Japan City Guides: Himeji
There has been a fortress on the existing site since the 14th century, but present-day Himeji Castle was first begun by warlord Hidetoshi Toyotomi in 1581, who built a three-story donjon (central keep) on the site of Himeyama Hill.
Design of Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle was later expanded to a five-story donjon and remodeled by Terumasa Ikeda (one of Hidetoshi's generals, who later changed sides and supported Ieyasu at the decisive battle of Sekigahara) in 1608. The castle was further enlarged a few years later to reach its present grand scale.
Himeji Castle is also known as "Shirasagijo" or "Hakurojo" (White Egret Castle) due to its bird-like silhouette and the white color of the castle's plaster walls.
Himeji Castle is a masterpiece of form and function and although the castle was never besieged, it has a multitude of defensive walls and turrets. The wooden framework of the castle is made from huge pillars including a nearly 800-year-old cypress beam, which is thought to bestow good luck on touching it.
There are magnificent views from from the top level over Himeji town and out to the Inland Sea. The castle is particularly lovely in cherry blossom season when the hundreds of cherry trees in the castle grounds are in full pink bloom.
The story of Himeji Castle is intimately connected with Senhime, the oldest daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada, the second Shogun of the Tokugawa regime. Senhime was married off at age 6 by her grandfather, Ieyasu Tokugawa, to the son of his greatest enemy, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
After the suicide of her first husband on the political defeat of the Toyotomi clan by Ieyasu, she was married off again to Honda Heihachiro Tadatoki, the feudal lord (daimyo) of Himeji and lived in the castle for 10 years until the death of her husband, when she became a nun and passed the rest of her life in Tokyo. Readers of James Clavell's blockbuster Shogun may recognise some of the details and intrigue of the story.
Himeji Castle Details
Himeji's other attractions are all within easy reach of the castle. On the western side of the castle moat is Koko-en - a 1990s reconstruction of the original samurai quarters of the town, known as Nishi Oyashiki. There are nine connected Edo Period gardens, small carp-filled lakes and a pleasant restaurant. The gardens are enclosed with mud walls topped with tiles. There is a small entrance fee or buy a combined castle and gardens ticket.
Himeji City Museum of Art, to the north east of the castle, hosts exhibits of mainly Western art and farther to the north is the striking Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History designed by Tange Kenzo, which contains scale models of Himeji Castle and the other 11 castles in Japan which survive, in more or less, their original form. To the west is Ando Tadao's striking Museum of Literature, near to Senhime Tenman-gu, a shrine dedicated to Senhime (see above).
Engyoji Temple about 8km northeast of Himeji Station, has shot to fame as the impressive temple buildings, set in a cedar forest, were used as a backdrop for the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. Engyoji is a Tendai sect temple associated with Enryakuji on Mount Hiei in Kyoto. The temple can be reached by buses #6 or #8 (about 25 minutes) from the station to Shosha, a short cable car ride and then a 20 minute walk.
The main restaurant area in Himeji is situated both above and underground near the main station. Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) are a specialty.
Himeji also has a zoo, Himeji City Zoo (Tel: 079 284 3636) which is not one of Japan's best. The nearest bus stop for the zoo is Himeji-jo Otemon mae.
Himeji's main festival is the Nada-no-kenka matsuri held on 14-15 October and involves a fight (kenka) between 3 portable shrines (mikoshi) until one breaks. The festival takes places a short walk from Shirahamanomiya Station on the Sanyo Dentetsu Line from Himeji Station (10 minutes).
The nearest airports to Himeji are Osaka's Kansai International Airport and Kobe Airport. For access details for Japan's airports click here.
Himeji Castle makes for an easy day-trip from Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto or Hiroshima.
There are bus services to Himeji from Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, Okayama, Hiroshima and other cities.
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