A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Himeji Castle is Japan’s largest and most visited castle. It’s also known as Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō (“White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”) because of its brilliant white exterior which can be seen gleaming in the distance. This Japanese historical treasure is a must see attraction that’s an easy day trip when visiting Osaka or Kyoto.
This article provides some information about the castle, some handy tips when visiting, and to make sure you do it right, a great recommendation for a family run Udon noodle restaurant to satisfy your appetite!
How to get to Himeji Castle…
The fastest and most convenient way to get to Himeji is via Shinkansen (a.k.a. “Bullet Train”). The regular one way fare from Kyoto to Himeji is 4750 yen for a non-reserved seat (a 55 minute trip), and from Shin-Osaka to Himeji a regular one way fare is 3220 yen for a non-reserved seat on any train (a 30 minute trip).
If you’re pinching pennies, there are also JR Rail West trains that are much cheaper (about half the price) that run frequently. But for this particular visit my gal and I decided to cough up the extra cash to ride the Shinkansen just so we could get the experience of hurtling to our destination at speeds of up to 320 km/hr.
TIP: Don’t even try to get the train tickets through the self service machines at the station. It will confuse you and you may end up not getting what you want. TRUST ME. Go to the ticket counter–they speak English and are VERY helpful!
Once you get to the Himeji Station exit to the main Otemae-dori Street. This street leads straight from the rail station to Himeji Castle. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the station to the castle entrance, but if you prefer to save your shoe leather you can take a taxi directly there for around 600 yen. For the penny conscious who have some time there’s also a sightseeing “Loop Bus” which can take you to the castle as well as give you a chance to see more sights of Himeji for 100 yen.
As you approach, Himeji castle just gets bigger and bigger. It’s surrounded by a carp filled moat (you can take a boat around it if that’s your thing) and after crossing the bridge it opens up to an expansive open space leading to the gates. This large open space is free for visitors and offers some impressive views of the castle–during the cherry blossom season it’s very popular.
Free tour guides!
Himeji Castle and Kokoen located right next to the castle cost 1,300 yen when you buy the ticket separately. If you buy the common ticket, it is 1,040 yen per person. Located near the ticket counter you may be approached by a tour guide offering their services. It is not a scam. SAY “YES“!
The tour guides are volunteers that offer their services for free and enjoy interacting with foreigners to practice their language skills. Our guide was very knowledgable about the site and it’s history. As a bonus, they also knew just the right spots to get some great photos and were happy to take a few pictures of us as well. As a couple we rarely have pictures of both of us together as one of us always seems to be holding the camera.
Himeji Castle is an impressive sight from all angles. It’s amazing that it was originally built in the 1400’s with the main castle being built in 1609. Withstanding bombing during World War II and numerous earthquakes, this feudal castle is one of Japan’s original 12 traditional castles still standing.
As you travel around the passageways to the castle itself you’ll find it a bit disorientating. That’s intentional. The actual direct route to the castle is counterintuitive to what should be–direct. It was intentionally laid out to confuse and trap invaders.
Often the castle walkways turn back on themselves, making it more confusing. The straight distance from the Hishi Gate to the main keep is only 130 meters, but the path itself is a much longer 325 meters of steep and narrow passages. Today the route is clearly marked but visitors still may have trouble navigating the castle grounds (remember the free guide services?).
Don’t mess with Himeji Castle.
The confusing layout of passages leading to the castle allowed any invading force to be watched and fired upon throughout their approach. The walls are lined with openings to “kill zones” that would afford defenders with muskets and arrows to rain hell on any forces unfortunate enough to be below. Himeji Castle has never been attacked–the best defense is making things ugly for the offense!
The ultimate panic room.
If you imagine a castle to be filled with opulent decorations and furniture you will be a little disappointed with Himeji Castle. It’s not a castle that was meant to be lived in. It’s a fortress, and as you enter you’ll discover it’s more like a series of giant “panic rooms”.
It’s devoid of furniture and decorations. The doors are thick with huge bar locks, the walls affixed with hooks to hold weapons, and each level is defended with secret nooks to punish invaders from. This place definitely wasn’t for entertaining guests.
There are a few tatami matted rooms in the castle. These rooms were meant for strategy meetings and a place for its occupants under siege to rest. At the very top level of the castle is a small room with little alter with a bottle of sake. I imagine this was meant as a place when all was lost for the defenders to kiss it all goodbye.
The castle itself is made of timber logs, stone, plaster, and tile. Of interest is a scale model frame of the 5 story Himeji Castle which can be found in one of the rooms.
What a view!
It’s a long way to the top of Himeji Castle, but it’s worth the effort for the amazing view of Himeji City. From this vantage you can imagine why this fortification was never challenged!
Looks nice…any food recommendations?
If at the end of your Himeji Castle exploration you find yourself hungry (and if you made it to the top floor of the castle you WILL be), you can get some amazing homemade Sanuki udon noodle soups at this family run restaurant called Menme.
Now don’t expect to see a sign with “Menme” on it. Look for this sign with the Japanese writing (I assume it translates to “AMAZING noodles inside!“) and cartoonish drawing of dough being rolled hanging over the restaurant doorway.
The restaurant is simple and provides diner’s a chance to sit directly in front of the kitchen action so you can watch the skilled father rolling out dough, chopping the noodles, and cooking it fresh while the mother prepares the sauces and serves it all up to hungry customers.
My gal and I got the udon noodle soup with beef and a curry udon noodle soup. Both were delicious–you just can’t beat fresh noodles made in front of you. They offer several udon noodle options on their menu all very reasonably priced. But the real charm of the place is the family cheerfully going about their work making customers happy with some good eats.
Menme is located on the left hand side of the main road about 1/4 way back as you walk back to the rail station from the castle. Treat yourself to a nice bowl of noodles after your castle adventure. You deserve it!