Why You Need to Pay a Visit to Hyogo Prefecture’s Himeji City

ByJustin Hanus
May 27, 2021

Why You Need to Pay a Visit to Hyogo Prefecture’s Himeji City

One of the smaller cities in Kansai, Himeji City, is less well-known than Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. The city is best known for Himeji Castle, but there are numerous other places to see and things to do in Himeji.

Himeji Castle

The top reason to visit Himeji is the castle. In fact, if you have time to see only one castle while in Japan, you should make sure it’s Himeji Castle. There are many beautiful castles around Japan, but none so famed for its majesty as Hyogo Prefecture’s Himeji Castle. Designated as one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993, the castle, also known as Shirasagi-jō (“White Heron Castle”) due to its brilliant white exterior and resemblance to a bird taking flight, is the largest and most visited castle in Japan. Matsumoto Castle, Kumamoto Castle, and Himeji Castle are considered the “Big Three” of Japan’s castles. Of this exalted trio, Himeji Castle is the largest, with 83 buildings in the defensive compound.

Himeji, located in Hyogo Prefecture, was first deemed necessary by samurai Akamatsu Norimura who participated in the sacking of Kyoto in the 1330s. His fort was ripped down by his son Sadonori and rebuilt in 1346, which launched a series of tear-downs and new castles for the next several centuries. The current configuration dates to the early 1600s when Ikeda Terumasa, the Shogun of Western Japan, was given the castle as a battle reward. He installed three moats and added so much to the fort that it is said to have involved 25 million man-days of work by 10,000 workers.

When Himeji passed into private hands at auction after the abolition of the feudal system in 1871, the selling price was 23 Japanese yen – the equivalent to a little more than two thousand American dollars. The buyer planned to demolish the castle and commercially develop the land, but the cost of bringing the massive complex down was so great the project was abandoned.

For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained standing, even throughout the extensive bombing of the area during World War II and the catastrophic disaster of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. In 1993 Himeji Castle was recognized as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites of cultural significance listed in Japan. Five of the castle structures, including the keep in the most defensible area inside the innermost moat, have been preserved as National Treasures of Japan, noted particularly for their classic Japanese castle architecture. Himeji recently finished undergoing a restoration that cost 24 billion yen ($212 million), and restoration is a keyword considering most Japanese castles are replica creations. Here, the fir and cypress infrastructure remains original.

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.

The wooden hallways inside Himeji Castle

The wooden hallways inside Himeji Castle

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 architecture and imagine what it would have been like to live within its walls that are little changed over the last four centuries.

The six-story 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, to protect the castle from fire, which would have been a major concern for the wooden structure. The keep, 30m high (and 90m above sea level), is supported by pillars with a two-meter diameter from the ground to the sixth floor, an advanced technique for the time.

The view from Himeji Castle

The view from Himeji Castle

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 the 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.

Many people who have never been to Japan have seen Himeji Castle. When Sean Connery was working to fend off World War III in You Only Live Twice, the fight scene with Japanese ninja warriors was filmed in the castle complex. But others lucky enough to be in Hyōgo Prefecture can tour the castle in person. Tours lead through many of the 21 gates remaining in the complex, and visitors experience the myriad of spiraling passageways that were designed to allow intruders to be attacked from behind. Defenders built trick gates and blind corners into the castle that could be blocked in seconds, trapping unwitting attackers. Slits built into walls could accommodate archer’s arrows, and hatches in the floor were installed to pour boiling water on enemy invaders. Alas, defenders never needed these ingenious defensive devices. James Bond did the only fighting inside Himeji Castle.

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is about one kilometer down Otemae-Dori Street from Himeji Station. Visitors can reach the castle from the station’s north exit in a 15-20 minute walk or five-minute ride by bus (100 yen one way) or taxi (about 650 yen one way).

68 Honmachi, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture 670-0012, Japan (map)
+81 79-285-1146

Koko-en Garden

Right next to Himeji Castle is the impressive Koko-en Garden. It is actually nine separate walled gardens spanning 8.5 acres. With features like waterfalls, bamboo, and evergreen trees, the gardens are great examples of traditional gardens from the Edo Period (1603 to 1867). Opened in 1992 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Himeji City, Kokoen Park consists of nine gardens of varying sizes 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.

Tatsuriki Sake and Himeji Oden

Tatsuriki is a premium sake made in Himeji. Delicious warm or cold, it’s the perfect choice for accompanying any meal. Ideally, you’ll drink it with Himeji oden: the city’s signature dish, which is particularly popular in the winter. Oden uses ingredients like egg, octopus, and daikon boiled in a stock made of fish and kelp. In Himeji, it is customary to dip the oden in ginger and soy sauce.

Mount Shosha

Lovers of the outdoors should take the opportunity to hike 45 to 60 minutes up Mount Shosha. You’ll be rewarded with views of Himeji and the chance to visit Shoshazan Engyo-Ji, a temple of the Tendai sect built in 966. Today, it is famous for its appearance in the movie The Last Samurai.

Tegarayama Park

There is something for everyone at Tegarayama Park. You’ll find an odd mix of an amusement park, an aquarium, botanical gardens, and museums like Himeji Monorail Museum. Arguably the most important site is the Peace Memorial, located up the hill from Himeji Peace Museum. The memorial is dedicated chiefly to the victims of an air raid on the city by the United States Air Force on July 3, 1945. Although the 767 tons of bombs destroyed 60 percent of the city, Himeji Castle came through unscathed.

Engyoji Temple

Engyoji Temple stands 8km northeast of Himeji Station on Mount Shosha in the midst of an enchanting cedar forest. The temple gained fame following its use in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. It is accessible by a ropeway gondola.

Himeji City Museum of Art

Surprisingly, a large focus of Himeji City Museum of Art is European art, particularly pieces from Belgium because the city is twinned with the Belgian city of Charleroi. You’ll also find plenty of work from local artists as well as special exhibits. In fact, the building itself is an interesting site as it was formerly an army headquarters.

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.

Himeji is less than an hour away from the major cities in Kansai. It is a 20-minute train journey from Kobe, 55 minutes from Kyoto, and just 35 minutes from Osaka via the bullet train. Visiting any time of the year is enjoyable, although fall is most impressive due to the fantastic colors of the leaves and spring for the cherry blossoms. However, you could get lucky in the winter and see the castle grounds covered in snow.

Photo: User:Reggaeman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: flickr.com “016” by Bryant Wong (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo: flickr.com “DSC_9663” by Koji Haruna (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About the author

Justin Hanus editor