Himeji is home to one of Japan’s premier castles and the finest surviving example of Edo-style Japanese architecture in the country.
Rising above the tree-lined streets, the main keep of Himeji-jō, or Himeji Castle (姫路城), towers over the city below. For more than 600 years, the people of Himeji have lived in its shadow, protected from attacks and mesmerized by its beauty. Located by the Harima-nada Sea, the city is easily accessible from Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima by shinkansen (bullet train). The city is synonymous with Himeji-jō, and it exists today mainly because of the castle. The castle has survived air raids in the Second World War, the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake and numerous destructive typhoons to stand alone as Japan’s pre-eminent wooden building and the finest surviving example of Edo-style Japanese architecture. Featured picture ©Chiyako Mukai
Tour Japan’s foremost Edo-period castle
Grand Himeji-jō (姫路城) had humble beginnings. Initially built as a fort on top of Himeyama hill, it was completed in 1333 by Akamatsu Sadanori. The building was later rebuilt as Himeyama Castle. Over the course of the next 200 years, numerous generals took control of the keep and added their own flourishes to the building. By 1609, Himeji-jō consisted of five storeys and seven floors, and had been rebuilt three times. By 1808, Himeji-jō had been the home to no fewer than 20 daimyo (feudal lords), retainers and generals tasked with protecting the area and the castle. Perhaps the most famous of these residents is Princess Sen (or Senhime), whose tragic story is the subject of many period dramas.
Today, Himeji-jō is registered as one of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage Sites. The castle is colloquially known as Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō (白 鷺城), meaning “the white egret/heron castle,” because it looks like a white heron in flight, spreading her wings. The castle has undergone numerous restorations in recent years using traditional methods and materials to maintain its historic significance. It’s also enormous, standing over 30 metres tall, built on a 15-metre-tall stone wall platform and sitting atop a 45-metre-high hill. The complex is comprised of more than 83 structures, which include its 27 towers, 21 gates, four keeps and four roofed passage towers. The twin shachihoko (鯱瓦, mythical tiger-headed, koi-bodied creatures) standing on the roof of Himeji-jō are two metres tall alone. As you stroll up the expansive walkway past courtyards, gates, towers and a gigantic moat filled with koi, the castle looms overhead with its gleaming walls and majestic sculptures adorning the multi-storied roofs. The interior was built using Japanese cypress, and hidden features abound for travellers with keen eyes.
Looking out the windows at the top of the castle, the neighbouring gardens of Koko-en (好古園) stretch for more than three and a half hectares. Constructed in 1992 at the archaeological site where the original homes of the samurai and the Lord’s West Residence once stood, Koko-en is composed of nine gardens built using traditional plants and techniques from the Edo period. The gardens open with a large pond replete with more than 250 colourful carp swimming past waterfalls and a winding path through evergreen trees, vibrant bushes and boulders specially selected for their harmonious shape. Koko-en is also home to a lovely teahouse where you can enjoy traditional matcha, whisked to create an aerated, creamy drink, accompanied by a hand- made sweet. The teahouse faces Himeji-jō, where the resplendent view is complemented by wind whispering through the trees in the garden, creating a relaxed, contemplative atmosphere. The attendants present the tea and sweets in the traditional manner and explain the steps of the tea ceremony for their guests.
Traditional kimono, footwear and accessories are available in the shopping district.
Picture ©Chiyako Mukai
Himeji is home to many attractions
Many people visit Himeji to see the castle, never venturing to the many local matsuri (festivals) or other attractions. Shoshazan Engyō-ji (書寫 山圓教寺) is a Zen Buddhist temple complex consisting of 22 sites located on the summit of Mt. Shosha, about a 25-minute bus ride from Himeji Station. The Mt. Shosha Ropeway offers 360-degree views of the mountain, castle and surrounding town.
Visit the many traditional shops and food stalls
Near Himeji Station lies the shopping district, a covered shōtengai (commercial district) replete with bakeries, cafés, shops, restaurants and traditional clothing boutiques. Within the shotengai and along the main streets, you’ll find many delicacies and dishes popular in Himeji: simple ekisoba made with fried tofu and soba noodles in a light broth as well as oden, a stew made with fish cakes, vegetables, eggs and beef tendon in a ginger-and soy-sauce-based broth, are available on most street corners. Sake made from rice produced in the local Hyogo region pairs well with the local akashiyaki (octopus in pancake batter, served as small balls with a dipping broth) and gujya-yaki, the local variety of okonomiyaki savoury pancake. Perhaps because of its royal history, Himeji is best known for its sweets—Western-style roll cakes and Japanese confectioneries such as mochi, mung bean sweets and wagashi candies.
From her regal surroundings to her delightful morsels, the splendour of Himeji leaves visitors always wanting more.
Himeji’s eats and treats
Himeji’s rich dishes and charming souvenirs reflect the storied history of a legendary castle and its samurai heritage. The local gardens offer authentic scenery that takes visitors back in time to the romantic Edo period.
Ekisoba: A simple and inexpensive soba noodle soup with green onions (negi), fried tofu and a light broth. Available in Himeji Station and throughout the city. Picture ©Geomedian
Himeji Oden: Eaten throughout Japan, oden is made with broth that’s full of delicious fish cakes, beef tendons, vegetables and eggs. Himeji’s variation is enjoyed with soy sauce and ginger. Picture ©ACworks Co.,Ltd.
All photos courtesy of Himeji City unless otherwise noted