As American tourists, we tend to think of Europe as the pinnacle for spectacular castles. However, while certainly there are some amazing castles all across the European continent, that perspective ignores one of feudalism’s greatest homes: Japan. Japanese feudal society was every bit as complex as that in Europe, and with it came – as in its counterpart across the world – massive castles.
Some of these Japanese castles survive to this day, and at the top of all castle lists in Japan is the largest, Himeji Castle. Not as opulent, or as famous, as Osaka Castle, Himeji is nevertheless the best example of a Japanese castle in the entire country, and with a storied past.
The city of Himeji is located about 60-90 minutes west of the Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe metropolitan area, and is a stop on the Shinkansen, Japan’s incredible bullet train. From the station, signs will direct you to the city’s namesake castle, although a glance northward will save you from needing any direction at all. The castle dominates the landscape completely.
The view from the walk from the train station. You can’t miss the castle!
The castle dates back to 1333, but in its current form – and with its current name – Himeji Castle’s life began in 1581, when the three story keep was constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, known as Japan’s “Great Unifier” at the end of the Sengoku period. Subsequent owners enlarged the castle and added new towers, as Himeji Castle changed hands frequently, though most commonly by gift and not by conquest.
Himeji Castle was spared what would seem like certain demise on two different occasions. First, after the end of Japanese feudalism in 1871, the castle was purchased by a local citizen who planned to demolish it for what he considered to be a better use of the land. However, the cost of demolition was higher than his purchase price, so it was left standing. Second, Himeji was heavily bombed in 1945, near the end of World War Two. But while the city was nearly entirely destroyed, the castle only took one direct hit, a firebomb that didn’t detonate.
Today, following Himeji Castle’s addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1993 and substantial restoration, the castle draws nearly 3 million visitors per year. Tourists are able to explore both the grounds of the castle, as well as walk along a specific path inside. I visited on a weekday during the off-season, and still the line of people inside was a constant and slow-moving mass, and some areas felt incredibly crowded and trapped. (It is also important to note that there are steep staircases necessary to traverse if one is seeing the inside of the keep. Like many attractions in Japan, Himeji Castle is not accessible for those with mobility issues.)
The view from one of the castle’s fortifications, looking over some of the outbuildings.
The most striking aspects of Himeji Castle can be seen from the outside, as the inside is largely bare. The central keep is now six stories tall, rising to a height of just over 150 feet. It is here that Japanese castle architecture differs so greatly from its European counterparts. Whereas most European feudal castles were more about function than style, Japanese castles incorporated incredible beauty and grace, seeming both fortress and pagoda in one. Troops would have slept on tatami mats on the keep’s first floor, and at times more than 4,000 soldiers and samurai would have been garrisoned here.
Looking up at the main keep
The castle’s beauty belies its defensive prowess. Himeji Castle has three moats – one is now buried – more than 1,000 protected loopholes where defenders could engage attackers without being exposed, and a literal maze of paths set in a spiral that an approaching army would have to navigate. However, while Himeji Castle was lost in war, the castle was never attacked in a frontal assault, so it remains unknown how effective it would have been in battle. But walking around the buildings – there are 83 buildings total in the complex, though most are small – one truly feels like attacking would be a mistake, as many of the paths take you through narrow bottlenecks with defenders well-positioned on both sides.
Himeji Castle is stunning from every angle!
Being such a short distance from Japan’s second largest metropolitan area, Himeji Castle is an easy day trip for tourists, and one worth making for those interested in Japanese feudalism, or even just those who like pretty castles. The city of Himeji itself has a few other small things of interest, like the Otokoyama Hachimangu shrine, but plan your visit entirely around the castle. Its beauty and size make it well worth it.
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