Elegant and lustrous white, Himeji Castle appears like a giant heron flying in the sky. Together with a 400-year-long history, it’s undisputedly one of the most spectacular castles in Japan. After several years of extensive renovation, Himeji Castle was re-opened to the public in March 2015. The White Heron once again dominates the sky of Himeji.
The history of Himeji Castle (姫路城) dates back to 1580 when the shōgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi remodeled a fort standing atop a hill in Himeji into a formidable castle. Some 30 years later, the castle was enlarged by Ikeda Terumasa, a feudal lord of the early Edo period. He was awarded this castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu due to his service at the Battle of Sekigahara. The construction was completed in 1609 and the castle complex as it survives today is over 400 years old.
Today, Himeji Castle is a national treasure and one of the very first places in Japan that UNESCO designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site. Its imposing size and inimitable beauty attract nearly three million visitors each year, making it Japan’s most visited castle. Furthermore, thanks to its graceful and brilliant white appearance, the castle is often referred to as Shirasagi-jō (白鷺城), or the White Heron Castle.
Himeji Castle Architecture
Built during the feudal period, Himeji Castle contains an advanced defensive system. It consists of more than 80 structures spreading across multiple baileys. These baileys are then connected by a series of gates and winding paths. The goal of this labyrinth-like layout is to slow down and expose attacking forces to numerous stone-throwing platforms and firing holes.
At the heart of the complex stands the main keep, Daitenshu, a magnificent multi-story wooden structure. From the outside, it appears to have only five floors. But it actually has a seven-floor configuration, including six internal floors and a large basement. The floors are unfurnished and each level gets progressively smaller as you ascend. The keep also maintains some hidden features, such as musha–gakushi (hidden rooms where warriors could lie in wait), nijyu-no-tobira (two-layered doors).
The Restoration of Himeji Castle
In order to preserve the main keep’s original beauty, an extensive restoration began in 2009 – 45 years after “The Showa Era Restoration”. All roof tiles, joint plasters, as well as floorboards and windows, were replaced. The edges of eaves, gables, and other decorative components were either repainted or completely repaired.
The restoration team also repaired and reinforced the pillars, making them earthquake-proof. Known as “The Heisei Era Restoration”, this whole project costs approximately 2.4 billion yen and it took around six years to complete. In March 2015, Himeji Castle was fully re-opened to the public. And once again, the White Heron Castle dominates the sky of Himeji.
Facts about Himeji Castle
- Unlike many other castles in Japan, Himeji Castle miraculously escaped the devastation of World War II. The castle remained largely intact, although the surrounding area was burnt to the ground. Fire and natural disasters also did no harm to the castle.
- The only occasion that Himeji Castle was nearly destroyed is when the castle was put up for auction in 1871. A Himeji resident purchased it for 23.5¥ and intended to demolish the castle for crop farming. However, the cost of destroying the castle was estimated to be too great, and thus the castle was again spared.
- When getting out of the main keep, be sure to check out the Okiku’s well on which a classic Japanese ghost story is based. In this story, Okiku was a maid of Aoyama, a retainer who planned a plot against his lord. Okiku overheard the plot and reported it to her lover, a loyal warrior. Thus, the plot was averted. When Aoyama found out that his maid had been the cause of his failure, he decided to kill her. So he accused her of having stolen one of ten very rare dishes. As a result, she was tortured to death and thrown into the well. From then after, Okiku became a vengeful spirit and haunted her murderer by counting to nine and then making a terrible shriek.
Tips for visiting Himeji Castle
- Lying on the Sanyo Shinkansen line, the town of Himeji is easily accessible from Osaka or Kyoto by shinkansen (approx. one hour). The castle stands about one kilometer down the main street and it takes around 15-20 minutes to walk there from the train station. Alternatively, you can take a bus which costs around 100 yen one way.
- For those wanting to go inside Himeji Castle, a long waiting time should be considered, especially during the cherry blossom season (late March to early April), the Golden Week (late April to early May), and the summer holiday (July and August). The admission ticket costs 1000¥.
- Only a limited number of visitors are allowed to enter the main keep at the same time. More information is available at Himeji Castle’s official website.