A visit to the white castle: Himeji-jô

posted in: Blog, Japan | 2

The Himeji-jô is one of the biggest and most beautiful castles in Japan. The entire complex castle ground was recently completely renovated and reopened in spring 2015. This castle has never been destroyed, neither by war nor by natural disaster, which makes it one of very few castles that survived since the middle ages in Japan. The entire complex as it exists now was completed in the 1600s.

There are three things that I love to visit when I’m traveling: castles, churches, and museums! Japan is full with shrines and castles to visit, so of course, I could not pass the White Heron Castle, as Himeji-jô is also called.

I was quite lucky, as I have visited the Himeji castle back when I lived in Tokyo. Just shortly after my visit, the renovation started and was completed just in time before my second visit.

The Castle

The first documented castle or rather a fort was built almost 600 years ago and over time more structures have been added until it reached its final appearance. Several mud walls were built within the outer walls, so you had to go through several gates to finally reach the main keep. These were built so you could better control and fight an invading army. Shoot holes were  built into the white mud walls, to attack invaders.

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The beautiful white main keep appears to have five stories, but it actually has seven. Even though we visited during a shoulder season, it very crowded once we got to the main keep. I think it felt too crowded because the main keep is actually smaller than it seems. While the ground floor and the first two floors are still quite large (so you can roam the floors in peace), the further up you go, the smaller the floors get. You had to squeeze through the tiny staircases to get up. I found it quite funny that they had cushioned some of the wooden beams on the ceiling above the staircase to prevent tall people from bumping their heads! Sometimes it’s great to be a short person!

The main keep’s purpose was mainly to hold meetings, receive messengers or for defense purposes.

The architecture

Some of the most famous characteristics of the Himeji castle are the beautiful roof tiles, with family crests on them. I read that there are 21 gates in total inside the castle complex, although I’m quite sure I didn’t pass through that many gates.

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I admired the entire defense strategy built into the complex, especially the narrow roads with walls on each side and shoot holes in the walls. The gates at each end of the roads had thickly-latticed windows to prevent intruders as well as arrows or bullets.

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The tale of Princess Sen

Princess Sen is an important part of the Himeji castle, sometimes I had the impression that she was far more important than the actual lords who reigned over the castle.

She was born a granddaughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the one person who is famous for finally uniting the feudal lords after almost a century and a half of constant war (also called the Warring States period) and setting up the shogunate that lasted until the mid-1900s. So, quite an important little person already. Then she was married to the son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a famous feudal lord who was the most powerful just before Tokugawa Ieyasu.

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After her husband committed suicide during a battle, she was rescued by her grandfather and remarried to Honda Tadatoki, who was the son of the lord of Himeji Castle. It is said that the part West Bailey was built thanks to her huge amount of dowry. This is a large area of the castle complex in which the princess and ladies-in-waiting resided in long corridors surrounding a beautiful garden.

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This is one of the reasons why I love visiting historic places so much because I like to learn about the backgrounds of the places I’ve been to. There is so much to see and read and hear about the people who lived there some hundred years ago and what has made this place so special.

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How to get there

Visiting the small town of Himeji and its famous castle is well worth a visit, it only takes about 45 minutes from Kyoto with the Shinkansen bullet train to get there. The costs will be around ¥ 2,270 for the train ride and ¥ 3,120 for a seat reservation (one-way). I would recommend getting a Japan Rail Pass since this would cover the entire train ride and all seat reservations on the bullet trains. If you don’t have a pass, you can also take the JR Special Rapid Service to Kamigori and get off at Himeji station. It will take about 1,5 hrs and costs are going to be ¥ 2,270 (one-way). Use the Hyperdia website to help you plan your itineraries in Japan!

To help me plan all my trips and itineraries in Japan, I mostly used the Lonely Planet Japan (Travel Guide)*. I’ve used it a lot when I was living in Japan and found it a great help this time as well!

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