Himeji (80 kilometers west of Kobe) is a small city, with one primary attraction, its castle. Other less visited sights include the Hyogo Museum of History, with an interesting displays on Japanese castles and special rooms where you can try on kimonos and samurai armor. The historic setting has drawn production crews which have shot 250 films and television dramas in Himeji. The scene from "The Last Samurai", where Tom Cruise meets Ken Watanabe, were filmed at Himeji’s Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple.

Worth a look if you have the time are the Himeji City of Museum of Art, with works by Magritte and Japanese artists; Himeji City Museum of Literature, housed in a Tadao Ando-designed building; the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History; Himeji City Aquarium; the Japan Toy Museum; the Himeji City Botanical Gardens; and a science museum, an astronomical observatory and some amusement parks.

Himeji was the home of craft industries that produced leather, toys, and dolls. After World War II, it became the site of an integrated iron and steel works, a large petro-chemical complex, and heavy engineering plants. The city’s population is around 525,000 people. Himeji and Himeji Castle have been the site of many Japanese samurai movies, including the American TV program, "Shogun."To the west and south is the Inland Sea, whose scenic islands can easily be reached by bridges and ferries.

Himeji Walk: From JR Himeji Shinkansen Station, it's only a short walk to the famous Himeji Castle, affectionately known as the White Heron. As you approach the castle, the sweeping eaves of the huge white structure seem to swoop down and off up high into the air-a white bird soaring against the deep blue sky. From the castle you look out of the narrow wooden windows over the castle park towards the modern city of Himeji, a contrast of two eras. As you walk around inside the main hall, you half expect a samurai warrior to stealthily appear, as you climb the same dark narrow staircases that took the warriors up to their lords in centuries gone by. Back into the bright daylight you stroll through the park to the beautiful landscape Koko-en Garden. Here you kneel on the viewing platforms and stare out into the stillness of the gardens, the seasons gently changing before you as the carp-filled ponds ripple in the breeze. From here, it's a short walk to the red brick Himeji City Museum of Art which houses works by European and local Japanese artists, and the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History, a striking modern structure which displays the history of the surrounding areas. [Source: JNTO]

Himeji City Tourist Office (JR Himeji Station) offers some good free maps and brochures and runs a free bicycle operation, 210-2, Ekimae-cho, Tel. 079-287-0003; Hours: 9:00am-7:00pm. Open everyday except closed on December 29, 30 and irregularly. There is also a Himeji Tourist Information Center at the 6th fl., Clement Plaza, 1-61. Website: himeji-kanko.jp

Websites:Himeji Official Site himeji-kanko.jp; Hyogo Prefecture tourism site hyogo-tourism.jp ; Hyogo Tourist Information travelhyogo.org ; Himeji City city.himeji.lg.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Himeji Castle Maps himejicastle.jp ; Accommodation: There are a lot of relatively inexpensive business hotels in Himeji City. Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses ; Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Himeji is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (five hours) and Osaka and other Japanese cities. Himeji is on the main shinkansen line. Himeji is 92 kilometers west of Osaka, and can be reached by shinkansen in 46 minutes from Shin-Osaka Station. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle (10 minute walk from Himeji station) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Built between 1601 and 1609 by Ikeda Terumasa, the son-in-law of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and situated on Himeji Hill, it regarded as the best of Japan's castles and one of the few with some its original interior and exterior intact. Unlike other castles in Japan, it has managed to avoid being destroyed by a fire or natural disaster and was never attacked. It has undergone some major restorations but always in accordance with designs and construction methods used to make the original.

Standing 46 meters high, Himeji is known as the White Egret Castle because all the structures are white and from a distance the castle looks like a white bird in the middle of some rice fields. Constructed of wood, plaster and stone, its features a seven-story-high, five-tiered donjon with platforms of white stone and a white plaster exterior, three smaller donjons, a three-story watchtower, and covered passages connecting the donjon with the towers.

Himeji Castle sits on a site were a fort was built in 1333 and an earlier castle was built in the middle of the 16th century. The entire structure is surrounded by imposing defensive walls and moats. The walls have triangular and circular holes used for firing guns and arrows. Openings in the main donjon were used for pouring boiling oil and dropping rocks on attackers. Parts of the moat remain but there is no water.

One look at the castle shows that not all of the features are militaristic. Some are aesthetic. The white plaster walls, curved stone base and straighten edge roof with curved gables were intended to be pleasing to eye. Around the castle complex are lots of trees and greenery, including more than 1,000 cherry trees that bloom in late March and early April. It is possible to have you picture take with a ninja, kimono-clad princess or daimyo in the park outside the castle. Websites: Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Himeji Castle site himeji-castle.gr.jp ; Japan Tourist Information japan.travel ; Himeji Castle Maps himejicastle.jp ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Himeji Castle: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Himeji-jo (Himeji Castle) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 According to UNESCO: “Himeji-jo is the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture. It is located in Himeji City, in the Hyogo Prefecture, an area that has been an important transportation hub in West Japan since ancient times. The castle property, situated on a hill summit in the central part of the Harima Plain, covers 107 hectares and comprises eighty-two buildings. It is centred on the Tenshu-gun, a complex made up of the donjon, keeps and connecting structures that are part of a highly developed system of defence and ingenious protection devices dating from the beginning of the Shogun period. The castle functioned continuously as the centre of a feudal domain for almost three centuries, until 1868 when the Shogun fell and a new national government was created. [Source: UNESCO]

”Himeji-jo is the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture, comprising 83 buildings with highly developed systems of defence and ingenious protection devices dating from the beginning of the Shogun period. It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance unified by the white plastered earthen walls and in the subtlety of the relationships between the building masses and the multiple roof layers.

“The property, a single entity zone of 107 ha, is almost coincident with the overall castle grounds, which are divided into the inner walled zone and the outer walled zone. The property boundaries follow the moats around the outer walled zone, except in the southeast. In the property zone, the eighty-two buildings that include the donjon complex, ramparts, gates, and stone walls have fully retained their original composition and condition dating back to the early 17th century, although some of the buildings of Himeji-jo were lost in the process of historical change.

”The principal complex of these structures is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance unified by the white plastered earthen walls – that has earned it the name Shirasagi-jo (White Heron Castle) – and in the subtlety of the relationships between the building masses and the multiple roof layers visible from almost any point in the city.: The site is important because: 1) Himeji-jo is a masterpiece of construction in wood. It combines its effective functional role with great aesthetic appeal, both in the use of white-painted plaster and in the subtlety of the relationships between the building masses and the multiple roof layers. 2) It represents the culmination of Japanese castle architecture in wood, and preserves all its significant features intact.”

History of Himeji Castle

There are many stories associated with the castle. One of the most famous involves the ghost of a woman named Okiku, who was sent in the guise of a man to spy on an evil retainer who was plotting to overthrow the lord of the castle. The retainer realized that Okiku was a spy and accused her of stealing a valuable plate, which he had actually hid. For her alleged crime she was tortured and was thrown a well that now bears her name. Sometimes, it is said, her ghost can be heard counting plates. Visitors can visit a wall named after her.

Since no battles were fought at the castle stories of ghosts, murders and ritual suicides have taken the place of war stories. Another repeatedly-told tale involves a carpenter who leapt to his death after discovering a turret he worked on leaned to one side. There is another about an old women who donated her only millstone to the wall-building effort when she heard the there was a shortage of stones. Her sacrifice lead others in the town to donate stones and the wall was built. In another story the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi slew a rival on the top floor of the castle.

Himeji will undergo a 5½-year undergo restoration beginning in autumn of 2009 in which 80,000 roof tiles will be replaced, and 250 tons of plaster will be applied to the main donjon walls. A structure with scaffolding, an elevator and glass-walled observation area will envelop the main donjon, During the last renovation from 1956 to 1964 the castle’s main donjon was overhauled down to its pillars. That time the foundation was reinforced with concrete and the 24.4-meter wooden central pillar was replaced. Over 250,000 people took part in that renovation. About 10,000 will be used in the current restoration.

Features of Himeji Castle

Features of Himeji Castle include tiles stamped with family crests; brown walls made of clay and sand mixed with boiled rice water that have stood for 400 years; stones walls that have been built with a curve that get steeper at the top to provide a firm base but make it difficult to scale at the top. The main tower has a Shinto shrine at the top and has seven stories, including the basement, but looks like it has five. The two main pillars that support the main tower are nearly a meter wide. The upper part of the each pillar contains material from the original castle.

The West Bailey Building was built for the eldest daughter of the second Tokugawa Shogun. It features the 300-meter-long Long Corridor, with maids rooms and a room used by the princess off to the side and the Cosmetic Tower. The long storehouse to the back of the main tower was used to store salt and rice in the event of a siege. A deep well was the source of water.

Harakiri-maru is a small building where harakiri or seppuku or ritual suicide were reportedly conducted. It said the well near the building was used to wash beheaded bodies. Well, it turns out these stories are untrue. The building was a defensive post used to protect the rear gate and the well was an ordinary well.

Before visiting the castle, check it from a distance to appreciate it. A good place to look is the Egret, Himeji, an arts and crafts exhibition space, a couple hundred meters away. After entering the gates one must negotiate a maze of passages and gate to get to the castle proper. On the western side of Himeji Castle is Kokoen garden, a traditional Japanese garden with a tea room, waterfall and pond.

In Ise Prefecture a man spent 18 years building a 1:23 scale replica of Himeji Castle in his backyard. He spent a $170,000 on the project and made sure every detail was just right. The model covers 160 square meters. People who have seen it are impressed. There is some discussion of moving it somewhere and making a tourist attractions out of it.

Conservation and Preservation of Himeji Castle: UNESCO World Heritage Site

According to UNESCO: “The feudal masters of the castle kept it in good order with regular repair campaigns in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There has been some loss of buildings over time. After the national government took over the site, part of the west bailey and samurai houses were replaced by military buildings. These buildings were removed in 1945 and replaced by public buildings. In 1882, fire destroyed the castle lord’s residential compounds. However, these losses can be considered minor one, and total integrity has been kept. Thus, Himeji-jo perfectly preserves the interior and exterior characteristics of a 17th century Japanese castle, and integrity is ensured in the contexts of both wholeness and intactness. [Source: UNESCO]


“A series of conservation projects since 1934 have been carried out using techniques developed in Japan for conservation of wooden structures and in conformity with established principles of authenticity in terms of form/design, materials/substance, traditions/techniques and location/setting. The use of new materials is rigorously controlled, and all important proposals should be discussed and approved by the council. Buildings added to the site in the 19th or 20th centuries have been removed.

“The only modern intrusion has been the insertion of the reinforced concrete foundation raft, which was justified on the grounds that the process of deformation of the structures due to the weakness of the subsoil would inevitably lead to catastrophic collapse in a region of high seismic activity. Incompatible interventions, such as doors and windows, that occurred in earlier work, have been replaced with appropriate elements when enough information was available on the form and substance of the originals.

“Since the beginning of the Japanese Modern period in 1868, the national government has protected the property in close cooperation with local governments. Its eighty-two buildings and the site area of 107 ha are protected as National Treasures, Important Cultural Properties and a Special Historic Site under the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. Under the law, proposed alterations to the existing state of the property are restricted, and any alteration must be approved by the national government.

“Development pressure in the 143 hectare buffer zone is controlled by the 1987 Himeji City Urban Design Ordinance, the regulatory power of which was reinforced in 2008 under the 2004 Landscape Law. According to the 2004 Landscape Law, Himeji City also amended the 1988 Urban Design Master Plan and newly developed the Landscape Control Guideline in 2007. Himeji City must be notified of any proposed projects along streets with scenic views of Himeji-jo, and any proposed large-scale projects in the surroundings of Himeji-jo, in order to confirm that the proposed structures will fit in with the character of the historic environment.

“All the buildings and most of the site area are owned by the national government. Ownership of the remaining area is divided among Hyogo Prefecture, Himeji City, and private companies. Under the 1950 Law, Himeji City is appointed as the official custodial body for managing the legally protected Himeji-jo site and buildings. The city carries out its responsibilities through the Management Office for the Himeji-jo Area, and according to the 1964 City Ordinance for the Management of Himeji-jo, the 1986 Management Plan for the Himeji-jo Historic Site (final revision in 2008), and guidance by the national government. The efforts cover activities including daily maintenance, cleaning, regular inspection, traffic restriction, disaster prevention, and site arrangement and interpretation.

“As fire and earthquakes are the greatest risk to the property, the buildings are equipped with automatic fire alarms, security cameras, fire hydrants, and lightning arresters. All information from these facilities is monitored by the Himeji-jo Disaster Control Centre. With regard to earthquakes, Himeji City established an expert committee in 2006 to study, analyze, develop, and implement a necessary seismic strengthening scheme for the main donjon of Himeji-jo.”

Other Sights in Himeji

Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple
Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple (about five miles northeast of Himeji Station) served as the residence of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) in the film "The Last Samurai". Located on 371-meter-high Shoshazan mountain and founded in A.D. 966 by Shoku, the Buddhist priest who founded the Tendai Buddhist sect, it an impressive temple complex and has relatively few visitors, and is particularly nice in the autumn when the leaves of the maples there turn brilliant red.

The temple’s Manden building, about halfway up the mountains, is supported by wooden pillars and is reminiscent somewhat if Kiyomuzudera Temple in Kyoto. The top of the diminutive mountain can be reached by cable car or a 15 minuet walk along a path lined with Kannon statues.

Daikodo, the great auditorium, features a large, two-tired roof made of tiles. The 40-meter-long Jikido hall houses a priest training center and boarding house. Kaizando, the innermost temple, is situated in a cedar forest. It is supported by four statutes of sumo wrestlers made by the famous 17th century sculptor Hidaro Jingoro. The number of visitors to the temple has increased dramatically since the release of "The Last Samurai". Website: shosha.or.jp

Ako Misaki Onsen (west of Himeji) is wonderful hot spring resort with views of the ocean. The calcium-and salt-rich water, it is said, heals the body and soothes the skin.

Himeji Factory Boat and Bus Tour: The Himeji seafront is home to a large amount of heavy industry, with iron and steel works, a large petro-chemical complex, and heavy engineering plants. According to unmissablejapan Shinki Bus run a tour of this area about two or three times a month, and promise views of countless divine sparkling lights. First of all they take you on a one-hour boat trip to see the factories from the sea, and then a two-hour tour of the best factory viewpoints by bus. Tours depart from Himeji Station South Bus Terminal, usually at around 6:00pm, and return to the same point at roughly 10:30pm. (To get to the bus terminal, turn right after leaving the station’s south exit.) You can book online here, or by phone on 079-224-1919, or by email to web-snk@shinkibus.co.jp. When you book, or if making an enquiry, you should quote the tour code, BC-1201-7000AA. (¥3,640) . [Source: unmissablejapan]

Near Himeji

Hyogo Prefecture covers 8,400 square kilometers (3,243square miles), is home to about 5.5 million people and has a population density of 659 people per square kilometer. Kobe is the capital and largest city, with about 1.55 million people. It is in the Kansai area near Osaka and Kyoto on the central part of Honshu island and has eight districts and 41 municipalities.

Izushi (60 kilometers north of Himeji and Kobe) is a pleasant castle town sometimes call “Little Kyoto of Tajima.” It is home to a drum tower made into a clock tower, traditional tea houses, samurai houses, and white-walled temples. The donjon is no longer standing but the stone walls of the castle remain and a stairway with 158 steps and 57 red torii gates lead to the top. The town has been able to retain a rustic charm partly because no major rail line runs through it.

Tatsuno (between Himeji and Okayama) is another pleasant castle town sometimes call “Little Kyoto of Harima.” It has former samurai residences and traditional white storehouses. A small rivers run through the center of the town and mountains form a scenic backdrop. The town is also famous for its somen noodles and light-colored soy sauce.

Nishi-Harima Astronomical Observatory (Sayo, Hyogo Prefecture) boasts Japan’s largest reflector telescope, Nayuta, with a diameter of 2 meters. Stargazing parties are held every night. Weekdays and Saturdays during the summer holiday season are already fully booked, but no reservation is required for Sunday nights.

Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork spearheading efforts to preserve one of Japan’s living national treasures is the Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork, an ideal venue for any eco-conscious tourist. Stroll through lush green wetlands and enjoy the awe-inspiring beauty of these birds in their natural habitat, where they are bred and raised for reintroduction to the wild. Visit the museum and research center to learn all the work done to bring the stork back from the brink of extinction; cementing your bond with these beautiful creatures and their hard-working human saviors. Location: 128 Nigatani, Shounji, Toyooka-shi, Hyogo Admission is free, though donations are welcome. Getting There: Located just a 15-minute bus ride from Toyooka Station (about 2.5 hours from Osaka/Kobe or 3 hours from Kyoto by train) Spend the night and relax yourself at the nearby Kinosaki Onsen hot spring resort. Website: visitkinosaki.com/

Kiba and Beaches and Boating Near Himeji

The private Sanyo Dentetsu railway network connects Himeji station to the coastal areas, and acting as a bridge between Kobe and Himeji, offers many coastal lines. Most of the stations are within walking distance of the beach. Himeji Port, which is located in the southern part of the central area (Take a bus from the JR Himeji Station), has various ferries to the east end islands in the Seto Inland Sea, to Ieshima that floats on the Harima open sea and to Shodoshima, a very popular tourist spot. Therefore, you can say that this area is a main gate to all the sightseeing spots in the Seto Inland Sea to the guests who are staying around Osaka and Kyoto. [Source: JNTO]

The main places of interest are 1) Kiba (the southeast part of Himeji), the only natural coastline in this area, with beaches, a cliff, hiking course, yacht harbour, camping spots, golf courses and impressive festival, Kenka Matsuri, in the fall season; 2) Ieshima Islands, a convenient spot that takes you to the beach with beautiful water with reasonable fare from the Kansai area. 3) Shodoshima, the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea. You can enjoy onsen (hot spring), hiking and kayaking as well as swimming in the ocean here .

They always have a fall festival in the areas along the Sanyo Dentetsu lines. Fall is the best season for entertainment. In particular the 'Nada festival',which is held on October 14 and 15, has gorgeous portable floats and also spectacular fights between portable shrines that are bumped into each other. This festival is based on the local sea culture and it's also one of the big entertainments next to the Himeji castle. About 200,000 people visit every year and this 2-day long festival has a very unique culture, so it enjoys a great reputation with foreign visitors too. The festival takes place around Shirahama no miya station Shirahama no miya on the Sanyo Dentetsu Railway, one stop before Yaka station.

Activities in Kiba: Kiba Yacht Harbour (closed on Tuesdays) is a base for various types of marine leisure: Boat experience (Marine picnic): Cruising by motorboat (30 metersin/1000yen/person) reservation needed. Rental: small-size dinghy 1000yen/hour; sea kayak 1000yen/h; pedal boat 1000yen/hour. Others: Showers and restrooms, Yacht harbour, clubhouse 2 F Salon. The red wall coast adjacent to the yacht harbour: this is a coast where steep and strangely shaped rocks located from altitude 50 meters to 60 meters run for about 900 meters. As it resembles the "Red wall" of the Yangtze River, in China, it is named "Small red wall". It's selected as one of the 100 beautiful sights in the Seto Inland Sea Area. There's also a hiking course and the observatory on the top has a great view of Harima open sea. When the cherry blossom season comes in mid April, this area becomes a great spot to enjoy watching the flowers. Recently we often see a lot of rock-climbers. An old tomb still remains here, which visitors are able to enter. If you follow the path over the top of the cliff further to the east, there is a beach and camping site, called Fukudomari Marine BeltFukudomari Marine Belt, so you can visit these places while you are hiking from the harbour.

Accommodation: There are a lot of relatively inexpensive business hotels in Himeji City. Food: There aren't many restaurants around the Kiba area, so prepare a picnic. Information: Kiba Yacht Harbour: here, you can receive information about the Kiba Area, and also about sailing in the Seto Inland Sea in general. Getting There: From JR Himeji station: change to Sanyo Dentetsu Railway Sanyo Dentetsu Railway; the station is across the street from the central exit of the JR station. Take a local train to Osaka, get off at Yaka Yaka (15min) . From there it's a 15-minute walk South along the river to Kiba Yacht Harbour Kiba Yacht Harbour. Most of the coast area between Osaka and Himeji has been reclaimed as an industrial area. Even though it lacks natural beaches, there are a lot of recreational spots around the city where families can enjoy their weekends-it's getting more and more popular. Kiba map: anchorage.jp/setouchi/map

Image Sources: 1) 4) 5) 6) 7)Wikipedia 2) Earthquake Image Archives M. Yoshimine, Tokyo Metropolitan University 3) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 8) Amolife, 9) 10) Ray Kinnane 11) Himjei Convention and Visitors Bureau

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Updated in July 2020

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