Movie Locales, Part 1: Himeji Castle & “You Only Live Twice,” “Shogun”

Himeji Castle (Himeji-jo, or 姫路城)2008.

Himeji Castle, the “White Heron Castle,” dominates the City of Himeji’s skyline and aura.  It’s Japan’s largest and most shockingly beautiful castle from antiquity.  Himeji, the city, lies on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea/Osaka Bay, just down a ways from Kobe.  Kobe’s the capital of Hyogo Prefecture, the only one that spans the full breadth of Honshu Island, the largest in the Japanese archipelago.  I know something of Himeji as it was only a 1-hour and 15-minute train ride, aboard the “Bantan Line,” from the small town I lived in during 1990 and 1991.  I was very fortunate in that my town was situated almost smack in the middle of Hyogo Prefecture; thus I could go either north to the Sea of Japan, to the hot spring town of Kinosaki, which boasts shockingly beautiful views of the sea and the craggy cliffs that overlook it, or go south, about the same distance, to Himeji, and enjoy “city life” in a town with a population topping 500,000 and home to a glorious castle from ages past.

A good 3-minute, introductory video from NHK:

I’ve visited Himeji Castle more times than I can recall.  It never gets “old” to me.  I went there, and around Himeji (the city) countless times in 1990 and ’91, with friends, with my mom (see photo below), a former fiance, and over the years with others, including friends from Tokyo, a former wife, a group of University of Alabama-Birmingham history students and others.  Himeji Castle is a dear place to me.  Note for your “Bucket List”:  coming into or passing through Himeji at night by train and seeing Himeji Castle all lit up.  An amazing, shockingly beautiful site.

Himeji Castle has also been the backdrop for countless films, in and out of Japan.  Here are a couple you may know about . . .

“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” (1967)

Summary:  James Bond is “killed,” then goes under cover to Japan, where he saves the world from SPECTRE.

Film Notes:  * In a blooper, British agent Henderson asserts, and Bond agrees, that 007 likes his vodka martinis “stirred, not shaken.”   * Ian Fleming took the title from Japanese poet celebrated 17th Century poet Bashō‘s assertion that one only really lives twice:  right when one is born and right before one dies.  * This is the third Bond film in which his arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavo Blofeld, appears (played here by Donald Pleasence).  * Sean Connery’s Japanese pronunciation is atrocious.  I’m talking utterly cringe-making. 

Himeji Castle: site of “Tiger Tanaka’s” Training Center

While walking around the grounds of Himeji Castle . . .

Bond: “Do you have any commandos here?”

Tiger Tanaka: “I have much, much better.  Ninjas.  Top-secret, Bond-san.  This is my ninja training school”

About 12 seconds into the trailer above, you’ll see a swordsman rushing the camera, at the foot of Himeji Castle.

.        .        .

Update (February 2011):  Mount Shinmoe (新燃岳) on Kyushu Island, locale of arch criminal Blofeld’s under-volcano spaceport, has erupted.  Here’s a cool satellite image of the eruption:

Satellite Image. Shinmoe Dake (新燃岳) Erupts. February 2011.

.      .      .

SHOGUN (Miniseries, 1980)

Summary:  James Clavell’s epic novelization of historical figure Will Adams, late 16th & early 17th Century English trader who befriended Japanese daimyo-cum-Shogun, Tokogawa Ieyasu (founder of the Tokogawa Shogunite that would last 250 years).

Notes:  * Himeji Castle is used extensively in scenes . . . as Osaka Castle.  * Full Circle Part I:  in 1600, after the decisive battle of Sekigahara, Shogun Tokugawa (“Toranaga” in the novel and miniseries) gave his Himeji Castle to his son-in-law, Teramasa Ikeda, who embarked on an extensive tear-down and re-construction of the structure, eventually giving it the iconic form it has today, and which it had during the filming of Shogun.  * Connections: Legendary Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, played “Lord Toranaga” (the Tokugawa character) in Shogun.  Mifune was famed Director Akira Kurosawa’s go-to leading man and/or scene stealer in no less than 16 Kurosawa films, but not in Kagemusha or Ran (see below), which both used Himeji Castle as a set piece.  Besides Shogun, Mifune also starred in English language or Western-produced films Grand Prix, (the incredible, though almost devoid of dialog) Hell in the Pacific, and Midway. (and the forgettable, 1941).

Shogun 1980.  Mariko prepares for seppuku (ritual suicide), with Himeji Castle standing-in for Osaka Castle.

.     .     .

Himeji-jo also featured prominently in Akira Kurosawa’s modern masterpieces, Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985).  Here’s a trailer for Ran where, at the 24-26 second mark, you can glimpse the underside of Himeji-jo. 

.     .     .

A few photos from a visit or two past.  I made a wonderful video of an all-by-myself visit to Himeji Castle during cherry blossom season, 1991, but, alas, it’s lost or destroyed one of my recent moves.

Wedding Couple. Himeji Castle. 2008.

.

Looking roughly Southeast from the top of Himeji-jo. 2008.

.

Himeji Castle in Black & White. 2008.

.

Left-to-Right:  my mom, someone I used to know, me.  Himeji-jo. 1991.

.

.

Next (when I get around to it):  Lost in Translation and Memoirs of a Geisha.  Also, I have to give a shout-out to the wonderful Francophile Blog, Le Stuff, whose wonderful, multi-part To Catch a Thief series inspired this one.

.               .               .

2012 Update:  I was recently contacted by the owner of an Asia Travel Blog who asked me if I would link his Himeji Castle page to this one.  After taking a look at it, I certainly will.  A great and in-depth history of Himeji Castle here, at —

Best Travel Site — Himeji Castle

.            .            .

  1. Wasn’t Himeji Castle also used (most recently, perhaps) in The Last Samurai?

      • letsjapan
      • September 17th, 2010

      Yes, and no, Saul. They filmed extensively at Engyo-ji. To those not familiar with Himeji: Engyo-ji is a famous, rather ancient, Buddhist temple built atop a small mountain/large hill that overlooks the City of Himeji. You take a cable car up to and down from it. I’ve only been there once, back in the spring of ’91, with my friend Mark-from-Sheboygan. I’m planning to write about that experience sometime. I can tell you this: after the cable car ride back down, Mark and I repaired to The World’s Best Yakitori Restaurant, right there across from Himeji Station, and we both ate horse sashimi for the first time — you only live once/twice/whatever.

      R.

  2. oops! I better stop lying to ppl, telling them it was 姫路城! Tks, R.

    BTW, do you know Daniel Fath? Get his blog link from his twitter @Nictos (currently not on twitter page for him, sorry) – you must read his blog. I say: your photos and Tokyo, the low-down know-how + his writing = book. You’ll like his blog.

    Oh! I think he’s in KdL, so, profile for him would have blog link. Spoke with him, a good guy.

      • letsjapan
      • September 18th, 2010

      Saul,

      Thanks for the heads-up on and regarding Daniel. I’ll look him up for sure! And, of course, feel free to pass along my name and “letsjapan.wordpress.com” to anyone whom you think may be interested.

      All kind things,

      R

      p.e. – re that “The Last Samurai” film, I actually have a(n incredibly tenuous) connection. When it was in pre-production I received a call from Los Angeles from an assistant to the Set Designer (or some such person). They were looking for a real, or very good reproduction, of a Meiji Period 2-wheeled cart. They’d gotten wind of my then-company (with the former wife). So, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I started burning up the phone lines to friends and connections in Kyoto (who themselves had some friends or friends with the studios there) to see if I could locate such a thing. Well, in the end it never happened. They had some deadline and I suppose they found their own cart.

  3. Good stuff Richard!!!!! And many thanks for the lestuffblog.com mention. Keep em comin!

      • letsjapan
      • September 18th, 2010

      So wonderful to hear from you, D. So now I’ve had a couple of comments from Japan and one from France. Hope the North Americans will wake up soon.

      At any rate, you and Le Stuff are deserving of the credit and hat tip (and link), as your “Thief” series did, indeed, inspire me to do this on Himeji-jo and, as mentioned, to be followed-up by at least one other on Memoirs of a Geisha and Lost in Translation. I confess to mixed feelings about seeing these places that are near and dear to me on the big screen (and knowing that millions of other Americans are seeing them, too): these places hold very personal meaning(s) to and for me and, as with Himeji-jo, there are literally years of “built-up” memories. Knowing that some person sees this or that place or street or scene and just sort of thinks it’s pretty, then moves on (along with the film to the next scene) almost blasphemes the deep feelings I have for the place, whatever place that may be. I know that it’s greedy of me and that it’s a conceit to think that a place built years — sometimes centuries — before I and my personal dramas came along, and will remain long after I’m gone, is “all mine,” or mine and the person(s) with whom I’ve experienced it first-hand, but it’s a feeling I have nonetheless. And that’s part of why I wanted to write what I’ve written about Himeji-jo (and will write about a place or two in Lost in Translation and Memoirs of a Geisha): to “put it on record” that these places have meaning to me and, to this American at least, are more than mere backdrops for a film, like some cardboard scenery constructed for a play, to be used, perhaps momentarily admired, then broken-down and tossed into the bin after the show’s over.

      By the way, I just stepped out on the front porch a moment ago. It appears that last night some idiots Auburnized C’s car. I’ll help her clean it up in a little while, if she wants.

      Safe and enjoyable travels,

      Richard

    • michelle
    • September 18th, 2010

    Amazing. I love the photo of the wedding couple and the black and white. These are the type of places and things that stay with us forever. I could only hope to visit it one day. Amazing stuff R.🙂

      • letsjapan
      • September 18th, 2010

      Michelle,

      Here’s a photo of me and that group of UAB students at Himeji-jo in 2008, taken just before or just after I took that snapshot of the wedding couple: http://img571.imageshack.us/img571/2297/himejijouab200830.jpg

      I don’t mind putting that up here, in this comment, but felt a little reluctant to put it in the Post-proper. Besides, it would’ve been a little redundant, I think.

      Thank you and, yes, it’s a special place.

      R.

    • Lois
    • September 18th, 2010

    Nice visit back to Himeji-jo. I have a pic somewhere with a whole load of JETs in front.

      • letsjapan
      • September 18th, 2010

      Lois,

      Oh, I wasn’t on that trip — with the gaggle of JETs — but with you, and with Mark, certainly. I still have a copy of the Hyogo AJET Newsletter wherein the tale’s told of Mark and I going down to Engyo-ji (there just outside of town) and have the cable car ride of our lives (to wit: “Obah? Obah?”).

      Natsukashii, neh?

      R

  4. Hi great blog! Does running a blog like this take a large amount
    of work? I have absolutely no knowledge of coding but I
    was hoping to start my own blog in the near future.
    Anyway, should you have any suggestions or techniques for new
    blog owners please share. I understand this is off subject nevertheless I simply wanted to
    ask. Thank you!

      • letsjapan
      • July 4th, 2012

      Just “jump in,” and learn by doing. You’re in India? If so, what part?

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: