Japan 1985

I looked up as the floorboard creaked behind me. It was a bearded stranger wanting to join the tour, smiling broadly. He turned, walked away a few metres and came back towards us. The same creak.


I started the tour. It was all in Japanese but I did offer the stranger a few words in English when I could; he had his guidebook though. This castle, at Himeji, is over 500 years old and avoided damage during the war. It has white walls and grey roof tiles in both peaked and undulating styles: we say it looks like a ‘white heron’ about to fly off. The tour started at the western ramparts and the ladies’ dressing rooms, and continued through the rooms of the five-storey keep, and three smaller keeps. The samurai warriors and the lords had such confidence in the outer walls and the massive moat that the keeps were built more for comfort than defence. But they were cautious: they did instal defences in the keeps.

We finished the tour back in the room with the creaky floorboard. The stranger came up to me, pointed at the floor and then at some Japanese characters printed in his guidebook. They read “uguisubari”. I laughed. An uguisubari is a ‘nightingale floor’, a floorboard where the nails deliberately rub on a casing, and make a chirping noise if someone treads on it. Residents would hear the chirping if someone was creeping through their castle: a clever warning signal.  Sadly the only one I knew about was at Nijo Castle: the stranger was standing on an ordinary dry floorboard which creaked, but didn’t chirp.