Photo/IllutrationA replica of Himeji Castle fills the yard of Hiroyasu Imura’s residence in Ise, Mie Prefecture. (Eriko Kai)

  • Photo/Illustraion

ISE, Mie Prefecture--“Himeji Castle, please,” the reporter said as she jumped into the taxi outside Ise-shi Station.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the driver said with a smile.

The castle appeared unexpectedly in the bosom of a quiet residential quarter after a 20-minute ride.

A plate at the entrance read “Hakuro-en” (white heron garden), which is obviously named after “Shirasagi-jo” or “Hakuro-jo” (white heron castle), the alias of Himeji Castle.

The castle was in the yard of a private residence and by now you can guess it was not quite the UNESCO World Heritage site in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture.

What the reporter was investigating was a miniature Himeji Castle in Ise, Mie Prefecture, which is an exquisite replica of the real thing, and is causing a bit of a stir on social media.

Hiroyasu Imura, 80, the “lord” of the castle and former furniture maker, spent 18 years from 1989 to build the castle in 1:23 scale.

His craze for Himeji Castle goes back to his second year in junior high school when he bought a boys’ magazine that came with a kit for making a cardboard Himeji Castle. He was captivated by its white, elegant appearance.

The experience left in him a desire for making a bigger Himeji Castle one day.

His wife, Ikuko, now 76, gave him a technical book on Himeji Castle for his 47th birthday.

And he never looked back.

Built over about 150 square meters, the replica represents what Himeji Castle must have looked like 400 years ago and not exactly what it looks like now. Included are long-gone structures, such as the Nishi-no-maru palace and the Bizen-maru building.

After his wife gave him the book, Hiroyasu studied the castle’s plans and decided he would be able to build one. He had worked for about five years as a furniture maker after graduating from junior high school.

He began by looking for a lot of land for the castle. He insisted that it should be built where no utility poles, houses or other objects would ruin the background. Three years later, he found an ideal lot, which had only rice paddies and mountains behind it.

Hiroyasu was 51 when he started building the castle. He worked on it for about four hours a day after he finished his shift at an insurance company. He began by constructing the castle’s stone walls.

He carved stones and bricks into small pieces and used adhesive and wire to set them in place. He also faithfully replicated the “ogi no kobai” (fan curve) of stone walls, which grow steeper with height.

It took Hiroyasu 13 years to build the stone walls alone.

He used fiber-reinforced plastic to make the castle’s buildings. He was 69 when he completed the entire castle complex. The total construction cost swelled to 18 million yen ($160,000), eating up a substantial portion of his retirement money.

“I never thought that my present would really prompt my husband to begin building a castle,” Ikuko said.

In fact, Ikuko has played her own part in the making of the castle. She made the “shachi” ornaments on the castle’s roof, along with the horses, warriors and other clay figurines on the castle’s premises.

She said she attended pottery classes for several years in order to make the figurines.

The renown of the replica has reached ears in Himeji, where sits the original castle.

Shigehiro Kudo, a 54-year-old curator with the Himeji Center for Research into Castles and Fortifications, is one of those who visited Hakuro-en, the miniature look-alike, on hearing about its splendor.

“A good thing (about Hakuro-en) is that it allows you to command a bird’s-eye view of the castle from angles that are off-limits to humans (in the real castle),” Kudo said with admiration.

Every detail looks authentic, including the shapes and configuration of the gun and arrow slits in the walls and the number of lattice bars on the main keep. The inner moat is filled with real water, even though the water may not be visible from the outside.

The numbers of stone steps were not available from the castle’s plans, so Hiroyasu went to Himeji Castle to count them himself.

The extreme precision of the replica has even deceived those who are knowledgeable about the original castle.

On one occasion, Kudo received a visit from a tour guide for the castle, who brought in what the guide thought could be a photo of the Bizen-maru building taken before it was destroyed by fire. The photo, however, turned out to be an image of Hakuro-en, Kudo said.

Hakuro-en has up to about 30 visitors a day as its reputation has spread on social networking websites. A busload of non-Japanese group tourists came to visit it on one occasion.

A profusion of comments are available on Twitter in praise of it.

“It was more cool than I had ever thought,” one tweet says. “It was just amazing,” says another.

Preservation of the miniature castle’s beauty requires constant upkeep. Its weather-worn components have to be taken apart and repainted piece by piece. Just as one piece is being repaired, another may fall into a state in need of repair.

“You couldn’t do it if you weren’t really into it,” Hiroyasu said with a laugh.

The original Himeji Castle, built by warlord Ikeda Terumasa (1564-1613) between 1601 and 1609, is characterized by a complex structure comprising the main keep and three minor keeps connected with roofed passages. It was one of the first sites in Japan to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.

Hiroyasu Imura’s Hakuro-en, located in the Enzacho district of Ise, is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Admission is free.