Himeji Castle, also called “White Heron Castle”, is the most visited castle in Japan. In 2015 Himeji Castle was visited by almost 3 million people. That is a really impressive number of visitors. So after seeing a few photos online we didn’t hesitate to get of our Shinkansen train in Himeji, when we were transferring from Osaka, Kansai to Takamatsu, Shikoku.
Quick Background Information
Himeji Castle is one of the few castles that survived both the Meiji restoration and the massive bombings of world war 2. It is often grouped with Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle as the three most impressive and best kept castles in Japan. Additionally Himeji Castle is among the 12 original castles left in Japan. The castle’s cultural importance is also supported by UNESCO making it one of the first world heritage sites ever in Japan. I had visited Matsumoto Castle a couple of years earlier, and it really stood out as a highlight in my memories of that trip. So naturally I was very excited to see the white “heron” counterpart to the black Matsumoto “crow” Castle.
Himeji Castle turned out to be a much bigger complex than Matsumoto Castle. The castle grounds cover an area of more than 1,000,000 m2 (10,763,910 sqft.) and is comprised of 83 buildings and structures of which 74 are designated important cultural assets. The castle in the form it has today dates back to the early 1600s, but forts and castles have been on this site in different forms and shapes since the 1300s.
Getting to the castle was really easy. We got of the Shinkansen bullet train and Himeji Station after a short 30 minute ride from Shin-Osaka station. We then walked directly towards the castle. It is a 1km walk which can be done in less than 15 minutes. As we stood by the first moat the castle already looked quite impressive, but at that point we still had no idea how huge the complex was. From here you can pretty much only see the keep and a few walls. The white color is unusual, and really catches the eye. Presented against the blue sky the castle almost appears as one of the white clouds scattered over the sky. Almost a castle in the sky, if you like. OK, bad joke.
We crossed the bridge, and walked up towards the castle, which is placed on a hill. I noticed how this is also different from Matsumoto castle, which is on flat ground. On the way up we encountered this curious guy who apparently regularly feeds this group of castle-cats. Look for him or the cats when you enter the castle grounds through the south entrance.
We finally got to the entrance of the castle, and bought a ticket to enter the main building. Just like Matsumoto castle, the insides were mostly of original appearance, meaning lots of wooden structures. It really makes it easy for the mind to imagine what it must have been like to stay here 400 years ago. I can’t help but compare it to Matsumoto castle though. I found that Matsumoto Castle had a more interesting atmosphere inside. Not that anything was wrong with the insides of Himeji Castle, it just didn’t feel as dark, compact and original as Matsumoto.
There were many interesting details to discover around the building though, but the large amount of tourists made it a slightly less authentic experience for me.
The view from the top of the keep was really great though. From up there we could really sense the defensive walls and tactical building style of the castle. We ended the visit with a stroll around the castle grounds, which is highly recommended!
In conclusion, I really think Himeji castle is worth the visit. It is also worth making a side trip from Kyoto or Osaka, just to see it. For me the inside of the castle was not really the highlight of the experience. The impressive white buildings and structures were really what impressed me. I would even say that if you are short on time, or don’t like the crowds, then it’s not really a must to enter the main keep. Just walk around the castle grounds and enjoy the views of the beautiful buildings instead. But I must repeat, that the view from the top is nice!
Himeji Castle is also a prime spot for sakura viewing in the spring!
Getting to Himeji castle is really easy.
From Osaka, you can reach Himeji station in 30 minutes with the bullet train.
From Kyoto the trip can be done in about 45 minutes with the Nozomi train (not valid for JRPass) or around 55 minutes with the Hikari train.
By foot: You can walk from Himeji Station to Himeji castle in about 15 minutes. There are signs at the station pointing you in the right direction. Once you leave the station from the correct side it’s hard to miss. Just follow the street straight ahead.
Public Transport: The walk is fairly short, but it you require transport, then you can find busses just outside the station which will take you to either south or east entrances.
You can take busses 3,6,7,9 and 10. The fare should be around ¥100 and the travel time just a few minutes.