Tucking into our bento box of rice cakes with nori, tamagoyaki (sushi omelette) and raw mackerel, we headed off on a day trip from Kyoto to Himeji. It’s an easy train ride away, taking little over an hour on the Shinkansen.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and great to see so much cherry blossom still in bloom. The trees in Tokyo and Kyoto had, for the most part, long since faded. Better still: the castle recently underwent a six year restoration programme and so, with the scaffolding now completely gone, we were lucky enough to see The White Heron in all its splendour.
There’s been a fort of one sort or another on the site since 1333. Evolving over time, the 3-storey keep we see today was created by the eminent samurai warrior and politician Hashiba Hideyoshi in the 16th century, with the extensive bailey and surrounding city growing around it over the succeeding centuries. As one of the best examples of Japanese wooden architecture, Himeji Castle was given UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status in 1993.
I’d liken the experience to visiting Sterling or Durham in many ways. Himeji is a relatively small and unexciting city in itself, with the imposing castle the main feature and reason people visit. But in the western world, we’re used to those austere stone style constructs perched on mounds, whether Norman, medieval or renaissance in design; so the brightly painted wooden castles of east Asia seem exotic and unusual. I was certainly awed as we walked up the long approach to the castle grounds.
It’s plain inside, with not a lot to see but wooden beams. On balance, worth joining the queue for the views; but if you can’t be bothered queuing, really don’t feel you’ve missed out – it’s the exterior you’ve come to gawp at.
After walking around the extensive castle walls, taking in the beautiful tiled roofs, crests, gates and moat (and giggling at the dozing actor in full warrior gear – his exposed spear presenting an element of danger in an otherwise pedestrian visit), we next headed to nearby Koko-en Gardens.
Now, despite what many guidebooks seem to say, Koko-en does not contain recreated samurai houses. Rather, meticulously recreated Edo-period gardens built atop the ruins of old samurai houses. Important difference. No need to be disappointed though: the gardens are really beautiful. The nine different spaces, spread over about three and half hectares of land, were built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city. The main Lord’s residence garden has a tea ceremony house, a pine tree garden, bamboo, koi pond, waterfall and flower garden. Very serene and peaceful. You’re also likely to spot herons, interesting insects (large beetles, caterpillars and the like), and – of course – plenty of selfie-taking humans.
Our visit to Himeji only took half a day in total, but it’s worth including in your itinerary and breaks up a stay in Kyoto pleasantly. Some people use it as a calling-off point on the journey between Kyoto and Hiroshima. Works well either way.