Travel period Jan 2017
Visiting Japan’s Most Beautiful Surviving Feudal Castle
We visited Himeji, in Hyogo Prefecture west of Kobe, in the Kansai region of Japan for one particular reason; it is home to Japan’s biggest and best preserved feudal era castle, Himeji Castle.
Also known as “Hakuro-jo” (White Egret Castle) or “Shirasagi-jo” (White Heron Castle), Himeji Castle is one of the most stunning sights in all of Japan. The complex castle grounds and exterior aesthetics have been well preserved to maintain this original work of art, that has survived for hundreds of years, and through many wars. Its exterior is a dazzling white, and many say that the structure resembles an egret taking flight.
Himeji Castle went on to be designated a National Treasure in 1931. In 1993, Himeji Castle was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, becoming Japan’s first World Cultural Heritage Site.
Getting to Himeji
We visited Himeji from Osaka which only took 45 minutes, thanks to the technological wonders of the Japanese bullet trains. If you are travelling from Kobe it takes about 40 minutes by JR Special Rapid Service.
To visit Himeji from Kyoto, simply board the Shinkansen from the Kyoto station. Kyoto and Himeji are connected via the JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen. The journey will take approximately 55 minutes. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, it is valid for this trip.
Himeji was initially the capital of what was called the Himeji prefecture but merged with Hyogo prefecture in 1876. During World War II, Himeji was targeted and bombed by the US. Despite having over sixty percent of its built-up area destroyed, somehow Himeji Castle remained unscathed, even though one bomb was dropped directly on it. Because of this, many believe that Himeji is somehow divinely protected.
While often viewed as a day trip location for a singular point of interest (it can be reached in less than one hour from Osaka or Kyoto), Himeji is not some quaint village built around a castle. It is a bustling city of over half a million inhabitants, and is the second largest city in Hyogo Prefecture after Kobe.
Getting from Himeji Station to the Castle
Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station. The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit in a 15–20 minutes’ walk, but there is a loop bus you can use if you need it.
As soon as we exit the station, we could see the castle in the distance. Sitting perched on top of a hill at the end of the long, wide, road sits the winged white castle, and its imposing moat. Himeji is a lovely town with nice development. It’s obviously very touristy and many shops are selling souvenirs for the castle. There were numerous statues along the walk to the castle.
A Brief History of Himeji Castle
The Himeji Castle, also known as the White Heron Castle, dates back to 1333 when a fort was constructed on the site by Norimura Akamatsu who ruled the Himeji district at that time. The fort was converted into a three-story castle with over 30 turrets in 1581 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi after Emperor Nobunaga Oda took control of the area in 1577.
Then in 1601, when Toyotomi was defeated by Ieyasu Tokugawa in the battle of Sekigahara, control of the castle was passed to Ikeda Terumasa in recognition of his support. Ieyasu spent nine years constructing additions to the castle and it was completed in 1609. The castle is made up of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys, that are connected by a series of gates and winding paths, which resulted in its current form with the five story tenshu and triple moat.
For over 400 years, Himeji withstood the test of time, remaining intact even though it was directly bombed during World War II, and went through a series of natural disasters such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
The castle has recently come out of a major restoration period designed to ensure it’s protected for future generations. After several years of refurbishment work, it has now emerged from the scaffolding to reclaim its crown.
The Structure of the Castle
Himeji castle is recognized as one of Japans top three castles and arguably the most well-known and best preserved. Himeji Castle wowed me when it first came into view. The dazzling white appearance looked so elegant. The design of Himeji Castle is considered by many to be the highest achievement in Japanese castle architecture.
From the outside, the main keep appears to be five stories but it actually has seven floors, including a basement. There were 21 gates and 32 mud walls built around the castle to help protect the castle. The roof is covered with both round and flat tiles.
If you pay attention, and look at the round end tiles on the roof, you will notice how they have different crests (called kamon in Japan), that represent the family line who last modified or maintained that section of the castle.
Himeji Castle is a hirayamajiro, or a flatland-mountain castle built to take advantage of both the elevation of the hill it’s built on, and the visibility across the plains surrounding it. Its design includes many of the most advanced features of the time, specifically for defense under heavy attack but the castle was never actually used in a battle.
We entered through the Otemon Gate and made our way towards the main keep. At the main keep we came to the Hishi Gate that marks the entrance to the paid area.
The main keep is a six story high wooden structure. It is one of only a handful of castle keeps in Japan that feature wing buildings, adding complexity to its appearance. We began at the bottom floor and worked our way up via a series of narrow wooden staircases.
As we climbed upwards the floors became progressively smaller. The floors are generally unfurnished and display just a few multilingual signs explaining architectural features such as portholes, rock chutes and concealed spaces as well as renovation efforts made over the years to preserve the structure.
The further up we got, the more beautiful the view over the sprawling city of Himeji. We also admired up close, the fish-shaped roof ornaments, that are believed to protect the castle from fire, and the topmost floor houses a small shrine.
One part of the castle we went inside was the Hyakken-roka (long corridor) which is a 300-meter-long building surrounding the lord’s mansion, located in the west bailey (Nishinomaru). This served as the residence of a princess and provides views of the main keep from a different perspective.
As we wandered through, we could see the various defense mechanisms including shoot-out holes on the side of the corridor, where missiles, boiling water or even oil could be poured on enemies trying to gain access. The steep fan shaped stone walls would have been almost impossible to scale and well designed for defending from the top.
Although it was crowded on the day that we visited, Himeji was by far the most magnificent castle that we have seen in Japan. Himeji Castle is an impressive sight and we very much loved the elegant architecture and beautiful grounds. It was great and definitely worth a visit.
Himeji Castle Information
Hours: 09:00 – 17:00 (until 18:00 from late April through August)
Admission ends one hour before closing
Closed: December 29th and 30th
Admission Fees: JPY 1,000 (castle only) and JPY 1,040 (castle and nearby Kokoen Garden)
Other Things to See in Himeji
- Kokoen Garden – on the western side of the castle moat is Kokoen Garden – a 1990’s reconstruction of the original samurai quarters of the town, that were known as Nishi Oyashiki. There are nine connected Edo Period gardens, small carp-filled lakes and a pleasant restaurant. The gardens are enclosed with mud walls topped with tiles. There is a small entrance fee, or you can buy a combined castle and gardens ticket.
- Himeji City Museum of Art – located northeast of the castle, has exhibits of mainly Western art and further north is the striking Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History designed by Kenzo Tange, which contains scale models of Himeji Castle and the other eleven castles in Japan which survive in more or less their original form.
- Engyoji Temple – about 8 km northeast of Himeji Station, is a sprawling mountain temple complex with numerous beautiful buildings and a secluded atmosphere. This temple recently gained additional fame as a prominent filming location for “The Last Samurai”. The temple can be reached by buses #6 or #8 (about 25 minutes) from the station to Shosha, a short cable car ride and then a 20 minutes’ walk.
- Tegarayama Central Park – is a large public park about 2 km southwest of Himeji Station and is most notable for the Tegarayama Botanical Garden that forms a part of it, featuring mainly varieties of cactus, tropical orchid, begonia and carnivorous plants.
Note: The information provided in this post was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service.