Steal away to Himeji
Anyone wishing to experience an air of Japan’s traditional and elegant past should consider visiting Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture. I recently traveled to this well-known castle town in western Japan with my family and found it well worth the journey.
With a population of 534,000, Himeji is Hyogo’s second largest city after Kobe. However, it has a much different look and feel than its Westernized port-town counterpart. Himeji is a quiet, calm and conservative city that harkens back to its old-world roots.
Like other castle towns, such as Hirosaki, Iwakuni and Nagoya, the streets of Himeji are filled with old-fashioned eateries and clothing stores as well as countless souvenir shops catering to tourists drawn to the 400-year-old Himeji Castle.
Despite the traditional look of the city’s tiled roofs and wooden buildings, however, I couldn’t help but notice that the streets of Himeji didn’t seem as old as the castle. This, it turns out, is a result of Himeji’s more recent history.
“Himeji’s city center was completely destroyed by an air raid in 1945 during World War II,” said Japan Castle Foundation’s Seiro Shimazaki. “The streetscape you see today is a reproduction.”
The castle, however, which was used as a Japanese Imperial Army base during the war, “miraculously escaped the air raid,” he added.
Legend has it, Shimazaki said, that an unexploded incendiary from an American bomber was found on the castle’s rooftop after the air raid. Whether or not the story is true is beside the point. Since most of Japan’s castles were used as recent wartime bases, most were bombed and later rebuilt. Himeji Castle is one of a very few to have remained standing after World War II.
Passing through the castle’s main Otemon Gate into its surrounding park, I was impressed with the bright white tower that fronted it. In fact, the entire castle is nicknamed White Heron Castle because of its color, according to Kyoko Hasegawa of Himeji Convention and Visitors Bureau. It is even more fitting now, as current renovation has added fresh white plaster to parts of the tower and its new roof tiles.
“I think this is just the right time to see the castle,” Hasegawa said. “Now you can see what the tower originally looked like. The whitened roof will soon darken with age.”
The castle, which was built in 1609 by Ikeda Terumasa (1564-1613), actually is comprised of 83 buildings, including the must-see “hyakken-roka” (600-feet corridor) with various rooms displaying complex defenses, such as hidden shooting holes and areas from which soldiers could throw rocks and pour boiling oil or hot sand.
“The castle is a masterpiece that combines function and aesthetics,” Shimazaki said.
There were lots of volunteer guides on hand, some who spoke English. To my surprise, some were dressed as armored worriers, a castle guards and ninjas.
They are regular features on weekends.
My daughter asked a ninja to pose with her for a photo. He responded with a sudden fighting pose, produced a throwing star as a gift, then motioned for me to take a snapshot of them with the castle tower as a backdrop. It was a great shot.
It took us a couple of hours to tour the castle. It has steep slopes and stairs, so be prepared to do quite a bit of walking about. There are no nearby restaurants, so we enjoyed the bento lunch boxes we brought at Sannomaru Hiroba Square in front of castle tower before we left.
In addition to its historic landmark, Himeji offers visitors a classic Japanese garden and a decent zoo. The east end of the castle leads to the city zoo.
To my surprise, we found almost every popular animal you’d expect in a big-city zoo: Elephants, giraffes, polar bears, lions, kangaroos, guinea pigs, ducks, goats – you name it. It even had a miniature farm with cows, chickens and other farm animals.
We were able to enjoy these animals while strolling along the castle moat. What a view! Large African animals moving around against the backdrop of a traditional white castle tower, stone walls and multiple moats!
Another must-see spot near the castle is a traditional Japanese garden named Koko-en. This garden is actually nine distinct gardens designed in various traditional Edo styles.
Built in 1992 on the former site of the castle site’s west residence for feudal lords and high-ranking samurai, Koko-en is a very well-maintained modern facility that displays natural beauty and the expertise of traditional landscaping. There is also a modern museum, café and convention rooms at this facility.
We enjoyed all nine gardens, however, The Garden of the Lord’s Residence was the largest and most majestic, complete with pond and waterfall. I felt as if I were strolling in one of the old temples of Edo (present-day Tokyo). I experienced the elegance and beauty of artfully manicured trees and seasonal flowers, and the rushing sound of a waterfall from the vantage point of covered cypress-wooden walkways.
In all, Himeji not only impressed my family and me with the majesty and elegance of traditional Japan, it gave us some great memories we will not easily to forget.
Open Late April – Aug. 31, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sept. 1 – Late April, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. (closed Dec. 29 and 30)
Location: 68 Honcho, Himeji City (15-minute walk from the central exit (north) of the JR Himeji Station)
Admission: 400 yen ($4), ages 5-12, 100 yen
For more information, call 079-285-1146
Open late April – Aug. 31, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sept. 1 – late April, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. (closed Dec. 29 and 30)
Admission: 300 yen, ages 5-12, 150 yen
For more information, call 079-289-4120
Open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. (closed Dec. 29 – Jan. 1)
Admission: 200 yen, ages 5-15, 30 yen
For more information, call 079-284-3636
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