There are of course many beautiful castles all around Japan, but perhaps there is none so famed for its majesty as Hyōgo Prefecture’s Himeji Castle. Designated as one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heiritage Sites in 1993, the castle, also known as Shirasagi-jō (“White Heron Castle”) due to of its brilliant white exterior and resemblance to a bird taking flight, is the largest and most visited castle in Japan.
In recent years it has been partially obscured by scaffolding while it was being renovated, but in March 2015 the works were completed and it now stands just as resplendant as it did at its original inception. As such, it makes for a must-visit site for anyone spending time in Japan.
Located at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto, Himeji Castle dates back to 1333, when Akamatsu Norimura built a fort on top of Himeyama hill. Following various restructuring, and changinging hands to the famous feural era general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it was completely rebuilt between 1602-1609 after it was given to Ikeda Terumasa by the shogun Tokagawa Ieyasu as a reward for his help in the Battle of Sekigahara.
For over 400 years Himeji Castle has remained standing, even throughout the extensive bombing of the area during World War II and the catostrophic disaster of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake.
Thanks to its expansive gardens the castle is particularly popular during the ‘hanami’ season as thousands of visitors flock to enjoy the cherry blossom trees that line the outer routes of the castle. However, at any time of the year visitors can walk around the grounds and up into the castle keep itself, which is a staggering example of feudal era design.
Although it was never besieged, Himeji Castle has a multitude of defensive walls and turrets and is made up of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys connected by a series of gates and winding paths and visitors can wander and admire the beautiful, prototypical Japanese archirecture and imagine what it would have been like to live within its walls that are little changed over the last four centuries.
The six storey castle keep (including the basement) is of course the greatest of draws. From the outside, on the top floor, we can see a pair of Shachigawara, the mythical tiger-headed fish that are in place to protect the castle from fire, something that would have been a major concern for the wooden structure. The keep, 30m high (and 90m above sealevel) is supported by pillars with a two metre diameter from the ground to the sixth floor, an advanced technique for the time.
It is not just the building itself that makes the visit worthwhile, but also the breathtaking view from the top of the castle is a sight to behold as you take in sprawling city of Himeji below. From there it is not difficult to imagine how powerful the Ikeda clan would have felt, knowing that any potential attackers would have been daunted by the task of capturing the castle that is a perfect mix of strategic positioning and aesthetic design.
The city of Himeji itself, the castle aside, has much to recommend it.
Engyoji Temple, about 8km northeast of Himeji Station on Mount Shosha, is set in an enchanting cedar forest and has gained recent fame following its use in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. It is accessible by a ropeway gondela.
Opened in 1992 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Himeji City, Kokoen Park consists of nine gardens of varying size that are divided by the ruins of Himeji Castle’s West Mansion and the residences of the local samurai and allies. Thanks to its Edo era beauty it is often used as a location for historical dramas and visitors can even experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony within the grounds.
While Himeji has plenty to offer visitors, animal lovers may wish to steer clear of Himeji City Zoo, which could be regarded as ‘not one of Japan’s best’ or ‘truly depressing’ depending on how diplomatic you are being. Instead you should head for Himeji Central Park, which includes a safari park, amusement park, pool and skating rink.
Photo: flickr.com “CIMG2506 – Himeji” by Jordi Marsol (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Photo: flickr.com “016” by Bryant Wong (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified
Photo: flickr.com “DSC_9663” by Koji Haruna (CC BY-SA 2.0) -Modified