When you think of castles, you probably imagine the massive stone facades, round towers, moats and dungeons of medieval European fortresses. But what about Japan? My husband and I were surprised to learn that Japan has a lot of castles. We were even more surprised to discover how different they looked from our image of what castles usually look like. The first castle we visited on our recent trip to Japan was Himeji Castle. It’s located in the city of Himeji, which is about an hour-long train trip west of Osaka.
It was a bit rainy on the day we visited, but the weather didn’t diminish the impressive sight of the castle. Himeji Castle is often called the White Heron Castle because of it’s white exterior and design, which looks like a stylized bird in flight.
First, a bit of background on the castle.
The site where Himeji Castle now stands began as a fort on top of Himeyama Hill, around 1333. In 1346 the fort was dismantled, and Himeyama Castle took its place. Himeji Castle, as it now stands today, was completed in 1609. That makes it over 400 years old!
The Meiji Period (1868 to 1912) essentially marked the end of feudal Japan. After almost nine Centuries of control under the Tokugawa samurai elite, the emperor was reinstated as the prime ruler. The new centralized government moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, and in 1870 they ordered all the castles, armouries and fortifications be destroyed. Within four years, the number of castles in Japan dropped from 171 to only 19.
Himeji Castle was abandoned in 1871, and some of the corridors and gates were demolished to build Japanese army barracks. Although the entire building complex was intended to be destroyed under the new government order, an army colonel named Nakamura Shigeto fought to have it spared. Thanks to his efforts, the castle avoided demolition.
The city of Himeji suffered heavy bombing during World War II. Amazingly, the castle escaped damage, despite having a bomb dropped on its roof which failed to detonate. Repair and restoration work started in 1956 in order to bring the castle back to its former glory. In 1993 UNESCO registered the castle as Japan’s first World Cultural Heritage Site.
But enough history for now, let’s get on with the tour!
There are 21 gates around the castle complex. This is Mizu-no-Ichimon gate:
White plaster coats the exterior walls of the castle. It’s made from slaked lime, shell ash, hemp fiber and seaweed. The thickly latticed windows prevented enemy attacks. This is Ninomon gate:
Himeji Castle is the largest castle in Japan, and although it appears to consist of 5 stories from the exterior, it actually has 6 floors and a basement. And we were able to explore all of them!
When we entered the castle, there was a reception area where we were asked to remove our shoes and given plastic bags to carry them in. Removing your shoes is not only a sign of respect, but it helps protect the wood floors, keeps the inside of the castle clean, and helps prevent slipping on the stairs, which are quite steep.
The inside of the castle was very dimly lit, making photography difficult. But there were some amazing little details worth capturing. For example, these decorative covers hide nail heads on the beams:
Himeji Castle is primarily made of wood. This makes it even more wonderous that it dodged destruction from fire, earthquakes, and other disasters!
There are numerous weapons racks throughout the castle, some covering the entire length of a wall. At its height, the castle held over 280 guns and 90 spears!
Lots and lots of weapons racks:
The interior wasn’t elaborately decorated, yet it was elegant in its simplicity. It had a natural warmth – and it wasn’t just because it was 30 degrees outside!
The castle had some pretty impressive defence systems. Of course there were the standard stone drops, (holes in the walls allowing warriors to throw rocks or shoot at incoming enemies), but it also had these:
What’s a warrior hiding place, you ask? It’s basically a hidden cabinet in the wall where warriors would crouch and hide, then POUNCE!
The views from the top of Himeji Castle are pretty impressive. The castle grounds include approximately 83 surrounding buildings, some of which can be seen here.
You can see from the map just how extensive the castle grounds are. Originally, the castle had 3 moats, but the outer moat has since been filled in.
Through the Bizen gate, we noticed a sign pointing out two large stones in the castle walls.
These large stones are actually coffins! In fact, numerous stone coffins were unearthed and used in the original construction of the castle walls. There was a display of stone coffins on the grounds after we left the castle proper describing their use in the construction of the Bizen bailey.
This is the garden of the main keep:
This is a common site on Japanese castles – a shachi. The shachi is a mythical creature with the body of a fish and the head of a tiger. This shachi is from the Meiji period. It sat on the roof of the main keep until being removed during a round of restoration work.
Overall, visiting Himeji Castle was a great introduction to our stay in Japan, and it gave us new insight into Japan’s history and culture.
How to get there by train from Osaka:
There are several options available to get from Osaka to Himeji:
- By Sanyo Shinkansen Line (the fastest option, but also the most expensive): About 30-45 minutes from Shin Osaka
- JR Special Rapid train — about 60 minutes (direct access from Osaka/Umeda Station)
- Hanshin-Sanyo Railway Limited Express from Umeda Station — about 90 minutes (direct access)
●From JR Himeji Station /Sanyo Himeji Station
- Take a Shinki bus at the North Exit of Himeji Station and get off at Otemon-mae Stop. A five-minute walk from the Otemon-mae bus stop.
- Or you can walk from the JR Himeji or Sanyo Himeji stations – it takes about 20 minutes. The castle is pretty much in a straight line directly in front of you once you leave the station from the North exit. You can’t miss it!