Himeji Castle Family Trip

Himeji Castle donjon

The white donjon of Himeji Castle.

Since I was a kid, there have been three monumental edifices I wanted to see most in Asia: Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, and Himeji Castle. I’ve now seen all three, and I’ll gladly visit them again when I can. Himeji Castle is the largest castle in Japan, one of the last 12 with its original wooden keep still intact, considered the most architecturally refined, and a favorite of filmmakers. I’d known about it well before The Last Samurai, but perhaps the tourists wanting to go have increased since that movie. Me, I remember it from the TV adaptation of Clavell’s Shogun.

Himeji Castle architecture detail

Details of Himeji Castle’s elegant architecture.

I got my chance to see it on a December trip with the family, but Cat and I being what we are, we of course had to make a photo expedition out of it. So while my sister and her kids went there at their leisure, Cat and I left Osaka at around 5:00 a.m. to get to Himeji at six-something. It turned out to be a good move. It was a twenty-minute walk to the castle from Himeji Station, and when we arrived we had the place pretty much to ourselves. I’ve read accounts of epic queues here, so being early was really important.

We got many views of the castle from the free-to-enter outer bailey, then got architectural details when the paid area opened. The castle is nicknamed Shirasagi-jo, White Heron Castle, because of its stunning white donjon (central tower), and it was indeed stunning against a perfectly clear, deep blue sky. We’d juggled our schedule around to see Himeji on what was predicted to be one of the few sunny days of our stay in Japan, and thankfully the weather predictions were right.

Himeji Castle donjon stairs

My family descending the steep and narrow stairs inside the donjon. It would be a real nightmare to fight your way up here!

Himeji Castle path

My nieces on one of the narrow paths between castle buildings. The openings in the wall behind them are firing slits for archers and arquebusiers. It’s almost as if every step you take into this castle you’re covered by the defenders. The low and narrow doors are meant to slow down invaders.

The way in is a marvel of military engineering, though it would’ve been a nightmare to any samurai trying to invade the castle. Access to the keep is through a labyrinth of narrow, steep and twisting paths that often lead to cul de sacs and other traps. As I walked up I looked around and saw multiple arrow slits and gun ports on all sides. It would’ve been a confusing and murderous ascent for a hostile army.

The only armies assaulting Himeji now are the tourists, who even though it was off-season still came in droves. Probably not as thick as in April, but still in droves. The complex was so big though that with patience we could easily get a view without people in the shot, and on entering the keep, we were even able to get photos of each other in the chambers without difficulty.

Honke Kamadoya bento shop

Waiting for our lunch outside the Honke Kamadoya bento shop. I had a nice big tray of eel, rice and pickles here.

As we’d entered the keep around 11:00, on exiting an hour or so later we decided to have lunch before returning for the Kokoen Garden for which we’d bought the combo ticket (1,300 JPY castle + garden). We didn’t have to walk far, as the street leading to the castle from Himeji Station is lined with restaurants. We got bento lunch boxes from Honke Kamado-ya and picnicked on a nearby bench. Then it was back to Kokoen to explore its nine different gardens. The castle is visible from the gardens so this is another place from which to get a picture of the castle, but having only a prime lens on, I didn’t have the focal length I wanted for the shot.

Waterfall, Kokoen Garden

Waterfall at Kokoen Garden. Each of the gardens has its own appeal. Kids will likely enjoy the big koi pond.

Fun at Kokoen Garden

Last shot of my fam for the day at Kokoen Garden.

Having seen this magnificent castle, I’m now eager to see it again, hopefully with the cherries in bloom all around it. It seems the ideal strategy though would be to stay in Himeji for a night, as there are elevated viewpoints nearby that would be good for a night or sunrise view.

Travel Tips

If you’d rather enjoy places like this with less crowds, go early. Himeji Castle is easily reached from Kyoto or Osaka via the JR Sanyo line or the Shinkansen. If you have a JR Pass or JR West Regional Pass, make the most of it by taking the bullet train to Himeji. It’ll cut down your travel time from an hour-plus to just 38 minutes.

Photography Tips

If you’re coming to Himeji Castle to get pictures, it becomes even more important to reach it early and beat the crowds. A weekday would be best, as on weekends you get the full crush of both foreign and Japanese sightseers.

There’s not much to photograph in the keep, and as this opens at 9:00 a.m. by the time you can get it the crowds will have arrived too. The architecture inside the keep is most impressive, all the more so when you realize it’s mostly 400-year old wood (save for the parts repaired during the monumental 2009-2015 restoration). However, I personally found the spaces inside not so conducive to taking pictures — the arms racks are empty, there are unsightly barrier ropes all around, and of course people tend to get in your shot.

For photography purposes I’d suggest spending more time outside the donjon, particularly in the West Bailey. This area is open to the public free of charge, and you can enter it as early in the morning as you like.

As a last tip — this castle is best in spring when the cherry blossoms are out, and in autumn. Since our chance to see it came in late December (Christmas week), the castle was surrounded by bare trees. I mean, compare the shots above with this one of Hikone Castle:

hikone-castle_2805.jpg

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