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Sunday, June 3, 2012

LEGO: Japanese Castle

This a actually a LEGO diorama I built about one year ago. It was the first one I actually built, and in the ensuing 12 months have actually learned a lot more about using the LEGO pieces to greater advantage, making a better design and a lot more about architecture in general.

As such, I'm not that enthused about this particular diorama. It has flashes of what I wanted to create, but I still lack the LEGO bricks, and thus money, to pull it off properly.

This is a Japanese castle (shiro) with a yagura (turret) out front. Both are actually from two different LEGO kits put out in the 1990s and I have pretty much left them stock. Shiro is the Japanese word for castle, however, when referring to a particular castle like the one in Himeiji, the word 'jo' is added to make it Himeiji-jo.

I did add some golden sachi (dolphins) to the roofs which are better observed in the side views.

The sachi are perched on their heads with their tails flicked upwards. According to Japanese superstition, the sachi were - because they are water creatures, and beautiful - placed on castles to act as guardians against fire. Fire, of course being a major concern of castles and other buildings like regular homes because they were made of wood - excluding the base of a castle with was always built of stones. The sachi were always placed atop the tenshu (the main castle keep), which in this diorama is the larger of the two buildings.

The LEGO castle does offer some great features, such as the chidori hafu (plover gables) which are the triangular window-like features made out of dark blue LEGO.The gables were actually a militaristic ploy to confuse attacking armies to make it appear as though there were more levels to a castle than there actually were. I am unsure how successful this ploy was after the first castle using gables was, because after that, you kind of knew it was a trick. I suppose it just became a part of the overall beauty of a Japanese castle. But, the gables were also used on the towers, and when seen from afar, the whole construct looked like it had many more levels than it actually had. 

Japanese castles usually contained anywhere between three to five levels. My diorama has four. The blue LEGO designates a level, and the other is the main one on the ground where the doors are open to allow you to see the tiled flooring I added.
There are over 100 castles in Japan either fully restored or at least partially remaining. Many have been wiped from the face of the Earth, like the one in my hometown of Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken - Ohtawara-jo - which only has the flat grounds left, with no other indication except for some signage that there ever was a castle there. I do have a blog on that particular castle with a wee bit of history coming up soon (soon is a relative word, as I actually began writing about it many months ago, and efforts to gain more information have fallen on deaf ears).

When building a diorama, one thing I learned after constructing my own 4-foot x 8-foot train set was that when building a scene, there should not just be scenery.

A diorama is meant to show life. In this case, I am showing life in feudal Japan between the 1600s-1868 - Edo-jidai (Edo era) when the Shogun ruled Japan with the military (made up of samurai and ashigaru - elite swordsmen and foot soldiers). I also have plans to write on the Japanese military forces of this era, so bear with me. I'm reading about four books on Japan at the moment (three, as I just took a break from writing and finished one on ukiyo-e - more on that later!), so I need to gather my thoughts and write some notes in my head before creating a blog article.

As mentioned, a diorama needs life... that means it should show snippets of what life was like for people in that time or scene. For kicks, I built a rickshaw and added a parasol carrying woman as a passenger. There are also people walking around doing their business. They should not have their swords out, but perhaps the ones that do are up to no good.

Check it out... see if you can find the two ninja in and around the tower to the right. One is up to no good - the evil red one there to assassinate - and a hidden black one peering from behind a doorway supposedly guarding the tower and his daimyo master from assassins.

The castle also has a pair of komainu statues guarding the entrance of the main castle behind the guards. Okay... they don't look like real lion dogs, as those are on four paws, but you make do with what you have. Hmmm... I suppose I could create realistic looking ones with a bunch of very small LEGO pieces.. if I am anal enough... and I suppose the fact that I have built so many LEGO dioramas should already give an indication that I am... Anyhow, the 'komainu' I have here are from two different sets of a 1990s LEGO  SYSTEM Expedition kits.   

The castles has a cool-looking cannon in it, as does the tower.

Up above on the top of the castle, the daimyo (area leader) and his wife in white face make-up stand and look over their domain. The daimyo has a spyglass in his right hand (taken from a sailor minifig), his wife has a fan (she's complete from a Geisha minifig). Both the sailor and geisha were part of a mystery packs LEGO Series 4.

I also made a cool-looking cherry tree to the left. Do you know how hard it is to find pink dots in LEGO? While LEGO is indeed making inroads as a girl's toy, pink is still a tough LEGO color to find. Lego tree leaves are also a bugger to get a hold of. Not to mention the tree components and the arches - which I won't mention. In another diorama I am building, I have become even more creative and have added a different type of piece to create long tree trunks, as standard brown four dot rounds are a tough find as well - especially in the quantities I want/need.

I love that under the LEGO cherry tree there are a couple of men sitting quietly near each other but by themselves contemplating the serenity of nature while behind them a samurai practices kyudo (Japanese archery. There is also a man sweeping up the cherry blossoms fallen on the ground. War and Peace and Pieces.

For your viewing pleasure, here are links to my other LEGO dioramas, built this past year after I made this one. I was going to add to the roadway, build-up a maze and moat, but that will have to be for another day.         

All photos below should expand when you click on them to give you a better look at the details.

Front view.

Back view.
Side view.
Castle guards in front of 'Komainu' statues.

Red ninja sneaking - and slipping - on a climbing rope.
Daimyo and wife checking out their lands.
Street scene in front of castle.
Castle guard guarding shrinking barrels of rice.

War and Peace.
Ninja watching suspicious character through revolving door panel. Canon below at the ready.
I did actually construct all of the minifigs from parts. Purchased through various sellers on E-bay, I bought clumps of different heads, hair, torso, legs, weapons, weapon's holders, the sachi dolphins, the flags and other pieces. So yeah... it costs money, time to construct, and time to actually wait for the pieces you want or need to come up for a decent price. I never over-pay. Even the two kits for the castle and the tower were a total of $40 ($Forty) with delivery. I saw the fire fortress (my tower) going for $474 alone. SEE. And I bought my sets last year - before I ever had an inkling of building dioramas .

This diorama is 10-inches x 10-inches and stands at its tallest point (the main castle) 12-inches high. The Tower is 9-3/4-inches tall.  It is sparse, but I did come to realize that a castle need not be crammed full of things.

Andrew Joseph


  1. I like it, it's a really cool design. I'm still upset that my parents thought that I was too old for Legos so many years ago and gave all of mine away... You should upload your diorama to Cuusoo -- if it gets enough supporters Lego will actually make it a set and you can get royalties on the sales.

    1. Hi - Thanks! Do you know what is really sad? I never played with LEGO as a kid. Never. My brother did, though and I have some of his... but luckily, my aunt saved all of the LEGO from my cousin who is 27 years younger than me, and gave them to me for my son a couple of years ago.
      Because my son was too young to put things together, I started doing it - and man! It is fantastic! I love to create! I'm strange in that I hate it when things are out of order... broken or missing and am driven to find the pieces... and it makes me nuts when I can't find them.
      On the plus side... with a 6-year-old son... models are often broken, and I get to re-build them - with him now, as he builds models at a rate much older than his age.
      He's also trying to learn the techniques I am using. Plus, he is treated like a king at our local LEGO store (as am I), so we get help and advice all the time!
      E-bay, my friend, is a great way to buy old, USED kits. I once even bought 20lbs of black LEGO pieces two years ago, and have now almost finished using them all... except for the really strange pieces.
      It's a lot of fun. I recommend you trying your hand at it again. They have so many cool models for adults now... I have my eyes on a Sopwith Camel WWI bi-plane! But... if I spend that much money, I have to hide it from my wife!
      Cheers! And thanks for writing in!