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Himeji Castle is often considered to be one of Japan's most magnificent castles and is even one of only 12 original castles that still exist in the country today. Having survived natural disasters as well as World Wars, this castle is as durable as it is beautiful.
In fact, the castle is often referred to as the White Egret Castle due to its brilliant white color and resemblance to a bird taking flight.
This article will discuss everything you need to know before visiting Himeji Castle, including its history, what to expect when exploring the grounds, as well as gardens and museums to visit while in the area.
Built on a strategic hill along the western approach to Kyoto, Himeji Castle was built to be easily defended from all attacks. The first parts of the Himeji Castle complex were complete in the 1400s. Afterwards, many clans and Japanese feudal lords expanded the castle when they used it as their base to control the surrounding lands.
Today, the castle buildings are over 400 years old and the complex contains over 80 buildings. Because of its uniqueness and authenticity, Himeji Castle is one of the most-visited castles in Japan and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
With everything it has been through, it is remarkable that Himeji Castle is still standing today. During World War II, the city of Himeji was heavily bombed and was mostly burned to the ground, but the castle survived perfectly intact. There was even one bomb that fell on the top floor of the castle, but it failed to explode.
Furthermore, the city of Himeji was greatly damaged by the earthquake in 1995, but the castle remained unaffected and it is said that a bottle of sake that was sitting on an altar on the top floor was even still in place after the shake.
Today, there are many stories, myths, and legends surrounding the castle, and one thing we know for sure is that it is one of Japan’s national treasures.
One of the most interesting parts of exploring the castle and surrounding grounds is that every part of the complex was built to make attacking the castle difficult. The passages and gates are built like a maze so that it is nearly impossible for intruders to navigate.
As you explore, you will find more and more interesting details throughout the castle grounds.
When looking at Himeji Castle, the first thing you'll notice is the main tower. Standing at five stories, it is the tallest and most striking part of the building. Visitors enter the main tower on the lower floor, then can slowly ascend the steep narrow stairs to the upper levels of the tower.
From the inside of the main tower, visitors will see hiding places, rock chutes, and escape routes, all created for defense if there was an attack on the castle. The rooms inside the main tower are largely unfurnished and empty, although there are exhibits of old Samurai weaponry and armor on display.
On the top floor of the tower, visitors will see a small shrine and can peer out to get a good view of the surrounding castle grounds. While on the top floor, you may also notice dolphin-like statues on the roof. These statues are called shachigawara which are mythical creatures that are believed to protect from fire.
The purpose of the labyrinth of passageways and gates that surround the castle was to confuse enemies. Most visitors will enter Himeji Castle through the Otemon Gate and then pass through a line of cherry trees. Afterward, guests will pass through the Hishi Gate and enter the maze of walled paths and multiple gates that are meant to disorient and expose enemies.
Many Samurai castles in Japan are unique in appearance, due to their outward-stretching stone walls which were designed to prevent enemies from climbing and breaching the castle. Many people say that the walls of Himeji look like a gigantic open fan, which adds to its attractive and magical feel.
Next to the main tower lies the Vanity Tower which was built as an abode for the famous Princess Sen. Princess Sen is well known in Japanese folklore for her tragic story. She spent part of her life living at Himeji Castle. Every night the princess and the other women who lived at Himeji would be locked in the Vanity Tour and kept under guard.
The grounds of Himeji Castle are lined with around 1,000 Yoshino cherry trees, making the castle a great place to view the sakura (cherry blossoms) in the spring. All of the cherry trees are located near the moat area of the castle and shroud the castle in a beautiful pale pink, making for excellent photographs.
Because Himeji Castle is one of the top places to view the sakura in Japan, the castle is normally quite busy at this time (early April). When visiting while the cherry trees are in bloom, travelers may encounter waiting times to enter the castle.
During that time, the staff will limit the number of people who can be within the castle area at one time. However, the wait is normally not too long and the beautiful view is well worth it.
When visiting Himeji Castle, you will be leaving the city of Kyoto or Osaka and entering an entirely new place. While you’re there it’s a great idea to explore some of the surrounding gardens and museums to learn more about the local culture and people.
Here are some of our favorite stops nearby.
Koko-en Garden is a great place to visit while exploring Himeji Castle because this garden is located right next to the castle grounds. Koko-en is an Edo-style garden that includes a pond, waterfall, pine garden, bamboo garden, flower garden, and a tea garden where visitors can enjoy a nice hot cup of matcha.
One of the interesting things about Koko-en is that each garden is separated by walls and the entire garden is meant to represent the four seasons of Japan, with certain gardens reflecting specific vegetation of each part of the year.
Located on the northeast corner of the Himeji Castle compound, the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History was built to help visitors learn more about the history and culture of the local people as well as to promote study and education.
The building itself was designed to resemble Himeji Castle, and you can learn more about the castle, as well as the Samurai that used to live there, by exploring the many displays. There's even a booth where visitors can try on items of Samurai armor or a royal kimono.
Visible from Himeji Castle, the Himeji City Museum of Literature is a great place to visit if you are interested in Japanese philosophy or writers. The museum was devoted to the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro and includes exhibits showcasing eight other famous authors as well.
The museum exhibits are all in Japanese, but there are interactive video screens in English that can help international visitors understand the information.The museum was designed by world-renown architect Tadao Ando, which can been seen in the building's minimalist curves and the use of water, light, and shadows.
Because Himeji Castle has so many hidden details and maze-like passageways, we believe that the best way to explore the compound is with a knowledgeable guide. Guides can help point out hiding places and details in the castle grounds that visitors traveling alone may miss. Guides can also explain the history of the castle and the local folklore and legends that surround the families who used to live there.
When visiting Japan's most spectacular castle, you want all the knowledge and details necessary to get the most out of your experience. With your guide, you will start your tour of the castle grounds, exploring all the hidden passages and maze-like walkways, then climbing to the top of the main tower to get a bird's-eye view of the surrounding area. Afterwards, the guide can take you on a relaxing stroll through the many paths of the Koko-en Garden.
To reach Himeji Castle, we recommend taking the Shinkansen bullet train from either Kyoto or Osaka because it is the fastest and most comfortable method of travel.
If traveling from Kyoto, the bullet train from Kyoto Station to Himeji Station typically takes around 45 minutes to 1 hour. From Shin-Osaka Station to Himeji Station the train will take from 50 to 70 minutes, depending on the service chosen. Both train tickets will cost around 5,000 yen, or it is possible to use your JR pass if you have already purchased one.
Once arrived at Himeji Station, the castle grounds can be reached easily by walking 15-20 minutes or by taking a public bus or taxi for about 5 minutes.
Himeji Castle is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day, and although entrance into the castle grounds is free, an entrance ticket into the castle buildings costs 1,000 yen.
Because Himeji Castle is such a respected historical site in Japan, it is important to follow all local rules and customs while in the compound. During cherry blossom season, it is important to queue in an orderly fashion and to be very patient and calm while waiting in line. The Japanese take lines very seriously and will be offended by people cutting or pushing in line.
It's also important to remember that littering is a serious offense in Japan and carries a fine of 30,000 yen.
Want to visit this fairytale castle for yourself but don't know where to start? At Asia Highlights our experts plan tailor-made trips that focus on the sites you want to see and the things you want to do. Our goal is to make your trip stress-free, so that you can focus on experiencing everything Japan has to offer. To get started, contact us here.