As I stepped off the train for a day of sightseeing in Himeji, I said to myself, “I’ll look for the tourist information office first and ask how to get to the castle.” (And, yes, traveling solo for so long, I did sometimes say things like this out loud!)
While other more minor destinations are worth visiting as well, Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is why tourists go to Himeji and it was why I was there.
Entering the main concourse of the train station, looking out the main glass doors down a long, wide street lined with ordinary city buildings, concrete and glass and generally unremarkable, I realized I didn’t need to ask: far in the distance, on the horizon, down that street, I could see it.
Even at such a distance, I could see that it was magnificent. I wondered how many people, like me, step out of that train station every day and utter a stunned “Wow!”
History of Himeji Castle
Built in the early 1600’s, Himeji Castle is known as the White Egret Castle because of its striking white color. It was the center of a feudal domain (a shogunate) until 1868. While some of the other buildings on the property were destroyed later, the castle itself is original and has been carefully preserved using authentic materials and techniques as much as possible.
Close up, the castle is just as impressive. Like Matsumoto Castle, the main keep was mostly designed for defense in battle, but the other surrounding buildings give a better idea of how the lords of the castle and their families lived.
Like at Matsumoto, holes in the wall allowed shooting with arrows and guns, as well as stone drops for dropping stones on invaders. A series of gates block access to the keep, and the keep itself stands high up on stone walls, with a commanding view in all directions.
Yet, despite its military purpose, beautiful workmanship is clear throughout the castle, the other buildings and the grounds. Details like the decorative tiling, the white plasterwork, and some of the living space interiors make the whole compound truly special.
Visiting Himeji Castle
It took me a while to get to the main keep of the castle, largely because every turn in the road revealed a slightly different view of that beautiful building and I had to stop and take a picture. It’s a long climb as well, so a slow walk in that heat was probably the best plan anyway.
After the customary shoe removal, visitors follow a route through the castle all the way, eventually, to the 6th floor, allowing a view back down that city boulevard.
Along the way, signs in English and Japanese explain aspects of the construction of this massive wooden building, as well as what each space was used for. I was amazed to think of the effort that must have gone into building something so large and heavy in the 17th century. The main supporting pillars, for example, are absolutely massive and began to give out not long after the building was finished so they had to be shored up. Just looking at the sheer size of the building, all six floors of it with massive wooden beams for each layer, it’s hard to imagine the technical skill it took to create and maintain such a structure.
After climbing down again, I explored the West Bailey, fascinating because it was a living area. The Cosmetic Tower, in particular, gave me more of a picture of the castle as a home, rather than as a place of battle. Like all of the historic buildings I visited in Japan, there is no furniture to speak of, but I used my imagination, picturing tatami mats covering the floor, low tables, people kneeling on cushions, women in kimonos and men in traditional robes.
I went to Himeji as a day trip from Kyoto, and only had time for one more sight. I chose to visit Mt. Shosha, where Engyoji Temple stands far above the city. It is known as a filming location for “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise. By this time I had visited a number of temples, so I chose this destination more for the views than for the temple itself.
I took a bus to the base of the mountain where a cable car takes visitors up, in a steep but short ride. Compared to the one I took in Hong Kong, this was a breeze!
Arriving at the top isn’t really arriving at the top. A long walk is necessary to reach the temple itself (or rather, temples, since there are a number scattered around the various lanes in the forest). The walk is pleasant and forested, and the path is lined with a series of god and goddess statues. For the people who made pilgrimages to this holy place before the cable car was built, it must have been a difficult climb, especially in hot weather.
The various buildings date back centuries, but most were destroyed and rebuilt in the 20th century. The main temple, called Maniden, makes an imposing impression, the way it is set on the hill among the trees. Compared to the crowds at Himeji Castle, few tourists were here. I got the feeling that of the few people visiting, most had come at least in part for religious purposes.
Exhausted from all the walking I’d done that day, I was glad to make my way back to the cable car, then to the bus, then to the train back to Kyoto. For me, Himeji, especially the castle, was a highlight of my trip to Japan, along with Nikko.
If you’ve traveled in Japan, add a comment below telling about the highlight(s) of your trip!
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