The queues that snaked their way towards the entrance gate seemed endless. “How long will it take?” “Less than an hour to get into the premises to visit just the Himeji Castle park,” the ticket clerk assures. “But if you want to go up into the donjon (the main tower), be aware that there’s a one-way system! Inside, the castle is teeming with people!”
Just before the main castle tower of Himeji Castle was scheduled to be closed for restoration works in 2010, half of Japan had decided to have one last look at the splendid white fortress.
The cream of Japanese castle architecture
Himeji-jo is the largest of Japan’s traditional castles, and it is also extremely well-preserved. Built at the end of the 17th century with all the most modern and elaborate defence features of the time, it was never actually attacked as a long period of peace followed. Instead, the rulers kept the castle in good repair and it is now a prime example of the peculiar Japanese castle architecture with its pyramid-style donjons in multiple stories, and glittering roof tiles. For its splendid white colour, the castle got its nickname, the White Heron Castle. The much-visited Himeji Castle became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 as a masterpiece of Japanese wooden castle architecture.
The long way to visit Himeji Castle from inside
With a fixed train ticket to move on in a few hours, it may have been wiser to take the tour around the gardens and subsidiary buildings, take some photos of the donjon with cherry blossoms and leave it at that. But no, we stubbornly joined the column of tourists who wanted to visit Himeji Castle itself. All were shuffling slowly towards the entrance to the main tower.
Once inside, there was no turning back. Since there are also historical exhibits inside the building, the procession moved at an even slower pace. From outside, the tower appears to have five floors, but inside it is two more, including the basement. Supposedly that’s a particularly mean trick to deceive attackers about their progress and additional hidden defenders! When we were halfway up it became clear that we weren’t going to make our train unless we could skip the view from the top floor and get out soon. Luckily, on one of those floors there’s an option to cross a barrier and join the downward line. Soon we were out of the turmoil and made it to the train just in time.
Why visit Himeji Castle?
We have seen most of the famous castles in Japan, and a good bunch of the less famous ones. That includes the mysterious gusuku castles on Okinawa and the Marksburg on Miyakojima, a replica of a German castle on the River Rhine. We have also seen numerous European fortresses: the threatening castles of Bellinzona or of San Marino, and the playful Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria.
Still, Himeji is clearly one of the best and the most impressive for its size. Although it is a tourist magnet and always crowded it is worth it. If you have time for only one castle in Japan you should got to Himeji. The restoration is almost finished. The main tower – which was for a time completely wrapped and hidden from view – officially re-opened for interior visits in March 2015.
How to get to Himeji Castle
The small town of Himeji is less than one hour away from Kyoto. From Himeji main station (Shinkansen access) you can walk (under 1 km) or take a bus or a free cycle.
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