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Himeji’s Hilltop Castle

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

This extensive and imposing structure, dating from 1609, is sure to impress.

Himeji Castle is Japan’s largest castle—and largely considered its most beautiful because of its unique structure and well preserved grounds. Located in Hyogo Prefecture, between Osaka and Okayama, it is one of only 12 remaining original castles in the country, having never been lost to war, earthquake or fire.

The original fortification was built in 1333 as a fort and rebuilt as a castle in 1346. It was remodelled, enlarged and added to over the following 250 years by the region’s domain lords until it was completely rebuilt at the turn of the turn of the 17th century, which took eight years. The current structure dates from 1609.

Due to Himeji’s location on the western approach to Japan's former capital, Kyoto, the castle acted as a vital defensive control of the route. Ingenious and highly developed defence systems were integrated into the complex’s structure to combine practicality with its pleasing aesthetics. When recognising it as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO described it as “the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture.”

The castle’s striking white walls and resemblance to a bird taking flight have earned it the alternative moniker Shirasagijo (White Heron Castle).

Exploring the vast complex

The castle site covers more than 100 hectares and consists of 83 buildings, five of which are designated National Treasures. It is centred around the innermost keep and numerous auxiliary keeps, connected by gates and winding paths, installed to slow down and expose attacking forces. It’s possible to walk these routes just as people did centuries ago.

The highlight of the complex is the main keep, a six-story wooden structure that showcases other ingenious methods using for defending the castle. Look out for the channels once used for throwing rocks on unsuspecting attackers and the concealed spaces.

From the top, visitors can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the compound and panoramic vista of the city, which certainly makes the climb up worthwhile.

When to visit

Himeji Castle is the most visited castle in Japan so it’s hard to find a time when it’s not busy, but it’s still a great attraction. During Golden Week (late April to early May), a ticketing system tends to be used to manage the number of visitors entering the main keep at any one time.

Due to its surrounding vegetation, the complex is extremely popular during the early April cherry blossom season and the time of autumn leaves, usually in mid to late November. Autumn also sees a special evening illumination event that uses various coloured lights to bring the castle to life.

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