Upon looking this up after deciding that we must give the famed castle a visit, we found descriptions of utter havoc – people being mushed into what appeared to be a huge wooden death-trap of stinky feet and harried Japanese people and annoyed tourists in tow, being herded around a somewhat purely vertical structure. We also read the line: “it absorbs people well”. Considering this beast of a castle only opened it’s doors to the public in March 2015, after being closed for five years for renovations, the crush of people wasn’t much of a surprise. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is noted as the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture – and consists of a network of 83 buildings and is often known asa Hakuro-ji (White Egret Castle) of Shirasahi-jo (White Heron Castle) because of it’s brilliant white exterior and supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight.
Built by an impressive list of samurai and Japanese noble men and leaders, Himeji castle is noted as the most visited castle in Japan – so hearing about the crazy expected crush, but also encouraged by the reassuring “it absorbs people well”, we decided we had better go – people-crush-or-no, we had to check it out.After getting off the train in Himeji station, we made the extremely easy walk to the castle. There was, of course, a few buses that headed down the same way, but after realising you could in fact see the castle from the train station, we manned-up and took the 10 minute walk in a straight line towards the castle area. Hilariously mustachioed volunteer “guards” at the Himeji Castle front gates. Some of their mustaches are so incredibly fake, but they were all incredibly friendly and more that eager to take photos with tourists.
They weren’t joking when they said “it absorbs people well”. The grounds of the castle are huge – and covers an area of 233 hectares. It’s good to note that entry to the grounds is free until you get into the third bailey (Sannomaru). A ticket booth can be found at the far end of this area, which the Hishigi Gate marks the entrance to the paid area. So the layout of this castle is one of the most complex in Japan, complete with separate wings – contributing to the overall complexity of the structure – and the…vertical-ness. From the front entrance of the keep, it’s basically a vertiginous set of stairs after vertiginous set of stairs until you reach the tippy-top of the keep – in which holds a pretty nice view and a little shrine.
The area is generally unfurnished, with a scattering of bilingual signs propped up on various points of interest – and a few small displays in larger areas. These display areas are often swamped with people waiting to climb the basically-vertical sets of stairs that rise up through the keep – you will find yourself waiting in line for a fair bit of time to make the climb. Unfortunately, much of the structure is not access-friendly – the elderly and the young alike were finding it hard to get up and down the stairs. Oh, and the tall. The tall were feeling the brunt of the defensive and short staircases and door openings. I mean, seriously, I noticed a guy with an almighty shiner overpowering his forehead. If you are anything over 5’1” you’ll be looking for trouble if you don’t judiciously duck.
Oh, and another pro-tip – you will have to remove your shoes to enter the keep area – and then you’ll have to bring them with you in the supplied plastic bags until you exit the structure – so remember to don clean socks – as when you meander up and down the stairs your feet will be in close proximity to other people’s faces and hands. Imagine accidentally kicking someone in the face with a sweaty gym sock. Not pleasant. Oh, and if you have socks with little grippy pads on the bottom, these are also a great idea to wear – the interior of the keep is floored pretty much exclusively in wood – wood that has been smoothed down with the feet of the ages – which means it can be as slippery as ice-caked tiles. Avoid slippage and embarrassingly gross foot-face instances – wear your grippiest, cleanest socks.
After you exit the keep, you have the opportunity to explore yet another bailey (Nishinomaru) which served as the residence of a princess – however it is largely unfurnished – and to be frank, not too exciting. It does, however, provide the photo-hungry with an opportunity to view the main keep from an alternative direction. If that’s not enough to keep you busy, and even though the path is clearly marked, you can get yourself lost among the maze of different walkways – with many that turn back on themselves – you know, just for fun.
Himeji Castle is associated with a handful of interesting ghost stories and lores – my favourite being associated to Banshu Sarayashiki – where Okiku, a beautiful servant who didn’t want to sleep with her boss, was tricked into believing that she had lost one of the family’s ten priceless delft plates (really expensive golden Dutch plates). This would of probably lead to her death – so in a frenzy she would count the remaining nine plates over and over again – until she went back to samurai boss guy in tears and confessed her “guilt”. He, being the manly man that he was, said it would be OK – if she became his lover. She, of course, said no. He threw her in the well. Well, other versions say she dove into the well, effectively drowning herself. So, either way, she dies and apparently continues to haunt the well – counting out the ghostly dishes and shrieking after she gets to the ninth and realises there isn’t a tenth.
Also, The Ring, anyone?
GET THERE: Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station. The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit in a 15-20 minute walk or five minute ride via bus (100 yen one way) or taxi (about 650 yen one way).
HOURS: 9:00 to 17:00 (until 18:00 from late April through August) , admission ends one hour before closing.
CLOSED: December 29 and 30
FEES: 1000 yen (castle only), 1040 yen (castle and nearby Kokoen Garden)