In the city of Himeji (姫路市) in Hyogo Prefecture you will find Japan’s most beautiful castle, Himeji Castle (姫路城). It is on the Unesco World Heritage List and those traveling from Osaka to Hiroshima or vice versa would do well to make a stop in this city of 500,000 inhabitants. But Himeji has more to offer than just that beautiful white castle in the center of town. In this travel guide you will learn more about the interesting history of the castle and discover other great historical sites in Himeji.
What would you like to know about Himeji in Japan?
- A brief history of Himeji
- Sightseeing – 7 interesting places in Himeji
- Accommodation – Where to stay?
- Transport – How to get there?
A brief history of Himeji
The history of Himeji is mainly centered on the castle. In 1333, a fortress was built on the hill in the current center of the city by Akamatsu Norima to defend the area against enemies.
However, it was the landlord Toyotomi Hideoyoshi (1536-1598) who had a real castle built on the same hill. It was initially a three-story castle. which was expanded around 1600 by the then warlord Ikeda Terumasa. And that castle is, except for a few small things, still the building as you see it today on that hill. That’s also why this structure is on the list of cultural heritage of Japan. The castle mainly served to defend the main city of Heiankyo (Kyoto) against attacks from the west. For the most part, peace prevailed and the building remained undisturbed for centuries. Until…
In 1931, the Japanese government awarded the National Treasure designation. But during World War II (1940-1945) things seemed to go completely wrong. The city was heavily bombed and was largely in ruins. But the only thing that remained standing was the beautiful Himeji Castle. Because of its long history and good condition, Unesco decided to put Himeji Castle on the World Heritage List.
That Himeji Castle is wildly popular among Japanese is therefore not surprising. Before you visit the castle you should at least know this legend about the famous castle. For on the grounds you will find a well and with this well there is something special going on….
The well of Okiku: A Japanese ghost story
There are a number of variations of this ghost story circling around, but all are about a young woman from the lower class. It takes place around 1500 AD and the woman, named Okiku works as a servant for Aoyama Tetsuzan, a regent of the castle lord Lord Norimoto. One day Okiku hears of a plan by Testuzan to assassinate Lord Norimoto so that he can take over the castle. Okiku decides to take action, tells her lover, and through him, Lord Norimoto finds out about the plan. He decides to temporarily flee, allowing Tetsuzan to take over the building. Tetsuzan puts up a reward for the golden tip that leads to the culprit who leaked the plan, allowing the castle lord to flee.
One of the soldiers, named Danshiro knows that Okiku betrayed Tetsuzan. Danshiro decides to ask her to marry him and if she refused he would report her. And she refused. Thereupon Danshiro decided to steal 1 of 10 gold records from the castle and blame Okiku for it, unless…. But she continued to refuse to marry him. In a fit of rage, the soldier was so angry that he killed Okiku in one stroke. The corpse he hid in the well.
Not long after, Lord Norimoto took over the castle again. In the well, the corpse of young Okiku was discovered, and a voice has been sounding from the well ever since. She is still looking for the tenth plate, which she was blamed for stealing…
Sightseeing – 4 historical sites in Himeji
For a visit to Himeji Castle, you’ll need a few hours at most. For example, you can leave your suitcase at the train station and visit the white castle. But for those who want to see more of the city, you’ll find some other great attractions below.
1. Don’t skip Japan’s most beautiful castle, Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle can truly be called the fairy tale castle of Japan. When you walk out of the station you will already see this beautiful building at the end of the street. A visit to Himeji Castle takes no more than a few hours and when entering the building you need to take off your shoes. From the top you have a beautiful view of the hilly surroundings and the city. And don’t forget to visit the haunted well of Okiku before you leave again.
2. Koko-en, the Japanese garden next to Himeji Castle
Right next to Himeji Castle is a park, completely in the style of how the Samurai used to lay out their parks. However, this park was created in 1992 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the municipality of Himeji. Especially during the blossom period in April, this is a great place to go. For a small fee, you can visit Koko-en.
3. Set for The Last Sumarai. Go to Engyo-ji Temple
In the northwest of the city, a special temple is to be found on Mount Shosha. This shrine, the Engyo-ji Temple dates back to 966 and was founded by the monk Shoku Shonin. Every year, many pilgrims come here to visit this beautiful mountain sanctuary. In addition, this temple, along with Himeji Castle, was used as the location for several scenes for the movie The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise.
To get to the temple, use Mount Shosha Ropeway (1000 yen). To get to Mount Shosha take bus 8 (270 yen).
4. Himeji City Museum of Art: Picasso, Monet and Matisse
At the foot of Himeji Castle is the Himeji City Museum of Art. Lovers of impressionist art are in the right place, as the museum holds a number of paintings by Picasso, Courbet, Monet, and Matisse. The building that houses the Himeji City Museum of Art was used as a barracks for the Japanese Imperial Army at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Tip: Near the Himeji City Museum of Literature, 300 meters west of the famous castle is a hill where you can take beautiful pictures of Himeji Castle. It is called Otokoyama Haisuiike Park and here you will also find a number of little temples.
Accommodation – Where to stay in Himeji?
If you have little time, a morning or an afternoon in Himeji is a great choice. But if you want to see more, such as a few museums or temples, then an overnight stay is definitely recommended. For an overnight stay in this city, it is best to find a hostel or hotel near the train station. That way you’re within walking distance of the castle and can leave the next day right away.
Transport – How to get to Himeji?
Train: Himeji is best reached by train. When you walk out of the station through the north exit, you will see the castle already standing on the hill at the end of the street. A beautiful sight! From Osaka, the Shinkansen takes about 30 minutes. From Hiroshima it is 1 hour by high speed rail.
Hyperdia is the website where you can find more information about your travel route by train, but also with some bus routes.
The municipality of Himeji has published a Transportation Guide on its website. For example, the Himeji Castle Loop bus runs every day and for 300 yen you can use it all day. Everything has been thought about: a detailed explanation of how the bus works, which questions you can ask the bus driver in Japanese and where the bus is going! Useful, right?
Next destination in Japan?
Are you ready for a new destination in Japan? To the east you’ll end up with the cities of Osaka, Nara and Kyoto. For the west, head towards the cities once hit by the atomic bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Do you have more tips, comments or ideas about Himeji in Japan? If so, feel free to leave a comment below.