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Ultimate Guide to Himeji Castle: Exploring the Beautiful Grounds and Historical Sights

Ultimate Guide to Himeji Castle: Exploring the Beautiful Grounds and Historical Sights

Date published: 16 September 2019

Himeji Castle, a national treasure located in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, has been selected as one of the 100 best castles in Japan, and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Himeji Castle still retains to this day its beautiful appearance, especially the Keep, which was constructed in 1609, and tourists from around the world come here not only to appreciate its historical value but to also see beautiful traditional Japanese scenery. This article will introduce what to see in Himeji Castle and also the superb scenery to be enjoyed at Koko-en Garden.

What you need to know before walking around Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is about a 20-minute walk from the JR Himeji Station. The castle sits atop Himeyama from where it could observe all the doings in the town and has become a symbol of Himeji City.

▲ You can see the Main Keep from the moment you enter the Himeji Park located on the grounds of Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle was designated a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1993, the first ever in Japan, and is also a designated national treasure as well as an important cultural property noted for being a masterpiece of architectural technology. This is historically a very important structure as construction mainly of the Main Keep, the turrets, gates, earthen walls as well as the stone walls and moat are all very well preserved.

Himeji Castle, as it stands today, was built in 1609 by Terumasa Ikeda who was married to Tokuhime, the second daughter of Ieyasu Tokugawa. When Himeji suffered air raid damage during the Pacific War, it miraculously avoided being destroyed by fire, and as a result of ongoing repairs and restorations it today remains pretty much in its original state.

Himeji Castle got its start actually much earlier in 1346 during the Northern and Southern Courts period when warlord Sadanori Akamatsu had a fortification built in an area of Himeji called Himeyama. At the time it was more like a small fort than a castle and it was later during the Age of Warring States that it was expanded and made into a citadel by the warlord Shigetaka Kuroda. Furthermore, after that, it was governed by various warlords and feudal lords, such as Hideyoshi Hashiba, who later took the name Hideyoshi Toyotomi, each repairing and expanding the size of the castle.

The castle, as constructed by Ikeda, was actively maintained through a succession of lords of the castle up until the Meiji Period. So, counting from the time of Akamatsu, the castle actually has a history of more than 670 years.

A moment ago I briefly mentioned the warlord Shigetaka Kuroda of the Age of Warring States. The name might ring a bell with those familiar with history as he was the grandfather of Kanbei Kuroda, a vassal of the famous Hideyoshi Toyotomi and known as the "Strategist Kanbei".

▲ The "Stone Wall of Kanbei" supposedly built by Kanbei by order of Hideyoshi

These days it has been used in popular television dramas, such as the one about the historical character Kanbei Kuroda. Those familiar with history may remember that Kanbei was born at Himeji Castle and that he was the mastermind who gave Himeji Castle to Hideyoshi when the latter was on his way to attack Mori.

For example, this stone wall surrounding the castle on the east side during the time that Hideyoshi lived there was built by Kanbei by order of Hideyoshi. The Stone Wall of Kanbei inside Himeji Castle is definitely a spot Kanbei fans will want to visit.

Himeji Castle is also famous for being the castle in which Lady Sen, the granddaughter of Ieyasu Tokugawa and granddaughter of Oichi who was considered the most beautiful woman of the Age of Warring States, lived. Himeji Castle has often been the setting for various historical Japanese dramas and as such it is the perfect place for recalling historical events.

In addition to its historical value, Himeji Castle is also noted for its beauty. Since olden times Himeji Castle has been affectionately called Hakuro or Shirasagi [White Egret] Castle because it resembles a graceful egret with outstretched wings. The brilliantly white castle walls and elaborate workmanship of the Main Keep have a beauty to which no other castles can compare.

▲ Himeji Castle in the spring (photo provided by Himeji City)

In its lush natural setting, Himeji Castle shows itself in different ways throughout the four seasons. In spring the landscape is serene and resplendent with cherry blossoms; summer is marked by lush green leaves; autumn by the changing colors of the leaves; and in winter it is mantled in snow.

▲ Himeji Castle in the winter (photo provided by Himeji City)

Even those not interested in history or castles will find a tour of Himeji well worth it. If you are going to go for a walk, then a walk through Himeji Castle, with its beautiful scenery will certainly refresh you.

What to see inside the castle, part 1. The scenery of the castle has a rich historical atmosphere

Up to now we have given you some general information about Himeji Castle and now we will tell you about what there is to see inside the castle.

▲ Entrance to Himeji Castle

Setting aside the question of how far the grounds of the castle extend, suffice it to say that they are very vast. The area within the moat, called the enceinte, covers about 23 hectares. That is large enough to hold five Tokyo Domes. Roughly half of that area is currently maintained as a public park freely open to the public. The northern half of the area, in which the Keeps in the enceinte are located, does have an admission fee.

Until now all the photos shown were taken in the area outside where there is no fee. The free area outside affords stunning views of Himeji Castle and viewed up close you can feel its powerful presence.

But now it is time to pay the entrance fee and enter. (Admission fees: adults (18 and older) 1,000 yen, children (elementary through high school ages) 300 yen; both include tax)

Passing through the castle entrance you walk up a gentle slope which takes you to the Hishi no Mon [Water Chestnut Gate]. This type of gate is called Yagura Mon [barbican] and is in the style of the Azuchi-Momoyama period [1568 - 1600]; it is also the largest gate in the castle. In addition to this Hishi no Mon there are numerous other gates, such as the I Gate and Ro Gate, each name of a gate beginning with one of the letters in the Japanese alphabet.

▲ The Main Keep is visible from the entrance to Himeji Park

Hishi no Mon, the largest gate in the castle, is very imposing.

After you pass through the gate, you will see a section called Nishinomaru [Western Keep] on the left side, then further back on the right the inner citadel and the donjon.

▲ Ha no Mon South Earthen Wall

Even though you are now inside the castle grounds the path to the Keep is still a long ways off. Many barbican, gates, and stone walls were constructed to provide vantage points for firing down on enemy attackers. Each is of high historical value and all are extremely interesting to see.

Our first recommendation of what to see inside the castle, part 1 is the scenery within the castle grounds, something you will be able to see in more detail when you visit.

Himeji Castle is often used as the setting for many TV programs and movies. Everywhere within the castle the vestiges of its rich history are amply evident.

▲ The stone wall near the Ho no Mon gate

The main attraction in the castle is of course are the Keeps. The Main Keep in Himeji Castle is a 31.5-meter tall structure built on a 14.85-meter high stone wall which in turn sits on a 45.6-meter tall knoll giving it a total height of 92 meters, so that from wherever it is viewed from within the castle grounds, one must look up to it.

When looking for the right spot having the Main Keep in the background, keep in mind that it will appear slightly different depending on from where it is viewed from within the castle grounds. I recommend that you view it from different angles until you find the spot that best satisfies you.

To illustrate that here are some examples. I selected three which I personally thought beautifully showed the Main kKep and ranked them as follows.

I liked this one third best.

It was taken near the I no Mon gate. The I no Mon gate is a little beyond the Water Chestnut Gate at the entrance. After you pass under the gate and go forward a little to the right, you will be presented with this view of the Keep.

This is my second favorite.

This imposing view of the Main Keep was taken at a place called Bizen Maru [Bizen Keep]. Bizen Maru was originally part of the inner citadel and where the lord of the castle Terumasa Ikeda lived. It was right next to the Main Keep, but in 1882 it was destroyed by fire. Today it is just a large open space.

From here you can fully see the Main Keep. I think the imposing power of the Main Keep can best be felt here.

This is a view from a different angle.

This is the perfect spot to get a photo of “The Castle”. It definitely conveys the beauty of the White Egret Castle.

And my favorite location was...

The Western Keep Garden. The area called the Western Keep on the west side in the castle was used as the cosmetic turret of Lady Sen and as it was where warriors assembled before setting out on a campaign it was called the Warriors Gathering Place. Today this place is now neatly maintained as a Japanese garden planted with pine trees, flowering azaleas, and other plants. The view of the Keeps beyond the garden is magnificent.

Please keep in mind that this ranking is based entirely on my own interests. To begin with, it really is not possible to rank the superiority of the landscapes. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the view of the Keeps from the Western Keep and hope you will, too.

What to see inside the castle, part 2. Explore the castle with the AR app Himeji Castle Great Discovery Application

In “What to see inside the castle, part 2” we will tell you about the Himeji Castle Great Discovery Application. You can greatly increase the pleasure of your visit to Himeji Castle by using this special application as you walk around.

This amazing application uses cutting-edge AR and CG technology and was specially made to make walking around Himeji Castle even more enjoyable.

The first thing you need to do is download and install the app on your own device (smartphone, tablet, etc.).

Once you have done that, when you point your device at this mark on signboards set up throughout the castle, a video explanation will be shown.

The Ha no Mon South Earthen Wall is an example of one of these AR points.

The wall has many small openings in it. These openings are called sama [embrasure] and from them warriors protecting the castle would fire rifles and other weapons to repel enemies attacking the castle

When you point your device at the signboard here

The scene of a warrior firing a rifle through an embrasure will suddenly appear on the screen of your device as though you had just taken a photo of it. It is just like a VTR being played in front of your very eyes.

Those familiar with such modern technology will immediately recognize that it provides a video commentary of the scene being viewed, but that is not all. It provides other surprises as well, but I’ll forgo explaining in detail what these are so as not to spoil the surprises later.

In addition to learning trivia about Himeji Castle, with this app you can also collect little monsters and have your photo taken with them, like in a similar popular game application.

This app is really useful when you are walking inside the castle because it also has a function that shows your current location and AR points on a map of the inside of the castle. I recommend you try to get all the AR points during your walk around the castle, just as though you were on a walking rally. This is definitely a good way to increase the enjoyment while walking around the castle.

What to see inside the castle, part 3. Go up in the Keep to get a feel of its history

In “What to see inside the castle, part 3” we will tell you about what is exhibited in the Keep. In addition to viewing Himeji Castle from the outside, it is also possible to enter the Keep and turrets of the Western Keep.

The Keeps are without a doubt the most impressive. The Main Keep built by Ikeda used a construction style called coalition towers that connected the Main Keep with the three subsidiary Keeps by roofed passageways. You can enter the Main Keep and go up to its top floor.

▲ You need to remove your shoes when you go inside the Main Keep

Actually the Keeps were closed for preservation repair work from 2010 to 2015 after which they were again opened to the public. Since being reopened to the public, because there are so many tourists, at times when it is crowded, numbered tickets are issued limiting the number of visitors to 15,000 on such a day. If you want to see the inside of the Keeps, you should go early and check to see how crowded it is.

Follow the posted tour route and enter the Keep.

▲A variety of exhibits related to Himeji castle are located in key places
▲A scale model of what the castle town of Himeji once looked like
▲ A ridge-edged tile that was replaced during the Heisei repair work. The Ikeda family crest is the swallowtail butterfly

If you are interested in learning more details, you can request the services of a local castle enthusiast as a personal guide (2,000 yen per guide, tax included). The guides also often provide humorous anecdotes as well as interesting facts about areas of interest in the castle, greatly adding to the overall tour experience. (You can request the services of a guide for the same day at the Silver Tour Guide Reception office near the castle entrance. At times guides may not be available because all of them are with tourists, so it is best to make a reservation in advance.)

Now let’s move on to the Main Keep. The Main Keep of Himeji Castle is a 7-story structure having five levels. Externally the Keep appears to have five floors, but in fact it has six floors above ground and one basement.

▲ View from the 5th floor of the Main Keep

Check out each floor as you make your way to the top. Himeji City can be seen in the distance.

▲ Stairway leading to the top floor of the Main Keep

The higher up one goes in the Main Keep, the steeper the stairs become. Finally we arrive at the top.

The view from up here is magnificent. You can get a really good view of Himeji City from the observation deck of the Main Keep in Himeji Castle.

The roofs of castles were adorned with shachihoko. Shachihoko were guardian gods of castles and normally the pairs consisted of a male and female, but for oddly both are female at Himeji Castle.

▲ Shachihoko from different periods are displayed in the Ri no Ichi Roofed Passageway

The reason for that was disappointing. Since the Edo Period, restorations have periodically been undertaken and this is what remains of the Main Keep of Himeji Castle. The shachihoko are fragile to begin with and until now have often been replaced with restorations, but at the time of the restoration made during the Showa era, only the female shachihoko remained and because it was the model for the reconstruction, both shachihoko ended up being female. It’s rather a pity, but nevertheless still quite historical. Even the drama of restoration can be interesting.

What to see inside the castle, part 4. Many exhibitions inside the castle still remain to be seen

So far we have covered three many areas of interest, but there are still others so here we will give you a digest of those highlights yet to be mentioned.

The first is the Western Keep.

▲ Western Keep. As the name implies, is located on the west side of the castle and contains the cosmetic turret of Lady Sen and it was also where the lady attendants who worked in the castle stayed
▲ Western Keep Chokyoku [Women’s Quarters] (Long Connecting Corridor)

It is also possible to tour the inside of this building. The impressive long corridor. This is one of the more beautiful spots in Himeji Castle.

▲ The Western Keep contains many displays. Shown in the photo are recreations of six battledores requested by Lady Sen for the repose of the souls of her husband and other deceased individuals
▲ In the Main Keep and Western Keep there are ingenious mechanisms everywhere to protect the castle from enemies. The photo shows an embrasure in the Western Keep

There are all sorts of very interesting displays and similar devices throughout the Keeps. I think anyone interested in Lady Sen will find the Western Keep especially interesting.

▲ A tile with a cruciform on it at the Ni no Mon gate

Next we move on to the Ni no Mon gate which is located in the central part of the castle. If you look carefully you will see that there is a cruciform on the tile. Called the Cruciform Tile, is said to be closely associated with Kanbei Kuroda who was a Christian. Some say there is no connection while others have different theories, but in any case, one does get a feeling of Kanbei Kuroda here.

The stone walls also are interesting. Over time Himeji Castle was repeatedly enlarged. The stone walls varied according to the age in which they were built and here there are many examples of their different types.

Many types of stone were collected for such use, including stone lanterns and sarcophagus. This is the ubagaishi (old woman's stone) which legend says was the stone mortar used by an old woman rice cake maker who gave it to Hideyoshi who was having trouble gathering enough stones for the stone walls. The stone walls are full of history.

▲ The ubagaishi is covered with netting to preserve it

So, you are bound to discover new things wherever you look in Himeji Castle. This is a sightseeing spot certain to fully satisfy both those interested in the scenery and beautiful architecture as well as those who are interested in history. Himeji Castle is a World Heritage Site Japan is rightfully proud of and one you will certainly want to visit when you come to Himeji. Himeji City is about an hour by car and train from Osaka and Kobe. It is easily accessible so when you visit the Kansai region for sightseeing, be sure to make a point to visit Himeji.

  • Himeji Castle
    姫路城
    • Address 68 Honmachi, Himeji City, Hyogo

    Open: 9:00 a.m. ~ 4:00 p.m. (Gates close at 5:00 p.m.) ※ Summer hours (April 27 ~ August 31) 9:00 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m. (Gates close at 6:00 p.m.)
    Closed: December 29 and 30
    Admission fees: adults (18 and older) 1,000 yen, children (elementary through high school ages) 300 yen; both include tax)
    079-285-1146 (Himeji Castle Administration Office)

Looks just like a movie set. Scenic Koko-en Garden

If you visit Himeji Castle be sure to also visit Koko-en Garden on the site of the lord’s west residence.

▲ The entrance to Koko-en Garden

Koko-en Garden is a Japanese-style garden built on land where once samurai homes were located on the west side of Himeji Castle. This is a beautiful scenic spot comprised of nine gardens separated by fences that makes full use of the remnants of mansions and passageways uncovered during archaeological excavations.

Admission fees to the garden are adults (18 and older) 300 yen, children (elementary through high school ages) 150 yen; both include tax) The admission fee grants you access to all 9 gardens on this sprawling 3.5 hectare site.

What’s more, if you purchase the joint admission ticket for Himeji Castle and Koko-en Garden that costs 1,040 yen for adults (18 and older) and 360 yen for students (tax included), the admission fee to the garden for an adult amounts to only 40 yen! This is a real bargain! If you visit Himeji Castle you really must visit the gardens, too.

▲ Inside the park there are nine separate gardens enclosed by gates and walls that surround the park reproduced in the Edo style. This is the entrance to the Mansion Garden

Don’t underestimate the attractions of the garden because of the low admission price. Koko-en was constructed in the architectural style of the Edo period and contains reproductions of gates, walls, even long corridors, as well as beautiful gardens, all in traditional and harmonious styles designed to give pleasure. All combine to provide superb landscapes.

▲ The passage corridor in the garden of the mansion

Koko-en Garden has been used in the period films Rurouni Kenshin and Ooku as well as many TV programs such as Mito Komon, Ooka Echizen, and The Unfettered Shogun. When you see these gorgeous gardens you will easily understand why so many renowned movies and TV programs were filmed here.

▲ (photo provided by Koko-en Garden)

This attention to detail in this well-maintained garden is splendid.

The change of seasons and even different hours of the day give the gardens a rich variety of expressions.

▲ Choonsai veranda

This is the view from the mansion called Choonsai that was built to face in the best direction for admiring the harvest moon.

This shows the view when it is verdant, and when autumn comes

▲ (photo provided by Koko-en Garden)

Voila! Every autumn the park hours are extended when the garden is illuminated. The illuminated autumn leaves are really something you should see in person.

The mansion’s pond has many colorful carp
▲ This is the view from the Kassui-ken restaurant

In addition to the Kassui-ken, where you can enjoy a leisurely meal while admiring the garden, also in Koko-en Garden is the Sojuan tea ceremony room where you can enjoy seasonal Japanese sweets with matcha tea.

▲ The Sojuan tea ceremony room The tea ceremony room is built in the classical Sukiya style and beyond it is the spacious Tea Garden with its stepping stones and lanterns
▲ For 500 yen (tax included) you can enjoy a seasonal Japanese sweet and matcha in a traditional tea ceremony

I enjoyed the experience. Unaccustomed to sitting formally like this, my legs went numb while I was drinking the tea.

The matcha had a rich, bitter flavor that I found delightfully stimulating. While enjoying the gentle flavor of the tea relaxing in this room, experiencing the atmosphere of this authentic tea ceremony room I felt invigorated. You can really feel the spirit of Japan at such a moment.

Anyone who enters the park is invited to enjoy an authentic Japanese tea ceremony in Sojuan. And for those who find the formal way of sitting a bit difficult, it is OK to sit otherwise and leisurely enjoy the view of the garden while having the tea. Be sure to take time to stroll around the garden, too.

Koko-en Garden is a place where you can feel the traditional beauty of Japan in a rich, natural setting. There are many more wonderful sights to be seen, but we did not have space to mention them here. For those who are interested, here are some additional photographs, but if you have the chance, I recommend you pay the place a visit.

  • Koko-en Garden on the former site of the Himeji Castle Western Mansion
    姫路城西御屋敷跡庭園「好古園」
    • Address 68 Honmachi, Himeji City, Hyogo
    • Phone Number 079-289-4120

    Open: 9:00 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m. September 1 ~ April 26 (park closes at 4:30 p.m.) April 27 ~ August 31 9:00 a.m. ~ 6:00 p.m. (park closes at 5:30 p.m.)
    Closed: December 29 and 30
    Admission fees: adults (18 and older) 300 yen, children (elementary through high school ages) 150 yen; both include tax)

Many soothing views. Himeji Castle and Koko-en Garden photos

Here are more photos of Himeji Castle and Koko-en Garden that were not included in the article.

▲ The Himeji Castle beautifully illuminated at night
▲ The mood is quite different from that of daytime (photo taken from the Egret Himeji complex in front of Himeji Castle)
▲ (photo provided by Himeji City)
▲ (photo provided by Himeji City)
▲ Praying to Keibumyojin, the guardian deity of Himeji Castle located on the top floor of the Main Keep
▲ View of the Main Keep from a window in the Western Keep
▲ (photo provided by Himeji City)
▲ Koko-en Garden in the autumn (photo provided by Koko-en Garden)
▲View from the Sojuan tea ceremony room (photo provided by Koko-en Garden)
▲ Flower Garden in the spring (photo provided by Koko-en Garden)
▲ Flowing Level Garden
▲ Mansion Garden
▲ The Sojuan tea ceremony room
▲ Flower Garden

Text by:Advision

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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