One of the most famous castles in Japan is the stunning Himeji Castle, located in Hyogo Prefecture. With its enormous size and classic Japanese architecture, it’s an impressive site that attracts many tourists year round. Acknowledged as one of the best-preserved castles in the country and registered as UNESCO World Heritage, it is an ode to the military, political and architectural past of Japan.
The history of the castle, or more specifically, the site of the castle dates back to the feudal period (1185 – 1868). The castle, in the form we see it now, was built in 1601 by Ikeda Terumasa (池田輝政) after he was handed Himeji Castle in reward for his support of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate that began after the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い).
Terumasa spent nine years in constructing the castle and the surrounding complex. It survives to this day because, despite being designed for military purposes, fortunately for us it was never the site of a battle.
It was deservedly declared a national treasure in 1931 and in 1993 became a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
Popular times to visit are during cherry blossom season (March – April) and in fall (September – November) when the leaves change color. My fiancé and our local friends from Imabari were lucky enough to have the chance to visit the castle in autumn.
The dominating structure in the complex is the main keep, a six-storied tower which, from its vantage point on top of a hill, can be seen from all sides for miles around. There are three other smaller towers that make up the corners of the complex. Himeji Castle came to be known as Shirasagijo (白鷺城), or White Heron Castle because of the clean white-washed walls and graceful winged eaves of the towers.
The walls and eaves are coated in white plaster made from traditional materials of slaked lime, hemp fiber, shell ash and seaweed which act as a protective layer against the elements as well as giving the castle its distinct appearance.
The roof is particularly eye-catching; the gray tiles have been secured with a white plaster called yane-meji (屋根目地), another traditional material known for its durability. The contrasting visual effect is an added bonus. The entire roof was replaced using these ancient methods during the most recent restoration in 2009.
There are over 80 buildings in the whole temple complex, ranging from storehouses to fortifications, plus an inner and outer moat. It was specifically designed to be maze-like to disorient enemies should they attack. You will notice this as you wander through the castle; the main tourist path winds up and down stairs and through many different gates until you arrive at the entrance to the main keep.
There are a number of other areas that are open to the public if you want to explore either before or after seeing the main tower. There are maps available in many different languages to guide you around the complex.
The castle was designed to represent the power of the shogunate, which it succeeded in doing due to its prime location and the unique beauty of its construction.
The main keep
Your ticket allows you entry into the complex and inside the main tower.
Internally, the main keep is mostly original. You can see the defensive features of the castle such as stone drops and racks of large weapons as well as enjoy the view from the many windows.
Look for decorative elements such as nail covers that are reminiscent of a flower, and carvings in the wooden beams. There are information panels on each level showing your current location and the features nearby; all the information is in English and Japanese.
There are many narrow stairs and low ceilings in the castle so please take care! It can be very crowded particularly on weekends and public holidays.
Once you leave the main keep, the path leads to a space in front of the castle which is a perfect spot for clicking photographs. There are benches here if you wish to rest and marvel at the castle before you.
Surrounding the castle, there is a park with many excellent picnic spots under cherry blossom trees. If you didn’t pack a picnic, grab a matcha ice cream from the market across the road and soak in the view of this elegant historic site for a quintessential Japanese experience.
Himeji Castle Information
http://www.himejicastle.jp/en/ (available in several languages)
Himeji is a three-hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo.
- From the North Exit of Himeji Station, take a Shinki bus and get off at Otemon-mae Stop. From there, the castle is a five-minute walk.
- Alternatively, if you decide to walk from the JR Himeji and Sanyo Himeji Stations, it will take you 20 minutes.
68 Honmachi, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture 670-0012
Preschool and younger: free
September 1st to April 26th: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (last admission 4 p.m.)
April 27th to August 31st: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (last admission 5 p.m.)