Himeji Castle, Himeji

Himeji Castle is staggeringly beautiful. I’m not prone to hyperbole – in fact, if anything, my English nature tends toward understatement more often than not. When I say, then, that Himeji Castle is one of the finest castles left standing anywhere in the world, I really do mean it.

The downside? Well, I’m afraid Himeji-jō is currently undergoing restoration, so the donjon is obscured under scaffolding until 2014. The renovations will be completed in 2015. This does, though, offer visitors a rare opportunity to observe restoration works in progress – part of the construction work includes fantastic viewing platforms with elevator access. For more information on the renovations, see the Japan-Guide.com page.

My visit was during the early stages of restoration work, before the scaffolding, so the majority of my photos are free of it.

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Built in 1333, this castle has survived earthquakes, wars, and avoided being burned down by lightning or crazed locals. It’s the most intact extant castle in Japan, with 88 of its buildings still in excellent condition.

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The castle has been remodelled a few times in its history, notably by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Ikeda Terumasa, both of whom added to the sprawling complex. When Honda Tadamasa inherited it in 1617 he built even more extensions to it, including a tower for his daughter-in-law Senhime, herself a famous historical figure who became a puppet princess forced to marry Honda after her husband committed seppuku.

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While in use as an army barracks during the Meiji Era, the castle narrowly avoided destruction because General Nakamura Shigeto pleaded the case for keeping it. Most other castles were less fortunate – the Meiji Emperors wished to downplay the importance of Shoguns to increase the significance of the Imperial Family, and these beautiful, costly castles dotting the landscape were a powerful reminder of the Feudal system which was already becoming romanticised even as it was made obsolete.

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That said, only the core of the castle complex remains. Himeji was laid out around the castle in a series of walled streets, so that the town contributed to the castle’s defence, but now all you can see of this is a model in the castle museum, and a few reconstructed walls in the streets leading up the hillside.

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Why, yes. Yes, that is a beautiful castle. I’m glad you noticed!

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The museum within the castle contains countless exhibits, including armour, hand-crafted models and dioramas, original roof features which have been replaced, and entire walls filled with the names of people who have donated to restoration efforts over the years.

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From the top of the donjon the view is phenomenal, and extremely similar to how it may have looked in Honda’s time. The flat plain surrounding the castle’s own hill makes it impossible for an army to sneak up without being spotted several miles off.

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It’s incredibly easy to spend an entire day here. In fact, I really, truly suggest that you do.

Visiting Himeji-jō:

From JR Himeji Station, follow Otemae-dori to the castle. It is a half-hour walk. Alternatively a taxi from the station takes five minutes, but Otemae-dori is a lovely traditional shopping parade, and the heart of Himeji town.

Admission: 600円, or 400円 during renovation works.

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