Fifty years on: A Visit to Himeji Castle by Nicholas Knight

Himeji Castle, also known as Shirasagi-jo, the Castle of the White Egret. National Treasure, the most Important Japanese Cultural Property and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. But never mind all that: to the James Bond fan, it’s Tiger Tanaka’s ninja training school in “You Only Live Twice”.

Himeji Castle November 2016

It may not be the first place that springs to mind when considering iconic Bond locations; perhaps it doesn’t have the cachet of, say, a Piz Gloria or a James Bond Island. But, as everything between the dumping of Helga Brandt in the piranha pool and Bond’s wedding to Kissy Suzuki takes place at the castle (about 8 1/2 minutes of screen-time), it’s one of the main real life locations in “You Only Live Twice”.

Even as a child, Himeji Castle struck me as being incredibly beautiful, impossibly exotic and unlike any building that I had ever seen, a world away from any of the crumbling old ruins that passed for castles near where I lived (I’m looking at you, Caerphilly). I have always wanted to go there, so as the wife and I were in Japan in November 2016 to celebrate her birthday it was just a case of persuading her to make a minor detour in our schedule to squeeze in a visit.

Filming began at Himeji in August 1966. The producers had to obtain special permission from the Japanese government in order to film there but the production had been obliged to slink away with its tail between its legs after only a few days. When photographs appeared in the Japanese press of the filming of the shuriken (throwing stars) scene, there was national outrage as it seemed that damage was being inflicted on the precious monument, a major restoration of which had been completed only two years earlier. The producers explained that a false wall had been built behind the wooden targets and that the location had been treated with due reverence and respect, but to no avail: the filmmakers were evicted. As a consequence of this ignominious retreat, some of the scenes that ostensibly take place here had to be filmed in the gardens of the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, which itself portrayed the Osato Chemicals building in “You Only Live Twice”. I was visiting the castle fifty years (after filming took place, so I was interested to see whether or not Himeji had finally forgiven this supposed transgression and now embraced its Bond heritage. I also wondered exactly how much of the footage had been shot elsewhere.

The site of Bond’s arrival by helicopter

The castle dominates the city and environs of Himeji much as it has done since construction was completed in 1609. It’s less than an hour away from Kyoto on the bullet train and you can see it off in the distance well before you pull into Himeji station. A wide boulevards cuts through the city and leads straight to the gate outside the castle grounds. Once through the gate, you’re on the edge of San-no-maru Hiroba, the area in front of the castle where Bond’s helicopter lands and where he is greeted by Tanaka. Apart from some changes in the foliage and a bit of scaffolding where the paintwork is being touched up, the scene looks exactly as it does in the film. The main keep, Dai-tenshu, stands before you, built on the third step of a small hill. With a little imagination, you can appreciate how the castle got its name: the building’s plastered walls and upturned eaves, glinting in the early morning sun, give an impression of a white heron taking flight. OK, with quite a lot of imagination.

I had a few minutes to kill before it opened at 9.00 am, so I took out my ‘Eyewitness Travel” guide to see what it said about the castle. The one non-historical entry says “its cinematic potential was exploited by Akira Kurosawa in his 1985 film Ran”.  Yes, it was. However, the fact that this “cinematic potential” was realised by Saltzman and Broccoli almost 20 years earlier and was presented to a much larger worldwide audience then isn’t mentioned. This irks me. Could it be that the writer thinks that “Ran” should be considered as “art”, thus is worthy of inclusion in this guide, but “You Only Live Twice” shouldn’t so it doesn’t count? (This rang a distant bell, so when I got home to England I consulted my ‘Eyewitness’ guide to Switzerland. Here’s what it says is at the summit of the Schilthorn: “a famous revolving restaurant”. That’s it. Why is it famous? Because it featured in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and even now retains the name it inherited from Fleming’s novel and the subsequent film: “Piz Gloria”. The writer doesn’t seem to think that this is important enough to mention, while conceding that the location is ‘famous’. This beggars two questions:

1) Could there be some sort of cultural snobbery at work in these publications?

2) Why do I keep buying them?)

The box office had opened, so I perused the guide leaflet and map that I’d been given with my ticket: no mention of Bond anywhere. Never mind, onwards and upwards. The walled paths leading to the main keep, built in a zig-zag pattern in order to confuse potential attackers, pass through a series of fortified gates. Walking through the second of these, Ro-no-mon, I immediately recognised the sight before me. In the film, Bond, Aki and Tanaka come strolling down some steps and Tiger tells Bond that he’s going to be transformed into “a Japanese” and will have to take a wife. They filmed it here! I felt stupidly excited, as I do whenever I find myself at a location that has been familiar to me for most of my life, thanks to the films: maybe that isn’t so stupid, really?

Even at this early hour, there were lots of visitors milling about. Whilst I waited for some of them to walk out of shot, so that I could get a clear photo, a coach load of Korean tourists laboured up the path behind me and came to a halt. Their guide began explaining something to them in their own language. She paused for a while, then suddenly pointed up the hill saying, in English:

Sean Connery, ‘You Only Live Twice’, very famous!

“Sean Connery, You Only Live Twice, very famous!”

Not exactly the fulsome acknowledgement of Bond that I’d been hoping for, but it was a start.

The scene in which Tanaka shows off the equipment of his own ‘Q’ branch is set within the confines of the main keep, but it wasn’t filmed there. This is a good thing. Since it’s constructed almost entirely of wood, a single spark from one of the rocket gun projectiles could have reduced the whole edifice to a smouldering pile of ashes within seconds. The filmmakers would have been lynched, rather than merely banished.

The castle has 6 floors and a basement. On one of the floors is a massive miniature model showing the castle and the city as it had been in the 17th century. Standing next to this was an unusually tall Japanese man in his seventies. My wife made the mistake of saying something to him (she’s a friendly soul). He turned out to be a guide and proceeded to follow us about the floor, producing things from folders, pointing at objects and expounding at great length about the history of the castle:

James Bond 007 Garden is pointed out

“…walls used to be all around the city….merchants used to live…arrows fired through…Portugese guns…different shaped slots…stone drops….James Bond Double-O Seven Garden”.

“Oh yes?”, I exclaimed, perking up and instantly back in the room.

I leaned to get a good look at what our chap was pointing at through one of the windows, then got out the map and identified this fine destination on it. I whipped out my iPod. My digital copy of the complete “You Only Live Twice” was cued up and ready to roll (of course it was), so I showed my new friend the scene of Tiger telling Bond and Aki that they can’t marry.

“Ah!” cried my new friend joyfully. “Akiko Wakabayashi! Tetsuro Tamba!”

“…….and Sean Connery,” I prompted.

“Yes!” And with that, he got a cell phone out of his bag and asked if he could take footage of the movie playing on my iPod. “I was a young man then”, he commented wistfully.

There we are you see, the International Brotherhood of Bond in action once again, building bridges between nations. Not only that, but here was the first acknowledgment by a representative of the castle that “You Only Live Twice” had been filmed there.

Much stick fighting took place here

Out of the main keep and in front of the sloping stone wall below it is where lots of ninja fighting action, prior to the ‘Q’ scene, was filmed. Through Bizen-mon Gate, which has a stone coffin built into its wall due to a shortage of construction material at the time, is the alleyway where the infamous shuriken scene was shot. The cityscape in the distance has changed a bit since 1966, but nothing else has. The wall, in front of which the wooden targets were placed, is pristine; not a mark on it.

The far end of the passageway was being guarded by a ninja. I had dressed myself in similar garb, just in case, so I was rather hoping that he would recognise me as one of his own and let me pass with a cheery wave and a “how’re you doing?” But no. Fortunately, I had trained hard and quickly to become a ninja like him, so after a furious battle lasting several seconds I was on my way again.

Battle of the ninjas (featuring Nicholas Knight in ninja garb)

Ninjas originated in the mountains of the Mie prefecture; most of the stories of them hanging about in Japanese castles are fanciful. Could the presence of this one be a covert homage to ‘You Only Live Twice”? I doubt it, as I soon discovered that a group had once been resident in the grounds although had not been allowed within the castle itself.

“Much, much better: Ninjas!”

So, on to ‘James Bond Double-O Seven Garden’ or, as my map would have it, the garden of the Nishi-no-maru bailey. Bond gets out of his chopper and engages in a bit of walk and talk activity with Tiger. Asked if he has any commandos, Tanaka says he’s got much, much better: ninjas! That was filmed here, the little well that they walk past is still there.

Once Aki is dead, Bond is keen to continue his ninja training. We witness the slaughter of a blameless water melon, a few wooden boards are bisected and a large block of ice is nutted: all filmed here. Although Bond is cunningly disguised as ‘a Japanese’ at this point, a Spectre assassin is somehow able to identify him and attempts to stick him with a bayonet-equipped bamboo pole. This particular fight begins beside a stone pillar thing, which is still here in the garden, but as soon as we see Bond face on with the little red bridge behind him we’re in Tokyo. The rest of the scene, including Bond’s ‘I’m a teapot’ pose, was shot at the Hotel New Otani. That’s the magic of the movies, folks.

from You Only Live Twice

I had discovered that apart from the interiors, which were filmed at Pinewood, there’s only about twenty seconds of footage, in the final scene, that wasn’t filmed at Himeji. There’s nothing tangible at the castle to acknowledge that “You Only Live Twice” had ever been shot here. A little plaque or a photo somewhere would have been nice, a word or two in the pamphlet, something like that. However, given the designations listed in my opening paragraph, for the Japanese nation the significance of this incredible location lies, perhaps understandably, elsewhere.

Flat-pack model

Maybe the gift shop would have a few Bond-related souvenirs? I turned the place upside-down in my search. Not a one. I wasn’t returning home empty-handed though, so I settled for a flat-packed cardboard model of Himeji’s main keep. I tackled the assembly of this during the Christmas holidays and I must admit that the resulting structure is really rather nifty. It now resides next to Little Nellie on ‘Bond Model Mantelpiece’.

James Bond has been to Himeji Castle: he can’t go there again, but Japan is an amazing country. It has sprawling, ultra-modern metropolises, ancient capitals, bullet trains and breathtaking, unspoiled countryside. The cinematic Bond has not set foot physically on Japanese soil for over fifty years: Barbara, it’s time to bring back Bond-San.


article by Nicholas Knight

6 Responses

  1. Great write up Nic! I think a future Japan visit is definitely on the cards… even more so after reading this. Glad to hear you had such an amazing time!

    Cheers – Chris

  2. Hello Nic! I enjoyed your article. I’ve never been to Himeji; must confess I feel bad about that because YOLT is my favourite JB film – and I lived in Japan for ten years! Did you visit more of the Tokyo locations?
    Domo arigato gozimasu!

    1. Thank you. It’s a shame you didn’t get to Himeji, it is fantastic. No, this time we just stuck to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara and ended up on Okinawa. We have been to Tokyo on a previous trip, so I managed to pass the Hotel New Otani and get a photo then. I don’t think many of the Tokyo locations are still there, are they?

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