I couldn’t go to Japan without seeing a castle this time – and I always knew which one it would be. It would be Himeji Castle, also known as the White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) or White Egret Castle (Hakurojo) due to its elegant bird like silhouette from its curved roofs and the white color of the plaster walls which helped it survive since plaster won’t burn down (unlike most of the other castles in Japan). Himeji is one of Japan’s only 12 completely original castles.
This is the one that I have admired for years with it’s bright white walls from postcard and pictures even when I was young just passing through Narita for an airplane transfer. It didn’t matter which season, this castle always looks stunning – whether it be with the brilliant red and orange autumn foliage around it, or covered in snow, or with the blossom of cherry trees and the castle park also with its plum, peach, azalea and wisteria growing on the grounds. Or in the case when I came in December, with none of those atmospheric elements and just the castle on its own.
We took the shinkansen train here from Kyoto – though you can also use Osaka as your home base if you want, since Himeji Station lies between these two cities at only an hour away. From Tokyo I think by shinkansen it’s about 4 hours away, so also possible as a day trip. As you walk out of the train station you can see it vaguely at the end of the street already because it’s on a hill. From the train station it was a 20 minute walk along the main boulevard, watching Himeji Castle get bigger and bigger as you get closer. Takopost has a great Himeji Castle Day Trip blog post showing pictures of the approach as well as some of the inside and tips.
Then, here is your view as your cross the last street into the park area. Also in the surrounding area besides the castle are a garden and city zoo and what looked like an amusement park. The moat here is one of three moats that were originally encircling Himeji Castle – there are only 2 moats that survive as the outmost moat has been buried.
We visited the castle when it first opened in the morning – in fact we arrived maybe 30 minutes before the admission gates opened. I knew that for the past 5 1/2 years, Himeji Castle has had scaffolding covering the castle while restoring and making repairs, and had only reopened earlier in March of 2015 revealing the full castle walls again. So, since it’s reopening it has been a popular attraction even for locals to revisit.
The pictures from Takopost from July 2015 had shown huge crowds and queues of people shuffling in constant lines through and around the castle, and I did not want that experience. He advised immediately getting in line and admiring the grounds outside after. So I intentionally came early to beat any tour groups or school trips, and hoped that the fact it was New Year’s week meant it wasn’t as much of a draw. This paid off in that we were among the first 50 people in… and it turn out to be a light visit day so we never felt crowded and could take our time in all areas. If you want to guess what the crowds might be, the official Himeji Castle website has a calendar where you can look at the probable amount of visitors for that time.
On your way you may see some of the resident cats on the property! Supposedly there are sometimes people who are dressed like samurai or ninja that are sometimes here to earn money taking photos with tourists, but we didn’t see any. Just the kitties. There was quite a small crowd around them – they are obviously being fed by someone here – as we watched one cat unsuccessfully stalk a crow several times. This feeding area we saw was right outside where the line to enter Himeji starts, where there are public park restrooms. Once you are inside Himeji Castle, there are not restrooms available until you reach the Inner Keep area (where the photo with me above was taken, after already going up and down the main keep).
After paying admission into the main keep grounds, you have to follow many winding paths through doorways (there were 84 gates total originally in the entire complex) to actually get into the castle. This is intentional design to drive the enemy into narrow passages and areas with dead ends.
There are paths that actually take you away from the tower even though you look like you’re going towards it. There are paths that correctly go to the main tower but are sloped downward to make intruders think they are going the wrong way.
Finally, we arrive at the actual castle building. Very early on after entering the inside castle building, we were given plastic bags to carry our shoes and we are all wearing slippers they gave us as we start to ascend the levels of the castle, which you may catch in some of the photos I have. Externally, the Himeji Castle keep appears to have five floors because the second and third floors from the top appear to be a single floor. But, the tower actually has six floors and a basement. The castle’s granite base, combined with a highly flexible wooden structure, is designed to help Himeji Castle sway during earthquakes.
There are lots of windows as we go up each floor: this gives us a view of the city, the keep area… in the second photo you can see that big boulevard you see on the right is the street we walked on from the Himeji train station. You can see why building Himeji, which started as a fort, on top of Himeyana hill originally in 1333 was such a smart idea with this strong vantage point.
The weapon racks inside were empty, but you definitely notice how many there are. At one point, the castle contained as many as 280 guns and 90 spears. In the Ikeda family period (they significantly rebuilt Himeji Castle from 1601-1609 and started the castle complex that stands today) there were about 500 samurai warriors in residence here.
Honda Tadamasa and his son Tadatoki and daughter-in-law, Princess Sen, inherited the castle from the Ikedas. They had more than 1,200 vassals in addition to 4,000 foot solders and servants as they expanded the castle keep into a castle complex in 1617-1618, including a special tower for Princess Sen. Himeji Castle has then mostly been intact since then for the next over 400 years! In the Sakakibara family period there were 3,000 people at Himeji. When Sakai was the last lord of the castle just before the Meiji Restoration there about 2,200 people.
All the stairs were like this at Himeji Castle – steep, and you have to watch your head when clearing the floor. There is no alternative to the stairs, so you must be physically fit enough to go through this to visit the inside of Himeji Castle.
Here’s another look at a stair to another floor. The wooden framework of Himeji castle is made from huge pillars including a nearly 800-year-old cypress beam. Even though I’m not an engineer or architect, I am nothing but impressed with the design and construction that it took at the time to make Himeji Castle what it is today.
Both the third and fourth floors of Himeji Castle have platforms situated at the north and south windows called “stone-throwing platforms” where defenders could observe or throw objects at attackers. They also have small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places” where defenders could hide themselves and kill attackers by surprise as they entered the keep. Windows are also placed higher to provide ventilation for gun powder.
Once the path takes you up and then down through the main castle, you have a chance to admire the outside again. On the buildings, surrounding walls and roofs, look at the tiles at the end of the curved gables. If you pay attention you can observe that different types of family crests can be found. This is because many lords claimed Himeji Castle as their home and they each used their own crests. For example, you might see the butterfly crest of the Ikeda family, the paulownina crest of the Hashiba family, the hollyhock crest of the Honda family, and a cross-shaped crest for a Christian lord that once ruled Himeji Castle.
You can observe open window like holes in the walls in the shape of circles, triangles, and rectangles located throughout Himeji Castle. The shapes are intended to allow defenders armed with tanegashima or archers to fire on attackers without exposing themselves. They have different heights in places based on whether you are in standing position, kneeling position, or prone position.
And what’s an old castle without a ghost story or two right? There are two for Himeji Castle that I read. The first is for Okiku’s Well. The story is that Okiku was falsely accused of losing dishes that were valuable family treasures, and then killed and thrown into the well. Her ghost remained to haunt the well at night, counting dishes in a despondent tone.
The other is Genbei Sakurai, who was Ikeda Terumasa’s master carpenter in the construction of the keep, and who felt responsible for the mistaken measurement that causes the tower to lean in the southwest direction so he committed suicide by jumping off a donjon. The real reason for the castle leaning to the southwest is because of sunken cliffs in the east and west. Who knows if either of these folktales are true.
On a previous post I shared street treats, which included photos and a video of Ningyo Yaki (a cake filled with sweet red bean paste) here they are available in the shape of Himeji Castle… Those stores are located right across the street from Himeji Castle park on the way back to Himeji Station. Because of the time of year that we visited, we did not visit the Kokoen Garden nearby (offering 9 gardens, and also an opportunity to experience traditional tea service – you can purchase a combined ticket with Himeji Castle admission if you so choose), so we spent about half a day here at Himeji, leaving after lunch and actually then heading to Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion in Kyoto which I covered a couple posts ago.
While waiting for our train time to go to the plastform at Himeji Station, we followed our noses to find this, a treat called Gozasoro. They put a pancake like batter on one side add the bean paste filling (either the ‘shiro-an’ white bean paste or ‘aka-an’ red bean paste fillings), then put batter on the other side, just before the batter hardens, they put the two sides together to make a round cake and flip several times while cooking until golden brown. I highly recommend you try it!
Helpful articles on visiting Himeji:
- Himeji Castle official website
- Takopost has a great Himeji Castle Day Trip blog post
- Wikitravel article on Himeji Travel
- Japan Guide page on Himeji Castle: this site always stays up to date on atmospheric elements like autumn foliage or cherry blossoms as it pertains to attractions and they have a list of the top castles of Japan
- Detailed Wikipedia article on Himeji Castle
- On your phone, though I didn’t use this myself, there is an app for iPhone or Android called Himeji Castle Great Discovery App
- Himeji Castle also had several QR codes at some of the signs inside the castle so get more information.
Clearly you can tell I had a huge interest for visiting Himeji Castle as I had already done so much previous research (which I then summarized in a word document to print out so it’s thin) before even arriving at the castle so I would be able to enjoy it with history and knowledge already in hand when I finally made my dream come true.
I do have other castles on my bucket list – a mossy Irish castle, a medieval French castle on an island (Mont Saint-Michel), an elegant German castle that was the inspiration for Disney (Neuschwanstein Castle, though seriously Germany has so many lovely castles).
Have you ever done a lot of research on history or features of a specific attraction before visiting? What was it for? Do you have a dream castle you’d like to see?