The Japan of the 21st century tells us about the future, about high technology, avant-garde electronics, communications and advances that seem to be taken from a science fiction movie. But there was another time, 400 years ago, when feudal lords demonstrated their power and defended their territory with huge castles. And this one, Himeji, is probably the most famous and most beautiful in all of Japan.
Three hours by train from Tokyo and 45 minutes from Kyoto is Himeji, a small town that might well go unnoticed on the map were it not for its castle. Along with the castles of Matsumoto and Kumamoto, Himeji is one of the most important in the Japanese country, and for many, it is also by far the most beautiful of all. So much so that it is known as ‘the Castle of the White Heron’, or Hakuro-jo, because according to tradition it resembles a heron about to take flight.
His silhouette imposes. Because of its size and its harmony. It was built in the mid-14th century but with its seven floors, six above ground and one below ground, it is still the tallest wooden building in Japan today. Its facade is covered with white plaster, hence its resplendent color, and although over the years it has undergone multiple restorations, it can boast of keeping its original structure intact as there have been no fires, earthquakes or wars that have been able to with it. And that, in Japan, is quite an achievement for a building of its age and delicacy, which is why it is considered a World Heritage Site, National Treasure and World Cultural Heritage.
During World War II the city of Himeji was razed to the ground, but the castle always stood, surrounded and even pierced by bombs that never exploded. And there it remains, like a symbol of authority and feudal power, rising majestically in the middle of the plain, waiting for you to visit it on your next trip to Japan.
The beauty of a labyrinthine castle
One of the peculiarities of Himeji castle is its easy access, at least until we enter it, so it is very pleasant to walk around. As we approach its enclosure we begin to discover huge sloping stone walls, deep moats and firm wooden doors, authentic works of art. It is a defensive fortress, so it has a multitude of loopholes through which arrows, stones, hot oil and everything else necessary to help repel the enemy were shot and thrown. In fact, its interior structure is really complex, labyrinthine and full of doors, passageways and secret rooms to allow the best possible defense in case of attack.
Entering Himeji Castle is like immersing yourself in the Edo period, the Japanese feudal era that lasted from 1603 to 1868, and which isolated the country from the rest of the world for more than 260 years. Once through its main gate, we will advance through different lines of the wall between which we will find different esplanades that, if they were defensive in their day, today are perfect for taking the first photos and admiring the beauty of the castle. On our way we will also leave different wells, such as Ikiku, which is one of the 11 wells, of the 33 that were originally, to ensure drinking water within the enclosure.
Once inside the main building we will be surrounded by centuries-old wood. We will go through large rooms, empty since the reform that took place in 2015, and the spaces will get smaller and smaller until we begin to climb, floor by floor and stairs that are increasingly narrow and steep. We will reach the top of the main tower, 46 meters above the ground, from where we will have spectacular views of the surroundings of the castle and the entire city.
Visiting Himeji Castle can take us between two and three hours, tickets must be bought at the door, since there is no online sale, and we must bear in mind that seats are limited. In addition, it is highly recommended to go to enjoy it at night to see the castle fully illuminated. If you want to organize your visit in more detail you can always take a look at the Official website of Himeji Castle.
A walk around Himeji Castle
After visiting Himeji castle, you may want to do something else, so we are going to propose two options that can be very interesting: the Koko-en garden and the Shoshazan Engyoji temple.
Koko-en Garden is located to the west of the castle and a joint ticket can be purchased to enter both spaces. Koko-en stands out for displaying the characteristic beauty of the genuine Japanese garden, making it a pleasant and relaxing visit. It has an area of 3.5 hectares and a total of nine gardens, among which the Oyashiji residence stands out, with its pond included; a tea garden and Sukiya-zukuri-style rooms dedicated to the aesthetic enjoyment of the tea ceremony. The atmosphere of the Edo period is authentic and captivating, making it feel like we’ve suddenly been transported to medieval Japan.
For its part, the Shoshazan Engyoji temple is located on Mount Shosha, which we will climb in a cable car from which you can see the entire city. History tells us that in the year 966 the Buddhist master Shoku erected this temple of Tendai Buddhism here and, more recently, that this mountain has been the setting for series and movies, such as The last Samurai starring Tom Cruise.