To paraphrase the Little Mermaid–we’d seen shrines and temples aplenty, parks and metropolis galore. And we’d only traveled such a small part of the country! However, we had yet to properly see a castle. This was the day, and what better castle than Himeji, the White Heron Castle?
Getting to Himeji
Pro tip: if you intend to visit Himeji, follow that link up there and keep an eye on the “congestion forecast.” This castle is the largest and most visited in all of Japan, and you will want to plan ahead.
We didn’t do ourselves any favors by visiting on the peak cherry blossom weekend–well, we did see some glorious sakura, but we definitely missed out on a lot of the castle. Not only was there a special event in the evening (similar to our experience at Kiyomizudera), pretty much everyone around was picnicking in the castle grounds, a large area of which is free to the public. Lastly, tickets to enter the castle were limited, and we literally got in about 10 minutes before they closed admission. Even then, we couldn’t enter much of the castle proper.
Getting to Himeji is easy–there’s a high-speed train (or shinkansen) on the Tokaido-Sanyo line leading straight to Himeji Station from Kyoto and Osaka. It isn’t close though; prepare for 1.5 hours on the train if you’re coming from Kyoto (a little less from Osaka). The trains are super amazing though. You can hardly hear and feel the movement when you’re sitting down, though you will certainly notice when you try to get up… with the train traveling up to 285 kph (177 mph), it can be shockingly hard to keep your balance!
The train ride is a great opportunity to enjoy a mixed drink from one of the ubiquitous vending machines… no one is judging you for having a drink at 9 AM, you’re on vacation! You can also try a bento meal purchased from the train station–definitely a thing I wanted to check off my list.
You’ll arrive in Himeji before you know it!
Pro tip #2: if there are more than 2 of you, take a cab to the castle from Himeji Station. It’s cheaper and quicker than the bus, will save your butt if you’re running late, and the cab drivers are super cool and honest.
Exploring Himeji Castle
Himeji absolutely deserves a visit. The castle on the hill is a sight to behold from afar, and even more amazing up close. Originally built in the 14th century, the castle survived the ravages of time and war, features in historical and cultural lore, and continues to draw both locals and foreigners to its maze-like gates and walkways.
I’ll let these photos speak for themselves.
These were just the grounds, as I said–we didn’t have time to visit the interior of the castle itself. It’s incredibly well preserved and carefully maintained. Just see the brilliant white from which it got its name! In one of the courtyards, you can see examples of restoration work and how each generation has subtly changed the construction of the castle details in keeping with modern techniques, and yet maintained its historic feel.
Beyond the castle
A trip to Himeji will take a whole day, because when you finish with the castle, there’s more to do! Like many of Japan’s major train stations, a market and food center has grown around Himeji Station. We stumbled upon a street fair on the way out of the castle, and I wish I could tell you it’ll be there when you go…
Even if it’s not, check out the shops and restaurants around the train station. There’s a lot of cool stuff.
We actually found a little trolley thing here… Here’s the story: very early on during the trip, one of the wheels on Pritee’s suitcase broke. We took turns dragging that thing all over Japan and it was ridiculous. We knew it would be impossible to try and navigate back to the airport and home with it still broken. Our options were getting her a new suitcase (expensive, and it was a Samsonite so she had a warranty on it) or finding her a way to carry it more easily. Well, we had seen a bunch of people in the metro areas pulling these shopping bag trolley things which seemed like the perfect solution. We searched the supermarkets and malls of Tokyo and Kyoto–no dice. We obviously were not looking hard enough or in the right places. But we found it in the market at Himeji. So that’s another pro tip if your bag breaks in Japan!
With so much to do, a day trip to Himeji is a must if you’re in Kyoto or Osaka. I know it’s a time investment just to get there, but it’s so worth the effort. And if you plan better than we did, you’ll get even more out of your experience.