Why visit Himeji? There are three main reasons:
- see one of the most beautiful and best-preserved castles in Japan, called the “White Egret Castle”
- visit complex of the Kokoen Garden, inspired by Edo period
- spend time in Engyoji Temple which is more than one thousand years old, located on Mt. Shosha – the favourite place of filmmakers. Some scenes of the movie “Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise were filmed here
Himeji – White Egret Castle
Undoubtedly, the main attraction of the city is a castle from the feudal era, classified as the National Treasure. In 1993 was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
On the UNESCO side, we can find following description: “Himeji-jo is the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture, comprising 83 buildings with highly developed systems of defense and ingenious protection devices dating from the beginning of the Shogun period. It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance unified by the white plastered earthen walls and in the subtlety of the relationships between the building masses and the multiple roof layers.”
First fortifications in the place where the castle stands today, were built around 1333, but the construction of the castle began only in 1581, when Hashiba Hideyoshi entered the castle and owned it. He enlarged the existing fortress there and turned it into a strategic military point. In 1600, the Tokugawa leyasu’s son-in-law, Ikeda Terumasa, took over the castle and gave him its present shape. The final reconstruction began in 1601 and was completed in 1609. Since then the castle has survived in its original shape. During the bombing of World War II, the castle was slightly demaged, but everything was rebuilt.
Himeji-jo a masterpiece of Japanese architecture
The castle is considered as one of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese architecture, called “White Egret Castle”, as its body resembles a flying egret. The fortress is a great example of defense art, but it has never been attacked. Seen from the outside, the Main Keep appears to have five stories but the interior reveals a 7-floored structure, with 6 floors above and one in the basement. There are also three smaller towers. The walls of the entire building, are completely covered with white plaster, which is made from slaked lime, shell ash, hemp fiber and seaweed. This is a very traditional method, used in Japan since a long time. About 3 cm’s thickness of the wall protect the building from fire, winds, rain and snow.
In the castle there are also 11 wells, 21 gates, 27 towers and – almost 1000 shooting holes. Arround the whole castle ithere is a moat and a wall.
Himeji Castle was mainly a symbol of the prestige of the shoguns, hence there are incomparable, beautiful wavy roofs. Because the fortress has survived in perfect condition, it is now often used as a film production site for historical productions.
Visiting Himeji Castle
There is a path marked with arrows (approx. 2 hours), which leads through a labyrinth of doors, passages, stairs or defensive corridors. In the central part there is a large courtyard, with many pine and cherry trees. At the beginning of the path, there is a pavilion, where the owners of the castle lived with their families and vassals of the clan. From there, it goes to the central part of the castle where the main keep rises. It was that place where shooting point was planned and the last bastion in the event of an attack. The donjon tower has five floors and is 31,5 m high, the foundation of Main Keep is 14,8 m high, and the Himeyama hill where the Castle was build has 45,6 m high – which all together rises at 92 m above sea level.
Himeji Castle seen inside
From the top floors of the castle, you can enjoy beautiful views of the gardens, city walls, moat, Himeji city and peaks of the mountains. Also, it is worth mentioning that thru the window, you can see a pair of two-meter tall sculptures, showing shahi (half fish, half tiger) – protecting roof from fire. It is also worth to look at the huge cypress pillars which are supporting roof construction, as the base of their diameter is 95 cm, and the oldest specimen is 780 years old. On each floor there are collections of armor, swords and firearms. For English speaking visitors there are also few multilingual signs explaining architectural features, as well as renovation efforts made over the years to preserve the structure.
Himeji: Western Bailey and Princess Sen
Behind the walls of the castle, there is also Western Bailey, where lived Honda Tadatoki – son of the lord of Himeji Castle. After the victorious Summer Osaka Battle, Tadatoki married the granddaughter of Tokugawa Ileyasu, Princess Senhime (also called “Princess Sen”) – whose story is also interesting to know.
At the age of 7 – Princess Sen married Toyotoi Hideyori, however few years later he committed seppuku (ritual suicide), after the loss in Osaka Summer Battle waged by Leyasu. She was rescued from Osaka Castle flames, and in the age of 20 she remarried Honda Tadatoki. She has spent in Himeji Castle the best 10 years of her life, leaving together with her husband and two children – son Kochiyo and daughter Katsu. However, Kochiyo died of disease in the age of 3, and 5 years later her husband died of tuberculosis, in the age of 31. As was the tradition for a widow at that time, Senhime cut her hair, returned to Edo, and became Buddhist nun under the name of Tenjuin. She spent the rest of her life there, mourning the loss of her husband and son, until she died at the age of 70.
In the period when Princess Sen was living in the Himeji Castle, there was a “Cosmetic Tower” built in the Western Bailey. Princess Sen could take a rest there and take care of her beauty. The Tower was full of richly colored decorations. In some of the rooms of the Bailey, her servants also lived.
The Western Bailey consists numerous towers built in the 17th century, connected by a 2-level corridor.
Arrival to Himeji Castle and entry tickets
Himeji can be reached from almost every major city in Japan, as Shinkansen trains (most of the Nozomi and Mizuho) stops here. From Tokyo it is about 3 hours by train, from Nagoya – about 1h and 20 minutes, from Kyoto – 44 minutes.
From JR Himeji Station you can walk to the castle along the Otemaedori street (about 15 min.), or take a Castle Loop bus (day pass 300 yen / 2,6 $). Between May and August the castle can be visited from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., in other months from 9.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.
Beware! – It is worthy to buy a combined ticket to visit the Himeji Castle and nearby Kokoen Gardens, price 1040 yen (about 9,2$). Ticket valid only in the Castle – 1000 yen (about 8,9$).
Located just behind the castle moat, next to the main gate – there is a complex of nine Kokoen gardens. It was created quite recently, in 1992 at the exact site of Nishi-Oyashiki (Lord’s West Residence). This place reproduces the look of Edo period gardens.
In the gardens you can admire pine trees, bamboo, flowers, streams and lakes. The area of this garden is about 3.5 ha. It is worth to come here, to be able to enjoy its charms and natural beauty. You can not only walk in the silence and beautiful surroundings of nature, but also have a cup of tea in one of the tea houses.
The Kokoen complex includes:
- The Lord’s residence garden– this is the biggest garden in Kokoen. There are about 250 colourful carp in the large pond.
- Kassui-ken restaurant – you can have a cup of tea or lunch there.
- The garden of seedlings „Nae-no-niwa”, which is a seeding garden of plants which were grown in the Edo era.
- Souju-an tea ceremony House and next to it – the ceremony garden. Green powdered tea is served at the tea house.
- Flatly landscaped garden – which is country side style garden with free and natural atmosphere
- The garden of the summer trees – created to enjoy seasonable scenery, fresh verdure in spring and coloured leaves in autumn
- Garden of pine trees and garden of flowers
- The garden with a hill and pond – built in a traditional style of Japanese landscape gardens. You can see a tortoise-shaped rock there and a Japanese crane-shaped stone slab.
- The bamboo garden, with variety of bamboos.
For visiting Kokoen gardens it is worthy to plan about 1.5 hours. There are not many visitors, so very pleasant atmosphere is all around. Gardens can be visited from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., from May to August or from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the remaining months. Entrance ticket – 300 yen (about 2,6$).
From the Himeji Castle it is about 5 minutes’ walk there, from JR Himeji station – 5 minutes by bus or 15 minutes on foot.
Shosha mountain and Engyoji Temple
Engyoji Temple was founded over 1000 years ago (in 966), by Shoku, a holy Buddhist priest, who has received special spiritual enlightenment from Monju, the God of Wisdom and Intellect. It has happened on the Mt. Sosha, that Monju informed Shoku that anyone who climbed this mountain would be purified both in body and spirit. That is why Shoku has decided to build a temple on the top of the mountain hill, and he has opened it as part of Tendai sect.
Mt. Shosha is located in the northwestern area of Himeji City. For centuries, was visited by the faithful, who were hoping for spiritual cleansing. Many people climb up the mountain, asking for divine grace. The mountain is overgrown with a beautiful primeval forest, which gives an unusual and sublime atmosphere. It is a beautiful place especially in spring, when there is cherry blossoms season, and during autumn which is full of natural colours. There are eight buildings and seven Buddhist statues, considered as “Important Cultural Properties”.
To get to the main temple building (Maniden), and to walk through the forest – you should plan min. 2.5 hours.
To get to the Mt. Shosha, you can take Shinki Bus no. 8. The bus departs from JR Himeji (platform 10) as well as nearby the Himeji Castle. Travel takes about 30 min, price 270 yen in one way (2,4$). Get off at the final stop “Mt. Shosha Ropeway”, and ropeway will be just ahead.
Mt. Shosha Ropeway
Just next to the bus stop there is an entrance to the elevator, where also tickets are available (you can buy them in the vending machine). There are hostesses waiting for the customers, willing to assist them with ticket purchase or give directions. They can also communicate via radio, with the ropeway service team and ask them to postpone departure by few minutes, pending passengers purchasing tickets or waiting for the lift.
One-way ticket is 500 yen (4,4$), return ticket is 900 yen (8 $). The lift enters the level from which the ropeway departs. The ropeway departs every 15 minutes, the first one starts at 8.30 a.m. There is one gondola each way, which can take up to 71 people at a time, including one tour guide.
The journey takes less than 4 minutes and the ropeway stopes at the level of 370 m over the sea level. Views seen thru the gondola windows are breathtaking, as when there is a nice weather you can see not only the nearby city of Himeji, but also a bit further city of Kobe, and – in the very far end – the Osaka city.
The Engyoji temple buildings are spread over a large, densely wooded area at the top of Mt. Shosha. The entrance to the main gate – Niomon Gate – takes about 15 minutes. The Niomon Gate dates from the Edo period, reconstructed in 1665. People belive that after crossing the thresholds of this gate, the temple grounds inside are considered sacred. The road leads through a beautiful old forest. The path is clean and it is nice to have a walk there.
On the way you will spot 33 sculptures of Kannon Goddess, where faithful can leave donations. After passing the main gate – you have to walk for another 10-15 minutes to reach the Maniden building – a beautiful wooden temple built on a hillside.
Engyoji Temple – Maniden
Maniden is the main building of the Engyoji temple, and it was constructed in 970. It is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. The building stands on the halfway up the rocky top of the mountain. Unfortunately, this nearly 1000 years old building was burnt down in 1921. The construction of the present building was finished in 1932.
The are 33 temples, appointed as pilgrimage sites in Western Japan. The Engyoji Temple is the 27th of them. The pilgrims who visit Maniden not only worship here but also receive and collect stamps indicating that they have visited this place. There are many annual events held in Maniden.
The four heavenly guardians of Buddhism are also enshrined here, and their figures are classified as “Important Cultural Properties”. The principal statue of the Goddess of Mercy and four guardians figures can be seen only once a year, on the 18th of January.
Engyoji Temple – Mitsunodo
Another five minutes’ walk along dense forest paths, leads to the three wooden halls, known as Mitsunodo. All of them have been classified as an “Important Cultural Property”.
- Daikodo Lecture Hall – it is a great auditorium hall, from 986. The auditorium was once the main building on Mt. Sosha and was famous as a training center for priests. Present building was constructed at the beginning of the 15th The last reconstruction took place in 1956.
- Jikido Hall – was contracted in 1174. This incomparable, wide two-stored building is unique for its architectural style. It has two functions: it was priest’s training center and a boarding house. It was left unfinished for several hundred years until it was dismantled and reconstructed in 1963. The treasures of this temple are displayed on the second floor.
- Jogyodo Hall – this is a training hall, where monks were practicing their faith by walking many hours around the monument of Amitabha and monotonously pronouncing his name. There was also a stage, where ceremonial music and graceful dances were performed. This building has two roofs, shaped in a different style, which is symbolizing harmonic beauty. The original building was built in 1331-34, but was burned down in the year 1436. The building we can see today, was remodelled and reconstructed in 1965.
Just in front of the Mitsunodo buildings there is a graveyard of the Honda Family, who were former lords of Himeji Castle. Five mausoleums: of Honda Tadakatsu, Tadamasa, Masatomo, Masanaga and Tadakuni stand here. There are also two tombstones of Princes Sen’s husband, Tadatoki and their son, Kochiyo. These five mausoleums were built in a unique architectural style of Edo period.
Engyoji Temple is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. Admission ticket costs 500 yen (about 4,4$).
My own impressions
Due to the unusual scenery, nature surroundings and lack of modern infrastructure, the Mt. Shosha is often used by filmmakers. Some Japanese historical productions and dramas were recorded here. The most famous Hollywood production: ” Last Samurai” was partially recorded in Mitsunodo buildings.
Personally, I highly recommend you to plan visit in this place, as it is worthy! There is silence and peace, you can hear the wind and birds singing. The forest paths are almost empty, there are no crowds of visitors and it is very clean everywhere. Besides of the outstanding historical buildings, you will be delighted here by the beautiful nature.
Inside the temple, somewhere in the middle of the forest – there is also a small restaurant where I bought the most delicious miso soup in Japan :-). Worth to try – price 500 yen / 4,4$.
In the forest, there are also hundreds of small Jizo Bodhisattva figures, who take care about peace of mind of the unborn children.
So far, my other posts about Japan:
- Japan – how to organise trip by your own
- Japan – tailor-made travel plan
- my own gallery of Japan photos
- Kamakura – seat of the first Shogun
- Kanazawa – Kenrokuen Garden and Castle
- Kyoto and Kansai region
- Matsumoto – city overshadowed by the castle
- Mount Fuji – the most popular icon in Japan
- Nagano Prefecture – roof of Japan
- Nara -first Japan’s permanent capital
- Nikko – light of the sun
- Tokyo – western capital