Japan has its share of old and magnificent castles. Visiting the castles in Japan can be a great break from seeing the castles in Europe where after seeing many of them they start looking like piles of stone. The Himeji Castle (in Japanese spelled 姫路城) is a hilltop castle complex and is considered the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture.

The Himeji Castle is UNESCO listed and as beautiful as it is elegant. The castle is compromised of a network of 83 rooms and features advanced defensive systems from the feudal period of Japan. Perhaps the city with the most beautiful Japanese architecture is in Kyoto.

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History  Of Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is also known as Hakuro-jō or Shirasagi-jō in Japanese translating to White Egret Castle" or "White Heron Castle". That is because its brilliant white exterior reminds people of a bird taking flight.

The castle is very old for Japan dating from 1333 when Akamatsu Norimura built a fort on the hill that fort was soon dismantled and rebuilt as Himeji Castle in 1346. Later on, it was remodeled significantly in 1581 with a three-story keep being added.

From 1601 to 1609, the castle was completely rebuilt again by Ikeda Terumasa who expanded it into a large castle complex. But over that time the Himeji Castle has remained intact.

  • Built: 1346
  • Age: Almost 700 Years (400 Years For The Castle As it Is)

A Cat With Nine Lives

The castle has been very fortunate in its time. Japan has seen devastating civil wars destroy much of the country, and in the War in the Pacific, Japan was massively bombed by the Allies (including the nearby town of Himeji). In 1995 the Great Hanshin earthquake struck. But through all of this, the Himeji Castle has managed to survive and remain intact.

  • Survived: Civil Wars, American Bombing, Earthquakes, And Demolition

Amazingly, during World War Two the city of Himeji was heavily bombed and most of the surrounding area was burned to the ground, but the castle survived. One firebomb did indeed land on the top floor of the castle, but it failed to explore.

Another time when the castle had a close shave with oblivion was when the Japanese han feudal system was abolished in 1871 (around the time of the setting of Tom Cruise's heavily romanticized movie The Last Samurai). Himeji Castle was then put up for auction, bought for a song. It was planned to be demolished to develop the land for something else. But the castle was saved because the estimated cost to demolish it was too great.

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Defensive Design of The Castle

The castle is well defended for the feudal period. The complex once included not one, not two, but three moats - of with the outer moat is now buried. Only parts of the central moat survive but all of the inner moats survive today.

  • Moats: Three Moats Originally

While visiting one will be amazed by how complex the castle is and its numerous rooms. In the Waist Quarter of the complex, there are numerous warehouses that were once used to store rice, water, and salt in the case of a siege. There are also 33 wells within the inner moat (13 remain).

  • Paths: Deliberately Confusing And Narrow

The maze of paths leading to the castle's keep is a confusing rabbit warren - this too was part of its defensive designs (so that the approaching force would be confused). Not only do they spiral around, sometimes they even turn back on themselves. The distance from the Hishi Gate to the main keep is only 130 meters (or 430 feet), but the path there is 325 meters (or 1,066 feet). The passages are also very steep and narrow.

Today even with the routes clearly marked, many visitors have trouble navigating themselves around Himeji Castle. Still, it isn't as confusing as Vermont's Great Corn Maze!

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Visiting The Castle Today

Today the Himeji Castle is the largest castle in Japan as well as Japan's most visited castle. It is regarded as one of Japan's three most premier castles (the other two being Kumamoto Castle and Matsumoto Castle).

  • UNESCO: Added As A World Heritage Site in 1993 (One of Japan's First)

All tickets are bought on-site and can't be reserved online. Normally it takes around 1.5 to 2 hours for visitors to look around Himeji Castle. In the summer months, it can get quite crowded and one may need to wait for around an hour to access the castle.

  • Opening Hours: April 27 to August 31: 9.00 am to 6.00 pm (Last Entry at 5.00 pm) | September 1 to April 26: 9.00 am to 5.00 pm (Last Entry at 4.00 pm)
  • Closed: December 29 and 30
  • Address: 68 Honmachi, Himeji City
  • Admission Fees: Adults: 1,000 Yen ($9) (Aged 18 And Over) | Students & Children: 300 Yen ($2.50) | Groups Over 30 People: Adults 800 Yen and Students 240 Yen

Tours in English are also offered and one can see them on their website. As of the time of writing English tours have been canceled due to the pandemic.

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