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Also known as Shirasagi-jo (White Egret Castle), Himeji Castle is visible as soon as you exit the station. Universally loved, it dazzles the city from atop a nearby hill. A visit to Himeji-jo could well be one of the high points of your trip to Japan, especially if you can manage to see the brilliantly lighted white castle soaring above cherry blossoms or pine branches at night. Thanks to frequent rail service, it should be easy to hop off, visit the castle, and jump on another train two hours later.
Himeji-jo could be regarded as medieval Japan's crowning achievement of castle design and construction. It arrived at its present state of perfection after many transformations, however. It was first a fortress in the year 1333 and was transformed into a castle in 1346. Radically enlarged by Terumasa Ikeda in the period 1601-1610, it has remained essentially the same ever since, surviving numerous wars and—perhaps even more miraculously—never once falling victim to the scourge of fire.
The five-story, six-floor main donjon (stronghold) stands more than 100 feet high and is built into a 50-foot-high stone foundation. Surrounding this main donjon are three smaller ones; all four are connected by covered passageways. Attackers would have had to cross three moats, penetrate the outer walls, and then withstand withering attack from the four towers and the more than 30 other buildings within. It was an impregnable fortress then, and its grace and grand proportions still inspire awe. Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa used Himeji-jo's exterior and the castle's grounds in his 1985 movie Ran.
Although not completely necessary for getting around or understanding the features of this amazing castle, informative, detailed free guided tours in English are usually available from volunteer guides, though they cannot be booked in advance; ask about the availability of a guide when you buy your entry ticket. Tours usually take 90 minutes.
Major renovation work on the main castle's rooftop will affect the visitor experience through early 2015. Scaffolding completely obscures the main castle exterior, and at this writing, the castle keep was expected to be off-limits through March 2011, after which the interior will partially reopen to visitors; an observation platform will also be available during the renovation (accessible by elevator); reservations for the Observation Platform are recommended, though same-day tickets may be available on occasion (the reservations line may be in Japanese only, so it may be wise to have your hotel concierge make these arrangements). The castle interior is expected to be off-limits again from mid-2014 through the end of the renovation period in 2015. Other buildings remain open during the renovation.
From the central north exit of JR Himeji Station, the castle is a 15- to 20-minute walk or a five-minute bus ride; also, bicycles are available free at the Tourist Office next door. The bus departs from the station plaza, on your left as you exit.
- Address: Honmati 68, Hyogo, Himeji, 670-0012
- Phone: 0792/85-1146
- Cost: ¥600, ¥400 during renovation (Apr. 2010--Mar. 2015), ¥200 for Observation Platform
- Hours: Sept.--May, daily 9--4; Jun.--Aug., daily 9--5
- Website: www.himeji-castle.gr.jp/index/english/index.html
- Location: Himeji
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