Himeji-jo is a well preserved wooden castle, combining both functional use and aesthetic appeal. The castle is also known as Shirasagi, the white heron, because of its gracefulness.
Its origins date to 1333, when Akamatsu Norimura built a fort on top of Himeyama hill. The fort was dismantled and rebuilt as Himeyama Castle in 1346, and then remodeled into Himeji Castle two centuries later in 1581. The current building is still the over 400 years old original.
The castle consists of 83 buildings, and has a highly developed defense system. The (wooden) walls are stuck with fireproof white plaster. They have openings for firing guns and shooting arrows, and also for pouring boiling water or oil on unwelcome visitors.
Map of Himeji-joLoad map
"White Heron Castle" is the poetic name of Himeji-jo. Its white walls and roofs are said to be reminiscent of a bird starting to fly. Well, I couldn't really spot that, either from the map of the castle at the entrance gate or from the top floor of the donjon. But that it is a white beauty cannot be denied, at least since 2015, when the most recent restoration was completed and the dark patina was removed.
I visited Himeji-jo in September 2019 on a half-day trip from Kyoto. It takes less than an hour by train (Hikari Shinkasen, included in JR Rail Pass). The route is signposted from Himeji station: just take the north exit, go straight ahead and 15 minutes later you are in front of the outer castle gate. And a little further, then you arrive at the Hishi-no-mon gate, the entrance to the paid area.
From there you can reach the main keep through several gates. At the beginning the path is straight, but then more and more turns and twists - a labyrinth of alley, gates, ramps and towers. Perfect designed to make a conquest difficult.
The magnificent main keep is certainly the highlight. You have to take off your shoes before you can climb the six floors to the top. The interior is quite empty, there is not much to see apart from the small shrine on the top floor. But there are multilingual information boards on each floor and the staff was happy to explain the details of the wooden construction and the function of the (empty) weapon racks. Most of the time I looked out of the windows to see all the details of the roof construction: the gables, the crest tiles with enblems, and most notably the fish-shaped sculptures that are believed to protect from fire. That obviously works well, Himeji-jo has never been destroyed by fire, nor by earthquake or war.
After leaving the main keep you arrive at the first bailey, the Hon-Maru. From there you can see the castle in all its glory. On the way back to the entrance I visited the West Bailey. There is also the entrance to the long connecting corridor which offers great views to the castle (photo).
Himeji-jo is considered the most beautiful example among the surviving Japanese castles. I guess that's right, but I haven't visited any of the others. Certainly, it is the best accessible one. Located on a main railway line, Himeji-jo can easily be included in any itinerary through central Japan.
Castles have never been my favorite kind of site to visit. As inherently military structures, they have a tendency to be squat and visually less appealing than other great monuments, as functionality is rightfully prioritized over artistic expression or cultural manifestation. Their use in military activity also means that they are rarely preserved as they were made, often interfering with their visual impact even worse. There's one place in the world that seems to consistently defy these characteristics of castles, and that's Japan. Japanese castles are famous for their graceful figures and tall keeps, but if you do your research, you'll find that only 12 of them are actually preserved since the preindustrial age. Most are in isolated areas in small cities, especially on the island of Shikoku, but there's one castle easily accessible from the Kansai metropolitan area, and it's the greatest of them all. This is Himeji-jo, the legendary White Heron Castle, and I was lucky enough to visit it en route from Hiroshima to Osaka in December 2019. Arriving on a Shinkansen, the castle is actually visible in the distance if you look in the right direction. There are lockers to store your luggage if you're on a route like mine, but they're pretty expensive, costing 700 yen if you have an especially large suitcase. In hindsight, it would've been cheaper, but also much less convenient, to store the luggage at the castle lockers, which cost half the price. Anyway, the castle is about a kilometer of straight walking through the modern city of Himeji. You'll know you're near when you see the old stone walls on each side of the street. This is actually the start of the WHS core zone, but you'll want to go farther to where the street stops to see what actually remains of the castle.
You may think of Himeji-jo as that beautiful white tower, but the castle is much bigger than that. While the outer walls have become part of the once rapidly growing city, the middle layer with its moat and imposing Otemon Gate form the modern boundaries of the castle, and it's as if that was always the case. Here, the eponymous herons wade in the water alongside huge koi, while crows fly overhead. The white keep just peeks over the cold stone walls. It's a startling scene, but entering through the gate gives way to an even more startling scene. Here, the castle rises majestically over an empty field, the Sannomaru, apparently the site of a past palace. There's also a zoo here, who knew? Sigh. The gardens within the walls are all really pleasant, at least, but I continue to the ticket counter. Entrance is 1000 yen, very much on the expensive side, but I was lucky enough to avail of the student discount, which granted me entrance for only 300 yen. I ended up getting a combo ticket for Kokoen since it's just 50 or 60 yen more. This is where the fun starts! I go up the ramp, through the big white Hishinomon Gate, and come up to another great view of the main keep across the Sangokubori Moat. Seriously, get used to the great views of the keep; you'll find them on every step. From here, I went up the next ramp, guarded by the foundation stone of the gate that used to stand there, up to the West Bailey. Here, you can enter the "Long Connecting Corridor," which is indeed, a long connecting corridor along the outward wall of the castle. It's a great place to see the few displays about how the castle was built and maintained, as well as to have a good look into the life of the elite back in the day. The corridor ends in the Cosmetic Tower, where the princess would rest. There are also a few steep stairways, which makes this a good preview of what's to come when exploring the main keep. Also, you have to carry your shoes around.
Through a few more gates and ramps, and walls lined with oblong, round, triangular, and square sama (holes used to shoot arrows and bullets), I finally came to the main keep. Here's where the experience really kicked in for me. Looking up at the beautiful tower up close, I felt like I was looking up at a mountain peak. I had the sudden determination to get to the top of it already. It was probably the most exciting moment I had during the trip, as adrenaline pumped through my blood, urging me to get to the top of this castle. The inside was as I expected - empty but full of interesting little details. I prefer this approach than the museums that more famous, more recently reconstructed castles as it preserves the rich authenticity of the castle is a military structure. Instead, visitors should admire the the interesting looking sink, the weapon racks, pretty nail covers, and the amazing views from the small windows. The interior is dimly lighted, since windows are small, but there's enough light to observe the little details. Of course, enjoy the steep climbs too. Each floor has something to offer, and each climb gets more tiring but exciting. When I finally reached the small top floor, with its shrine in the center and friendly Japanese official congratulating everyone for reaching the top, I could barely keep myself from hollering from the adrenaline release. Luckily, the views from up there were enough for me to shut my mouth and take as many pics as I could before going back down. If not for the tiny windows, there would be such a great 360-degree view, but I was happy with what I could see through the bars. After carefully descending through the 7 floors and the obligatory photoshoot in front of the keep, I went back down through a few more ramps, past a few more white buildings, huge stone walls, gates, and wells before finally arriving back at the moat and the ticketing office.
Kokoen is also part of this WHS, but it's only been around for less than a century. It's just outside the walls of today's castle, but it was once the site of a feudal lord's garden that the current garden has been modeled after. Both the old influence and the young age show as the garden does obviously make use of modern techniques while still maintaining an classic Japanese garden feel, especially with the main keep of Himeji-jo towering behind. It's worth the combo ticket, but I would give it a miss under time restraints. Despite the questionable uses that the land outside the inner walls has been given, I have to say that the paid area is immaculately preserved. There's no doubt the castle is worthy of its WHS status just by how extensive this little preserved area actually is, that it took me 2 hours to explore at a relatively fast pace. Exploring the other properties like the various walls, corridors, and gates just adds so much insight into feudal life in Japan to the experience. While I haven't been able to explore many other Japanese castle keeps, I don't even feel the need to after Himeji. Perhaps Matsumoto and Hikone castles would be great to add to the Japanese castle experience, but it seems that all the praise that Himeji gets is deserved. It's one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan, and personally, it's probably the most beautiful castle in the world. Whether it's the only castle that's deserving of WHS status is a question for another day, but by far, it's the most deserving, and that may be why it was one of the first WHS in Japan in 1993.
I visited Himeji-jō on a half-day trip from Kōbe in early 2017. Trains from Kōbe and Ōsaka are fast and frequent, and from Himeji station, one can easily walk towards the castle. The shiny white castle overlooks the uneventful city and is surrounded by a water-filled moat. Kōko-en Garden is just west of the castle and a nice place to spend half an hour. The ticket price for the castle was 1,000 JPY (1,040 JPY with the garden). After removing your shoes, the castle can be entered and the upper floors climbed. In the colder season, visitors should put on the offered slippers as the wooden floorboards turn freezing cold. I have visited a handful of Japanese castles and found Himeji-jō to be the most beautiful.
Visiting in February 2016, we were fortunate in our timing because the castle has recently been through a period of renovation in which the whole main tower (or keep) was covered in scaffolding. Today it looks pristine, and fully deserving of its Heron moniker. It is an impressive structure, though there isn't much of interest besides the view of the city whilst you traipse around the inside of the castle with your shoes off.
I visited this WHS in November 2009. It is a fine example of Japanese wooden castles with multiple roof layers from the Shogun period. A bit out of the way but really worth it!
I have visited Himeji Castle twice, once in winter and once in early May. The castle was more visible in winter but it was magnificent with all of the new spring foliage surrounding it. I would like to visit it again in the fall with the leaves changing colors. Definitely a must see in Japan.
I made a special trip out of Kyoto, just to see that one castle. I wasn't impressed when I first saw it from the train (approaching Himeiji City), but that feeling was dispelled when I finally got to explore it and climb to the top of the keep/donjon. I went through every bailey possible, and even went out the back entrance, only to backtrack and experience the impressive rear approach as well. What most people miss is the engineering subtleties of the rock foundations and the interior timber framing (especially for the keep). All in all, it lived up to its' reputation. I recommend it for anyone that visits Japan, and who is interested in castle architecture.
C H Ho
Himeji-jo must be the most beautiful castle in Japan. You can view the castle from Himeji Train Station, or by the way of Shinkansan near Himeji. It really like a flying crane. Climbing to the top of the castle was an very exciting. I could watch all over the city around.
Fantastic! A glorious reminder of Japan's history. The workmanship that must have gone into this castle is incredible. Himeji-jo is, without question, one of the premier sites in all Japan. This should be a prime destination for someone visiting Japan.
We visited Himeji-jo on a rainy, windy day when a typhoon was carving its way through the middle of Honshu. It is spectacular, set high on a hill easily seen from the train as you pass through Himeji. A 15 minute walk up the hill brings you to what was the middle moat (the outer moat was where the train station now stands!). It is empty of furniture, but contains samurai armour, ancient guns and weapons, writings and paintings of Daimyo.
Actually, it has a very warm feel to it, because of all the timber - a pleasant change to the cold stone castles of europe.
There are spectacular views from the 6th floor - just use your imagination to see all the people living within it's moats and walls.
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