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Himeji is a city located in Hyōgo Prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan. As of 2008, the city has an estimated population of 535,571. The total area is 533 km².

Himeji was municipalized on April 1, 1889. Himeji is also called "the kingdom of Shinkin bank", as the headquarters of four Shinkin banks are located here. After the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, the Japanese government reportedly considered moving the nation's capital from Tokyo to Himeji.

On March 27, 2006, the town of Yasutomi from Shisō District, the town of Kōdera from Kanzaki District, and the towns of Ieshima and Yumesaki from Shikama District merged into Himeji.

The most important landmark in Himeji is the Castle. Himeji Castle is a flatland-mountain Japanese castle complex located in Himeji in Hyōgo Prefecture and comprising 83 wooden buildings. It is occasionally known as Hakurojō or Shirasagijō ("White Heron Castle") because of its brilliant white exterior.

It was registered as the first Japanese National Cultural Treasure by UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Japanese National Cultural Treasure in December, 1993. Along with Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle, it is one of Japan's "Three Famous Castles", and is the most visited castle in Japan.

Himeji serves as an excellent example of the prototypical Japanese castle, containing many of the defensive and architectural features most associated with Japanese castles. The tall stone foundations, whitewashed walls, and layout of the buildings within the complex are standard elements of any Japanese castle, and the site also features many other examples of typical castle design, including gun emplacements and stone-dropping holes.

One of Himeji's most important defensive elements, and perhaps its most famous, is the confusing maze of paths leading to the main keep. The gates, baileys, and outer walls of the complex are organized so as to cause an approaching force to travel in a spiral pattern around the castle on their way into the keep, facing many dead ends. This allowed the intruders to be watched and fired upon from the keep during their entire approach. However, Himeji was never attacked in this manner, and so the system remains untested.

Himeji Castle was originally built in 1346. At this time, it was called Himeyama Castle. In 1331, Akamatsu Sadanori planned a castle at the base of Mount Himeji, where Akamatsu Norimura had constructed the temple of Shomyoji. After Akamatsu fell during the Kakitsu War, Yamana clan briefly took over planning of the castle; the Akamatsu family took over again following the Ōnin War.

In 1580, Toyotomi Hideyoshi took control of the badly damaged castle, and Kuroda Yoshitaka built a three-story tower. Following the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu granted Himeji Castle to Ikeda Terumasa who embarked on a nine-year expansion project that brought the castle roughly to its current form. "Only the east gate of one section of the second bailey" survived from the earlier period. The current keep dates from 1601, and the last major addition, the Western Circle, was completed in 1618.

Himeji was one of the last holdouts of the tozama daimyō at the end of the Edo period. It was held by the descendants of Sakai Tadasumi until the Meiji Restoration. In 1868, the new Japanese government sent the Okayama army, under the command of a descendant of Ikeda Terumasa, to shell the castle with blank cartridges and drive its occupiers out.

When the han system was abolished in 1871, Himeji Castle was sold at auction. Its final price was 23 Japanese Yen (in those days, approximately 100,000 yen at today's rates) and in public funds. Himeji was bombed twice in 1945, at the end of World War II. Although most of the surrounding area was burned to the ground, the castle survived almost entirely unscathed, with one firebomb dropped on the top floor of the castle miraculously unexploded. Castle restoration efforts began in 1956.

October 2009

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