“Alright, hands up. Who wants to go to Himeji Castle tomorrow?” Machi asked the group. In my head, I cheered. Himeji wasn’t advertised as part of the tour, but my enthusiasm (and canvassing) to visit it had got it added as an optional extra excursion – result. I nearly jumped for joy when everyone put their hands up to say yes.
It’s easy to see why this castle had captured my imagination from the moment I first saw it. Overlooking the town of Himeji, it dates all the way back to 1333 – though the buildings that stand today were constructed in the early 1600s. It’s built atop a mound in the centre of a bowl-shaped valley, so the region’s overlords could get the best views over their domain. It also means that us tourists can be wowed by its presence as soon as you leave the train station, for the white castle (or, as it’s nicknamed in Japan, the Heron castle) soars high above the city streets.
What’s most fascinating about Himeji, though, is that the castle is one of only three remaining original castles in all Japan. The rest of them have either been demolished by earthquakes or blown to smithereens during World War 2. Its survival is a miracle, frankly – Himeji was heavily bombed in WW2, and it’s not exactly immune to natural disasters. Surely, it’s a testament to the architect’s genius that Himeji has taken so many hits – both natural and manmade.
Himeji is en route between Hiroshima and Osaka, so we got off the train there. Machi informed us we had just two hours to explore, and the castle was already a solid 20 minute walk from the train station, so it was already looking like a whistle-stop tour. We departed the station and power-walked down Otemae Street, a wide, European-style boulevard with lots of interesting shops on either side. No time to stop and browse their wares, though – the race to the castle was on.
As with all Japanese castles, there’s an intimidating moat you have to cross. Just in case you were thinking of invading.
At the entrance gate, we were greeted by a man dressed as a samurai. Initially, he was putting on a bit of a show, going through some threatening movements and acting like he was in the middle of something important. But in an instant, his demeanour changed – his face transformed into a beaming smile. I didn’t manage to get a picture of him, but my pal Vithiya did. He then proceeded to find this picture of himself on Instagram (God knows how. Hashtags? Serious stalking skills?), and comment on her picture “Hope you had a nice time visiting Himeji”. We were a bit nervous that he’d managed to find us so quickly, but he genuinely just wanted us to have a good time – and possibly to get a cool Instagram post to share with all his samurai pals.
We passed the guard, went through the park, and past the zoo. No time to say hello to the tigers today. Must. Get. Tickets. They’re 1000 yen (£7.50) a go, which for a National Treasure, is remarkably cheap. Rushing up the steps towards the castle’s iconic keep, we couldn’t fully appreciate our surroundings, but what we did notice was the incredible attention to detail – each roof had some amazing decorations, powerful and beautiful in equal measure. The gatehouses, which once would have spied trespassers, were built above walls so smooth, they were impossible to ascend. It’s the sort of place where, if you got caught trying to break in, you’d get fed to the crocodiles. It’s as hardcore as it gets.
The inside of the castle, where the guards would once have kept watch over Himeji, is also very threatening. At its base, there’s an open and large room, covered in dark wood. It’s not well-lit or comfortable, but this is not a castle designed for luxury. Then, as you go up a (very steep) set of stairs, each floor gets progressively smaller – until you get to the sixth and final floor.
As tourists, you get funnelled about in a specific way, like a zigzag queue at the airport.
Watch your head. And your feet. And everything else.
Since we were in a hurry to get to the top floor, we didn’t have a lot of time to admire the details on the inside of Himeji. However, my quick historian’s point of view is that it is very functional – no bells and whistles here. Just samurais and their swords. I think that’s what makes Himeji so impressive, though – it manages to give a display of power and strength without doing a Henry VIII and spending money like there’s no tomorrow.
When we did get to the sixth floor, our rush came to a standstill. We had to queue up to move, and even then it was a slight shuffle, because this space was a quarter of the size it had been at the bottom. A bottleneck for tourists. Still, at least it gave us time to admire the view…
Satisfied we’d achieved our aim of ‘completing’ Himeji Castle, we went down the death-trap staircases, and headed for the exit. We had a little bit more time to get a proper look at things and read the information placards, this time. One thing I’d noticed earlier was the wood jutting out from the wall, which seemed like a careless finish in an otherwise flawlessly designed place.
Did the carpenter just… take the rest of the project off?
But the information placards had all the answers for me. They’re actually weapon racks, used to store katana and other terrifying, dangerous items that definitely wouldn’t be allowed on a plane nowadays. Ingenious.
We put our shoes back on (in Japan, you have to take your shoes off before you enter a building) and made our way to the train station. Had we had more time, it would have been nice to get a good look at the castle grounds, gardens, and other outbuildings, to learn more about Himeji’s history and admire some more intricate details. Even an extra hour or so would have done the trick. But, as it stood, we had a tight schedule to stick to.
… but there is always time for a quick picture, I guess.
Although we were legging it along the boulevard, I took the liberty of peering into shop windows. There are a lot of wedding and formalwear shops in Himeji. I’ve no idea why, but it made for interesting window shopping.
Do you want Western clothing or Japanese clothing? Either way, you’re going to look fancy as hell.
We also decided to pop into a secondhand kimono shop, because we figured they’d be cheaper than in Kyoto. We were wrong about that, but Himeji kimono sellers were certainly more friendly. While we were browsing, the shopkeeper struck up a conversation with us, and asked us where we were from. “England”, said I. “Poland”, said my friend. “Ah!” the man said, his eyes lighting up. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. I wondered if he wanted a selfie with his two new token white friends, but no – he didn’t know the Japanese for “we get a lot of Polish people here”, so pulled out Google Translate and told us that way. Technology at its finest.
While this was going on, Vithiya had been roped in to try a kimono on, even though she explained we had absolutely no time to spare. “We have a train to catch!” she exclaimed, as the ladies continued to wrap the kimono around her. When the look was complete, it did look wonderful, and it was cool to learn how a kimono should be properly put on. However, as soon as it had been donned, Vithiya had to be unravelled so we wouldn’t actually miss our train. The three of us dashed out of the shop and hung our heads in shame – they had been so nice to us, and we hadn’t even bought anything!
Out of breath, we found Machi just in the nick of time, and hopped on the Shinkansen to the tour’s final destination – Osaka. Come along and you’ll meet Japanese Shaggy, a bunch of trendy influencers, and a gyoza maker with a real problem with British food. See you then!