There’s not many places in the world where you can step out of a central, buzzing train station in the middle of the city, to have a perfectly framed view of that country’s most famed and beautiful castle. But you can in Himeji, Japan.
A quiet city in the Kansai region, just a short shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Osaka, the city of Himeji is home to Himeji-jo – the finest castle in all of Japan, consistently ranking as number one on every ‘Must See’ castle lists. It’s only one of a few original castles remaining – most of the castles in Japan today are reconstructions made from steel and concrete. Having just undergone extensive renovations for five years, Himeji-jo has recently re-opened to the public, so our timing was perfect.
The Tourist Information Office located at the train station offers free bicycle rental to visitors to Himeji. Leaving our bags in coin lockers inside the station – Himeji was a stop from Osaka en-route to Hiroshima – we filled out a few forms and were given a map and keys to collect the bicycles from the bike station, a five minute walk down the main road towards the castle.
Upon collecting our beautiful bikes – certainly nothing like the rusty kind we’ve ridden around most of Asia – we cycled down the footpath (yes – they ride on the footpath here, not the road!) towards the castle grounds. It was seriously cold, but pedalling around on the bikes was somewhat refreshing – we felt somewhat like locals!
Whilst Himeji-jo is the main attraction of the castle park, the area is also home to samurai gardens and a small city zoo! We didn’t realise this until we were parking our bikes, and saw a random polar bear inside a tiny enclosure on the opposite side of the fence!
First constructed in 1580, the castle has been home to 48 successive lords. It was simply spellbinding to wander through the various towers and keeps, and imagine the history a building like this has seen throughout its time.
Unlike some other attractions we have come across in Japan, Himeji Castle is extremely well signed, with all information provided in both Japanese and English. The free brochures are also incredibly informative and provide you with a much more comprehensive understanding of what the various parts of the castle were used for and why.
After taking in the first magnificent viewpoint of the castle above the moat in the inner courtyards, we moved onto the west bailey – a courtyard or open space surrounded by walls – through a spectacular gate, and removed our shoes before exploring the various towers and apartments. Treading softly over the ancient floorboards, the icy wind blowing through the latticed windows, you couldn’t help but wonder what life was like living in a building like this.
Making our way to the highlight of the complex – the main keep – we were able to see up close some beautiful features of the building, including the spectacularly ornate roof tiles, and the family crests which are displayed on the end of the eaves. Inside, we slowly climbed each level of the keep to discover more ancient secrets of the castle. Storage places for weapons. In-built defence mechanisms like stone drops, sama or shooting holes – openings in the walls from which arrows and guns could be shot at unsuspecting enemies. The view from the sixth floor overlooking the city of Himeji was spectacular.
After exploring Himeji-jo, we made our way to Koko-en – a stunning reconstruction of Samurai quarters and gardens just outside of the castle grounds. The scenes before our eyes were exactly those we had pictured when we imagined Japanese gardens – bridges over koi filled ponds, waterfalls, stepping stones and perfectly manicured bonsai-like trees, shrubs and benches and archways.
Strolling through the beautiful gardens was a lovely end to our fabulous day trip to Himeji. We jumped back on our bikes and returned them before heading back to the station to board the shinkansen to our next destination. Himeji Castle was Japan’s first registered UNESCO site, and the incredible work that has gone into restoring it to it’s former glory deserves to be seen – make sure you put this on your ‘must see’ list the next time you’re in Japan!
- How to get there?
Himeji is easily reached by train from Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Hiroshima – there are shinkansen lines if you hold a JR pass, or slower trains also run. The sights can be seen in a few hours, and can be visited en-route between any of the above mentioned stops.
- What does it cost?
The entrance fee per adult to Himeji-jo is 1000 JPY / $11.62 AUD, or you can opt to pay 1040 JPY to gain entrance to both Himeji-jo and Koko-en which we highly recommend. The entrance fee for Koko-en on it’s own is 300 JPY / $3.48.
- How to get around?
The city of Himeji is very flat, so its easily walkable. The castle is about 15 – 20 minutes on foot, however the Tourist Information Office (located at Himeji Station) offers free bicycle rental. Enquire within and you will need to fill out a quick form, and be given a token. Take this token to the bike station – they’ll give you a map – and you exchange the token for a key and a bike. The bikes were a great way to get around the town and to see the sites, especially if you’re a little pressed for time.