower class people lived, as well as street, embankment and moat alignments.
The map I used to explore old Himeji. The photos are of places on the right hand side.

I spent a while walking the streets and working out what was what in days of old. The modern map aligns reasonably well with this drawn one, and it is possible to see where plots of land have merged and how bits of moat have been lost to roads and even a zoo.

When I lived in the UK, I knew almost instinctively how the "old village" looked before it was buried under new developments. There were ancient buildings, street names and alleyways to light the way. That and nearly five decades of living in and absorbing the history.

The entrance to a Japanese shrine. The roof is heavily tiled, there are columns on either side of the gateway and ornate carving inside.
One of three temples from the old map I may have located in the modern streets.

Japan is different. Many cities were flattened and rebuilt over again as war, fire, earthquake and progress made their mark. While the British savor their old buildings, the typical Japanese house is expected to last only a few decades. Inheritance laws make a building more likely to be pulled down and the plot subdivided and lost.

Yet in Himeji the signs are there if you look for them. Some of the roads still follow their old routes - more or less. There are temples and shrines that have survived the centuries. I found at least three included on the 1800s map, and from there I located more buildings and lost roads that had left echoes in the urban sprawl.

On the left are trees hanging over the water of an old castle moat. On the right is a collection of Japanese houses hugging the waterline.
Houses along the old outer moat. They likely occupy the plots of townhouses used by soldiers and other lower class people.

In a month or three I'll head back there for another walk around with my map. Perhaps I'll find some more signs of a long-gone history.

About the map

The map I used was taken from The Castles and Castle Towns of Japan by HIRAI Kiyosi and translated by Watanabe Hiroshi. This is an excellent bilingual book that uses Himeji as the basis for exploring how Japanese Castles were built, arranged and settled into their landscapes.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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