Probably one of the best day trips from Osaka is a visit to Himeji Castle, only about 30 mins away via the shinkansen high speed rail. I had been told out of all the castles in Japan, the one in Himeji is the best. Now I had already visited Osaka castle which is much more frequented but the insides of the tower was all new, like the original interior had been ripped out like guts and a museum installed in its place. You would not know it was a castle if not for the exterior facade.
Himeji however is left intact and preserved as is, interesting enough it had been closed for several years for restoration projects to clean out all the dirt and such and had made for quite the stunning transition. The stunning white castle which had been steeped gray after many years of neglect and wear was now restored to its former prestige.
Before: (image courtesy: beth reiber)
Granted the weather when I visited was much better, you cannot deny how much better it looks with a bit of a scrub and polish., just compare the colour of the roof! Now you can see Himeji Castle from all over the district as it sits high atop a large hill in the middle of a plain which is pretty much surrounded by mountains – you would be able to spot potential invaders from miles and miles away.
But for us we arrive via the train and its only a short 10 minute walk from the station that is in a straight line. The pic below is from the top of the main keep looking south and you can sort of see the station in the distance even, that long tree lined street you can see is the walk to reach the castle grounds.
Once you reach the end of the walk you cross a wide little wooden bridge to get over the ring moat inhabited by many carp, before entering the south gate into the massive courtyard you can see in the picture above. The entry fee is a modest 1000 yen which gives you access to the grounds as well as the main keep.
Now its probably best to have a walk around the castle grounds before going into the main keep as you can explore all the defensive features and fortifications while also having many different views of the castle. After removing your shoes you can take a stroll along the inside of the high walls which not only serve as protection but as living quarters. Most of the rooms are empty but others feature small exhibits and dioramas that show various things such as previous states of the castle before being upgraded/expanded through the ages by different clans.
One of the more interesting features is a wooden architecture scale model (1:50) that was commissioned to reflect exactly the castle as it was around 1600 before it was torn down. They would then rebuild it in accordance with the model to make sure everything was the same, all the beams and pillars alike. Since then the castle has remained intact despite the bombing of Himeji in WWII and several big earthquakes.
If its a busy day with plenty of tourists it might be a little slow getting to the top of the main keep. The layout of the floors from 1st floor to the lookout on the 7th is pretty much the same, an empty square room with a staircase on the East side of the room and on the West. As you go up the rooms progressively gets smaller and the staircase a lot steeper. It also means the same amount of people in a much smaller space – makes for a lot of heavy breathing from unfit/unhealthy people and slight odours, lucky its a nice day and all the windows are open to get the air moving at least.
The bottom few floors have some small exhibits as there is quite a bit of space for features here and there but anything past the 4th floors is all empty to allow for as much foot traffic as possible. On the top floor is a small shinto shrine, surrounded by open windows looking out on all sides so you can get a 360 degree view.
All up its a really cool glimpse into the old Japan, its perfect that pretty much everything is left intact. Despite being so old the castle does not at all look run down but is actually a stunning icon of a time before the ultramodern nation that Japan is today. It is not only worth a look but is a must see destination, especially if you are anywhere in the Kansai region (Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto), it’s pretty easy to get to so you have no excuse!