Himeji Castle is many things. It’s famous. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s beautiful and full of historical and architectural interest (to quote UNESCO, it’s considered “the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture”). Add to these its easy accessibility by train and it seemed like a no brainer to call in en route from Hiroshima to Kyoto. Especially for someone who loves history (and castles) as much as I do.
Here’s a little recount of our day trip to Himeji Castle…
The approach to Himeji Castle
We saw the castle looming in the distance just about as soon as we left Himeji Station. It really couldn’t be easier to get to: a broad avenue leads directly from the station to the castle. The pale form and decorative roofs looked rather airy and delicate perched on the horizon. The castle’s nicknames — White Egret or White Heron castle (Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō) — seem very apt. It’s like a grand bird surveying the city. It really did look as poetic as I’d hoped and I was already suitably impressed!
Getting close to the main tower takes a short while, even after you pass the ticket gates and have access to the main castle complex. But taking in the view is truly a pleasure with each step. My awe of the architecture only increased as I got closer and could better discern various aspects of its design – the butterfly crest circular tiles along the roof in the photo above are a nice example of the detail. I think it’s quite an achievement to make a castle that seems to be beautiful first and foremost (plenty of castles are beautiful, of course, but I can’t remember when I last saw one as pretty as Himeji!).
Exploring the main tower’s interior
The main tower’s interior is a bit underwhelming compared with the exterior. It’s also very minimal compared with other castles I’ve visited. It’s not ugly or poorly presented, but simply very bare. No period furnishings or objects, few information panels. The main differentiation between the levels comes with practical features like a place to hide or an elevated platform from which to shoot. Narrow windows granted impressive views of the city, but after a while I wanted more…
Also, shoes aren’t allowed to be worn inside and I can personally vouch that in stockinged feet you can really feel the chill from the cold floorboards! There are slippers to borrow, but they make it tricky to navigate the steep staircases (see below).
Beyond the main tower
After seeing the main tower, we admired the exterior view again from the grounds. The various courtyards offer slightly different perspectives of the castle and wanted to take as many photos as I could from all angles!
Due to some renovation work and time constraints, the only other part we saw was the Long Corridor. There were several rooms branching off here with things to see, including scale models of the castle in different phases, videos playing, information and genealogy about some of the notable residents of Himeji Castle.
I hope I’ve conveyed how much I loved the castle exterior. It’s so stunning that I arrived eager to learn more about the history of it, its design and function. Perhaps my expectations were a little high, but the bare interior didn’t truly engage me in the way I’d hoped. I came away wanting something more.
Is the entrance fee worthwhile? I guess that depends on your budget. I certainly don’t regret seeing inside. Paying the fee allows access to some courtyards that afford some gorgeous views of the different buildings. There’s also a lot to be said for setting foot in historical buildings and glimpsing for yourself what it might have been like to live there in the past.
One thing I loved unreservedly…
There is an adorable (kawaii!) character that represented Himeji Castle on posters and merchandising. Apparently it’s called a yurukyara (or yuruchara), which translates to “costumed mascot character”. I instantly fell in love with this marshmallow-like creature donning a Himeji Castle hat/hair ornament. Isn’t she amazing?! It took a lot of willpower not to buy a plushie version in the gift shop, let me tell you!
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you been to Himeji Castle? Will you make it part of your Japan itinerary?