An In-Depth Visitor’s Guide to Himeji Castle: From History to Helpful Tips
Himeji Castle was the first place to be registered as a World Heritage Site in Japan. Not only does the castle have a beautiful white exterior, but you can also use a smartphone app to look at AR (augmented reality) videos while touring its interiors. This article offers some trivia and comprehensive information to enhance your visit at Himeji Castle.
What is Himeji Castle?
Himeji Castle is also known as White Heron Castle for resembling the form of a white heron with its wings spread out. In addition to being a castle that is beautiful to look at, it offers many services to help visitors, such as AR videos on a smartphone app (in English and Japanese), free Wi-Fi, and pamphlets in 19 languages. It is a popular tourist destination that attracted approximately 380,000 visitors in 2018.
History of Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle was built around the year 1346. The Dai Tenshu (main keep) of the castle that you can see today was built in 1609. Although the castle has a long history, it has retained its original form as it was rarely exposed to war.
Though Himeji Castle was a "castle without battle", there are still many war contraptions here that you can take a look at. It would be a waste to walk by without noticing them, so be sure to check them out in this article!
How to Get to Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle is about a 20-minute walk from JR Himeji Station and Sanyo Himeji Station. To get there from the station, you simply walk down a large street towards the castle so there is no danger of getting lost. If you want to take the bus, take the Shinki Bus from the North Exit of Himeji Station, alight at Otemon-mae bus stop and walk 5 minutes.
Himeji Station is about 50 minutes on the Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto and about 30 minutes from Shin-Osaka. If you prefer not to pay for the bullet train, you can take the JR Tokaido Sanyo Main Line New Rapid service that will get you to Himeji Station from Kyoto in about 1.5 hours for 2,270 JPY and from Osaka in about an hour for 1,490 JPY.
When you arrive at Himeji Station, be sure to go to the Castle View on the second floor of the north station-front plaza. It is a fantastic viewing area with Himeji Castle right in front. It's a great place to get you pumped up for your visit to the castle.
9:00 am - 4:00 pm (gates close at 5:00 pm)
*Summer (April 27 - August 31) hours are 9:00 am - 5:00 pm (gates close at 6:00 pm)
December 29 and 30
Adult (18 and older) 1,000 JPY
Elementary, junior high and high school student age 300 JPY
Joint ticket for Himeji Castle and Koko-en is 1,040 JPY for adult (18 and over) and 360 JPY for elementary, junior high and high school age
1.5 - 2 hours to see all of Himeji Castle
Must See Areas
When you enter Himeji Castle from its entrance, the first thing you will see is the Hishi-no-Mon gate. It is the largest gate on the grounds with an awe-inspiring presence.
The appeal of Himeji Castle is not just its beauty, but also the evidence all around that it stood through an era of warfare.
If you look at Hishi-no-Mon from the front, you will see that there are latticed windows on the right side and the second floor. The latticed windows were added so that the gate can be closed when under attack and the enemies fought off with spears and other weapons. Also, look up at the top of the outer part of the gate and you will see a portion with netting. This part did not initially have netting, and was a place from which to fend off attackers with spears and rocks. In fact, it is called an "ishi-otoshi" (literally "rock dropping") and was designed with combat in mind.
I-no-Mon and Ro-no-Mon
Once you pass through Hishi-no-Mon, you will see I-no-Mon gate right in front, and Ro-no-Mon gate beyond it. There are also trivia about these gates that are fun to know!
First, take a look at the stone wall on the left of I-no-Mon in the photograph. If you look further left, there are steps that lead up to the top of the wall (it is currently fenced off so you cannot go up). This was for soldiers to go up to the top of the wall and fight off attackers. With this knowledge, you can see the stone wall in a new light.
Go further beyond I-no-Mon to Ro-no-Mon, and when you get there, take a look at the stone wall on the east side. Ro-no-Mon was actually blown up accidentally about 80 years ago. Apparently, Himeji Castle was used as the set for a movie, and the amount of explosives was miscalculated so the stone and mud walls were blown up. Look closely and you will be able to tell that it is newer than the other stone walls on the grounds. Now that it is a World Heritage Site, there will certainly be no more filming with explosives!
Ni-no-Mon is the gate in front of the Main Keep. It is the gate closest to the Main Keep, which is the most important part of the castle, so there are many more protective devices here compared to the other gates. The hill leading to Ni-no-Mon is narrow, so attackers would have to move in single file. In addition, the interior of the gate is a narrow cellar-like space, so it is difficult for attackers to pass through with a spear. On top of that, the panels at the top of the gate can be removed to attack those trying to pass through from above.
Once you get up close, you will also see that parts of the gate itself, such as the pillars and side door, are covered with iron plates. They are, of course, to protect against fire. The gate shows a determination to keep attackers out from the Main Keep.
When you pass through Ho-no-Mon gate, you will see a large wall. Mizu-no-Ichi-Mon is an unassuming gate that seems to hide in the wall. It is an interesting gate that deftly utilizes human psychology and visual effects.
As you can see, it is a simple gate that looks neither stately nor extravagant. On top of that, beyond the gate is a downward slope. In fact, this hill is the key to confusing attackers. Attackers would have broken down the castle gates looking up at the Dai-Tenshu tower, so when they see a simple gate with a downward slope, they are likely to think they have taken a wrong turn. What great use of psychology to confuse the opponents rather than to attack them!
Finally, the Dai-Tenshu tower you have been looking up at. It looks like it has five stories, but it actually has seven stories inside. Five layers of roofs were built to make it look as if there are five stories to confuse attackers. Even people today can easily be tricked.
Every floor from the basement to the sixth floor is open to visitors, so you can enjoy the various protective contraptions and exhibitions, along with the view from the windows on each floor. In particular, the sight of the city of Himeji from the top floor is breathtaking.
There is more than one way to get to Dai-Tenshu. Bizen-Mon gate, with a massive door and beautiful white yagura watchtower (tower from which to patrol and defend) on top is just as photogenic as the aforementioned Hishi-no-Mon. An interesting point about Bizen-Mon is that ancient stone coffins are used for the stone walls. There is one stone coffin each on the left and right of the gate. There is an opening between the stone coffin on the left and the stone wall so that you can peek inside it.
Ru-no-Mon and Nu-no-Mon
Ru-no-Mon is a gate right by the square moat, Sangoku-Bori, and the gate beyond Ru-no-Mon is Nu-no-Mon. If you go to Dai-Tenshu without passing these gates, be sure to visit them on your way back.
Ru-no-Mon is a simple gate of stone that was purposely built small and inconspicuous so attackers would not notice it. It is a shortcut to the Tenshu, so it was built so that it could be easily demolished should it be discovered by enemies.
In contrast, Nu-no-Mon is a beautiful big gate with a magnificent door and white walls. In the stone wall to the left of Nu-no-Mon is a rock that looks like a human face - can you see it in the picture? It appears as if there are two large eyeballs staring out. It is said it was no accident that the stone looks like a face, but rather, it was stacked that way to fend off evil spirits.
Look further left from where the eyes are and you'll see a cute heart-shaped stone. There is a rumor that you'll find love if you take a photo of this heart and use it as your phone background, so be sure to look for it if you are interested.
The square moat right inside Hishi-no-Mon is Sangoku-Bori, which was built for defense. By placing this moat in front of the Tenshu, it was possible to narrow the attack route of enemies and lead them to areas easier to ambush them in.
For tourists, this important moat is a wonderful spot to take photographs of "upside-down Himeji Castle" reflected in the water! On a sunny day with no wind, you can take a photograph of two castles with the blue sky in the background, one standing upright and another upside down in the water.
The tenshu tower to the left is the Inui Ko-Tenshu. It appears to have three stories on the outside, but inside, there is one basement floor and four floors above ground. It is an important structure to protect the west side of the Tenshu, and with bell-shaped windows that provide accents to the white castle, it is both beautiful and functional.
This tower was built with the "kesho-ryo" (lit. makeup fee, meaning dowry) that the Tokugawa family paid when the shogun's daughter, Princess Sen, married into the family that had inherited Himeji Castle. Only a shogun's daughter would have a dowry big enough to build a whole tower!
There is a doll of Princess Sen playing a Japanese card game called "karuta" inside.
Now that various spots to see in Himeji Castle have been introduced, here is a famous ghost story set in the castle.
There once was a retainer called Aoyama Tetsuzan who conspired to oust the lord, Kodera, and take over Himeji Castle. So Kinugasa Motonobu, a loyal retainer of the lord, sent in a woman by the name of Okiku to work for Tetsuzan and report on any suspicious activities. In other words, Okiku was acting as a spy.
One day, Tetsuzan's friend, Chonotsubo Danshiro, discovered Okiku's mission. Danshiro was attracted to Okiku to start with and tried to seduce her, but she rejected his advances. So, Danshiro hid one of ten plates that were family treasures of the Kodera family and blamed Okiku for its disappearance. Okiku, who had been tasked with looking after the plates, was thrown into a well to die for her sins.
Since then, one can hear the faint voice of Okiku counting the plates, "one plate, two plates, three plates..." from the bottom of the well...
This was the ghost story of Okiku's Well. It is so famous in Japan, there are Okiku Monogatari Banshu Sara Senbei crackers in the shape of old plates sold as souvenirs from Himeji. The crackers come in sets of nine in accordance with the story.
Don't Miss Out! The Seasonal Scenery of Himeji Castle
The colors of nature that change each season enhance the snow white beauty of Himeji Castle. Take a look at the beauty of Himeji Castle in the spring, summer, fall, and winter!
Useful Information So You Won't Miss Out!
Check Wait Times on the Website
Himeji Castle, which completed renovations in 2015, is so popular that the parking lot is often full with tour buses. To efficiently see the castle, you can check wait times on this website which shows the wait time to the ticket office and the time required from the ticket office to the entrance of the Main Keep. It includes annual congestion forecasts, so you can look for light traffic dates when planning your trip.
Best Photo Spots
Here are some special spots to take photos of the majestic Himeji Castle.
First is Shiromidai Park, from which you can take photos of Himeji Castle in between two large shachihoko (mythical carp with the head of a lion and the body of a fish). It is a park close to Himeji Castle so it is easy to stop by.
On the castle grounds, Onna Zaka is a recommended spot in the free access area and Ho-no-Mon is recommended if you are paying for entry. Both are great places to take pictures of Himeji Castle up close. Nishi-no-Maru Plaza is also a good place to take a photo of both the white castle and green garden - the contrast is particularly beautiful on a sunny day.
Recommended Nearby Sights
Koko-en was opened in 1992 next to Himeji Castle as a vast Japanese garden. It is still new, but this Japanese garden, which brings together the World Heritage Site of Himeji Castle in the background with ponds and flowing water, is a place you will want to visit while you're here. There is an authentic Japanese tea room on the grounds where you can enjoy a view of the garden with matcha green tea and fresh Japanese confectionery for 500 JPY.
The fall foliage is lit up at night from mid to late November. The mystic sight of red and yellow foliage reflected on the water is not to be missed.
*The foliage will be lit up in 2019 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from Friday, November 15 to Sunday, December 1.
Mt. Shosha, which is accessible by bus from Himeji Castle and Himeji Station, has a temple called Shoshazan Engyoji Temple. This temple is famous as the location for the Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai. Apparently it was not in the list of potential locations, but the director saw it and fell in love with it. Why not watch the movie before going so you can take photos of yourself in the same pose as the lead actor, Tom Cruise?
There are hiking trails from the bottom of the mountain, so you can walk to the top, but there is also a rope way to the summit which is a great way to travel while enjoying the views. The temple has a sacred tree called Sennen Sugi (One-thousand-year Japanese cedar), and they sell baumkuchen cakes based off of this tree as well. There is a rumor that Tom Cruise bought a large quantity of the cakes to take home as gifts. The cakes are sold at a shop called Kineya Shosha Okashi no Sato near the rope way station at the foot of the mountain.
Himeji Central Park
Himeji Central Park is a park with both a safari park and amusement park. At the safari park, you can take a 30-minute bus ride from which you can see a variety of animals such as cheetahs, lions, giraffes, hippopotamuses, and zebras. You will be able to see the animals up close through the large windows.
You can then go onto a walking safari where you can walk around and enjoy smaller creatures such as peacocks and wallabies. All the animals are cute, but the capybaras are particularly adorable. They are friendly and will come to you themselves, and if you stroke their backs, they will roll over and show their tummies.
Once you've enjoyed the safari park, go on to the amusement park. It is full of attractions ranging from fast, thrilling rides to ones the whole family can enjoy together.
Along with the safari park, you can have a full day of fun here.
There is so much to see at Himeji Castle, and knowing about all these little tips will help you enjoy it even more! Be sure to refer to this article to enjoy Himeji Castle and all of the nearby spots!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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