Visiting Himeji Castle
Visiting Himeji castle, the most famous (and beautiful) in Japan
When you exit Himeji station you see its silhouette against the horizon: the white heron has been there for more than four centuries. It’s still standing, now among the faceless buildings of Japanese cities. It’s of a shining white, just like a flock of birds rising into the sky. Himeji castle shines at the end of a wide avenue. It’s beautiful, and precious. Because only a dozen castles throughout Japan survived the destruction of the last two centuries: to see it standing at the end of the avenue is a kind of miracle.
I had also seen the smaller Inuyama castle and it was charming. But this is on another scale.
Long restoration works at the castle recently ended and is now again open to the public. Gorgeous and glittering, perhaps too much. “Some say that it is … too white, it’s not the right color”, a Japanese friend tells me. Maybe it is so, but it is undeniable that all this whiteness is really something special. It lacks the patina of time, maybe, the signs of the centuries. But judging by the old pictures, perhaps the castle really is as it once was.
But why is this castle so special? Isn’t there a castle in Osaka too? Sure, it’s nice, but in Osaka it was destroyed and then rebuilt in concrete after the last war. Japan was once a land of castles, of warring armies and samurai during Sengoku jidai (1467 -1615), the era of wars. But it took just a century to destroy almost everything of that era. And now few of these fascinating buildings, very different from their European counterparts, survived: just twelve. They are built mostly of wood: so some were destroyed by fire. Other castles were obliterated by earthquakes and some by American bombs (so were temples and whole cities).
But few know that many castles were dismantled by the Japanese themselves during the Meiji modernization period. It seems absurd now, but it isn’t so strange when one thinks about it: even the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris fell into disrepair following the French Revolution. The past sometimes seems something that needs to be forgotten quickly.
The castle in its present form dates back to 1609 (but is older by a couple of centuries), when it was enlarged by the feudal lord Ikeda Terumasa who received it as a gift from the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Himeji Castle is considered the most beautiful among the castles that survived, perhaps together with that of Matsumoto (who is completely black).
Visiting Himeji Castle
Be prepared, because a visit to Himeji Castle requires a bit of an effort. Just reaching the entrance means you will have to walk through a tortuous maze uphill, just like an attacking army would have had to: this tortuous itinerary was intended to slow down enemies and make them easy targets.
If you are visiting in August or in spring, you might already be queuing at this point. Not many visitors are allowed inside at the same time: the castle is fragile, old and is not even that big once you enter. Then you will have to climb seven floors on steep steps. At the top there are a Shinto shrine dedicated to the kami of the castle and a balcony from which you can enjoy a wonderful view.
The beautiful Koko-en Garden is also worth a visit (the ticket must be bought together with the one for the castle). Both the castle and the garden are particularly beautiful during the cherry blossom season (which is usually in early April).
Getting to Himeji Castle
Himeji is on the Shinkansen line between Osaka and Hiroshima. You can therefore easily visit Himeji Castle while traveling on this route. Consider about twenty minutes to get from the station to the castle on foot, then about two hours for the visit (more with a queue). The ticket costs 1000 yen.
Opening time is from 9 to 17 (until 18 April to August). You can enter until one hour before closing time.