We had a day trip to Himeji Castle, Japan as part of our two-week trip in January. It’s considered Japan’s most beautiful castle, towering over the city with its pure white facade and silvery grey tiles. Its exterior has a real castle-based wow factor. Like lots of this sort of thing in Japan, it’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site and official National Treasure.
Our day trip was from where we were staying in Kobe. It took about 20 minutes or so on a shinkansen.
The castle is easy to find from the train station: it looms at the end of a straight main road. You enter from this massive gate.
Once in the grounds, you’ll naturally make a beeline for the main castle itself.
The main keep
When we visited in January, there was hardly any queue to get in, but from the amount of signs and fencing, it was apparent this isn’t always the case. It’s probably heaving in summer. We were able to explore a bit around it, having it almost all to ourselves, before venturing in.
If you’re anything like us, no holiday will be complete without climbing up some sort of tower or viewing area, usually on a hot day and laden with bags. Our Himeji day trip was no exception, only with the added Japanese bonus of having to take our shoes off on the wooden floor and scale six flights of stairs made for tiny feet.
It’s all about the view though. From the top, you get a windswept panorama of the city and mountains, framed by the intricate detail of the castle’s rooftops.
If you like wood and minimalism, you’ll like Japanese castles.
We’ve only been in this one and Matsumoto Castle, but we have it on good authority (and Google) that most Japanese castles have no furniture or anything in them.
Unlike in Europe, where castles are usually set up as they would have been back in the day (four-poster beds, millions of paintings, etc), Japan likes to keep things simple. And much easier to dust.
Around the grounds and gardens
Irrespective of furniture and stuff, we always prefer the outside of castles and historical buildings. After you’ve climbed all the way back down the stairs inside, you can get out and mooch round the grounds of Himeji Castle.
It would be a bit more colourful in spring or summer, but we still found some good photo opportunities.
As you leave the castle grounds, there are some samurai-related things. This is because of Himeji’s history of training samurai warriors – it was also the filming location for the film ‘The Last Samurai’, which we’ve never seen so was completely wasted on us.
Speaking of all things samurai, there used to be samurai houses next to the main gate of Himeji Castle. An Edo-style set of walled gardens was built on their former site in the 90s and is quite a nice thing to visit to round off your trip.
However, when we were there, the main part of it was resoundingly closed.
Luckily, we were still allowed into some of the smaller side gardens, which had some nice water features and a fair amount of colour for January.
More importantly, Kōkoen Garden also had cats lounging about in the late January sunshine. Fun fact: cats in Japan say ‘nya’, not ‘meow’. You’ll need this information if you wish to converse with them.
After a quick look round some of Himeji’s myriad of shops, it was time to get the bullet train (shinkansen) ‘home’ to our base in Kobe.
Himeji station is one of the few where shinkansens pass through without stopping, so you have the opportunity to photograph one going past at speed. Wouldn’t that make for a great blurry arty photo? We were poised with the camera for ages waiting for one to zoom past. But we had to give up and board our shinkansen before we missed it. Of course, as soon as we took our seats, one passed us. We missed it by about 30 seconds.
Still, even a stationary shinkansen is quite exciting. They really are ridiculously long and have great ‘faces’.
More on Japanese trains coming in a special blog soon…
Day trip to Himeji Castle, Japan: useful information
How to get there (and away)
From Kobe, we got the shinkansen direct to Himeji. It took about 20 minutes.
Where to stay
How to get around
You can see it when you leave the station and just walk in a straight line to it.
When to go
Choose between queuing with the hordes seeing it with cherry blossom in spring, or get it to yourself in winter. As the grounds and gardens are a big deal, it might be nicer to go when the weather is a bit better, but we still enjoyed it in January.
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