A Visit to Japan’s Most Spectacular Castle, Himeji
After our visit to Hiroshima, our Japanese trip was sadly coming to an end. We had to make our way to Osaka for our final two days, before flying home from Kansai Airport. But there was one final place to tick off the bucket list, Himeji Castle. After five years of intensive restoration work, Himeji Castle had finally re-opened its doors to the public. The castle is said to be Japan’s most spectacular, so we didn’t want to miss visiting it. Plus, it was conveniently located on our route to Osaka.
How to get to Himeji castle?
Himeji castle is easily accessible by train from Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The quickest option is to take a Shinkansen there, and most trains are included on the JR pass. If you don’t have a JR pass, there are cheaper and slower trains to Himeji available from all of those cities.
Osaka: 30 minutes
Kyoto: 55 minutes
Hiroshima: 1 hour
Arriving at Himeji station, the path to the castle was well indicated by signs at each exit. The castle’s elegant white structure was right in front of us as we exited onto the street; you can’t miss it. After a one kilometre walk down Otemae-dori Street, we reached the grounds of the castle. You can also catch a bus from the station, but the walk is pretty easy and takes less than fifteen minutes.
Himeji castle is the most impressive and best preserved Japanese castle still standing. It is one of Japan’s national treasures, and in 1993 was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. While many other Japanese castles were damaged or destroyed by fires, wars or earthquakes, Himoji remained pretty much unscathed. It even survived the 767 tons of bombs that were dropped on the city by the US forces during WWII. The surrounding area burnt to the ground but the castle remained intact. A bomb even dropped onto its roof but failed to explode. That’s super lucky!
Himeji is also known as the White Heron castle (Shirasagi-jo in Japanese), because of its elegant design and its wooden walls that are completely covered in white plaster. The plaster makes the walls more fire resistant. This is a major advantage, as many other Japanese castles have been lost to fires over the years.
As we entered the castle through the Hishi Gate, we discovered some very good photo opportunities, particularly since we were visiting during the cherry blossom season. The imposing castle is truly a delight to the eye. As we walked the labyrinth-like path from the Hishi Gate to the main keep, we had to stop many times to try and take that perfect shot. The walled path leading to the keep has multiple gates and baileys designed to slow down attacking armies.
The Main Keep
The main keep of the castle has six stories and you access each floor through a set of steep, narrow stairs. Being quite short, it certainly gave me a good workout, especially since the steps seemed to get steeper as we climbed further up!
As you ascend the castle floors become smaller and smaller. Most levels are quite bare and unfurnished. You can see a series of Archer’s portholes and other defence mechanisms employed by the castle. Through those holes, defenders would throw missiles and pour boiling water and oil on top of invaders.
Once we reached the top floor, we were treated to extensive views over the castle roof and out to the gardens, plus a great view of the city of Himeji itself. On the day we visited, the castle was crawling with tourists, but the views at the top made it well worth tackling the steep climb and dealing with the crowds.
We left the main keep through the back exit, which led us to some beautiful gardens. It was lovely just walking through these gardens, and we spent a lot of time taking photos of the cherry blossoms.
There are two tickets to choose from. One ticket only gives you entrance to the castle, while the other lets you visit the nearby Kokoen garden as well. We recommend the combined ticket as the Kokoen garden is well worth visiting.
¥1000 (castle only)
¥1040 (castle and nearby Kokoen Garden)
Tickets cannot be purchased online and are only sold on the day. In busy periods such as the summer time, cherry blossom season and the golden week, the number of visitors to the main keep is limited to fifteen thousand. They issue numbered tickets, so be sure to arrive early morning if you visit during those periods, or you might miss out.
The Kokoen Garden was a great place to escape to after exploring the immensely crowded Himeji castle. Only a short two-minute walk west of the castle, the Kokoen Garden contains nine Edo-style gardens. They each differ in size, and have a wide variety of plants, with unique landscaping features. Some gardens have flowers, some have bamboo, some have ponds or streams. Each of the gardens was very serene and relaxing, after the chaos of Himeji castle. Although visiting Japan during its busiest season, we somehow managed to have these gardens nearly all to ourselves.
If you’d like to experience a traditional tea ceremony, stop off at the tea house. It also offers beautiful views over the garden.
- There are lockers available at Himeji station to store any luggage that you don’t want to carry around the city. Small and larger lockers are available from a few different places around the station. We arrived around 10.30am and were lucky to find one, but they seem to go quickly. If you are travelling with large suitcases, you may want to arrive first thing in the morning to make sure you don’t miss out.
- The Himeji castle website has a congestion forecast to help you avoid the crowds.
As you can see, Himeji castle is certainly another place to add to your Japanese bucket list. Crowds or no crowds, this place was definitely worth visiting. It really is the “creme de la creme” of the Japanese castles, so if you only visit one castle while in Japan, make sure it’s this one.