Tucking into our bento box of rice cakes, nori, tamagoyaki (sushi omelette) and raw mackerel, we set off on a day trip from Kyoto to Himeji. 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 having, for the most part, long since faded. Better still: the castle had recently undergone a six year restoration programme and so, with the scaffolding now completely cleared, we were lucky enough to see The White Heron in all her splendour.
And the castle truly is impressive – a worthwhile excursion for anyone interested in seeing (yet) another side of this multi-faceted country. There’s been a fort of one sort or another on the site since 1333; evolving over time, the three-storey keep we see today was created by an 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. It’s considered one of the best examples of Japanese wooden architecture, and was given UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status in 1993. So, yeah: important, like.
I’d compare it to visiting Sterling or Durham in many ways. Himeji is a relatively small and unexciting city in and of itself, with the imposing castle the main feature and primary reason people visit. But while we in the west are used to austere, stone constructs perched on mounds, whether Norman, medieval or renaissance in design, the brightly painted wooden castles of east Asia seem exotic and unusual by contrast. I was certainly awed as we walked up the long approach, flanked by rows of bonsai.
The castle is very plain inside, with not a lot to see but wooden beams. On balance, probably worth joining the queue for the views from the top; but if you can’t be bothered queuing, really don’t feel like you’ve missed out – it’s the exterior you’ve come to gawp at.
It doesn’t take too long to see. So, after walking around the 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 happily-pedestrian visit), we headed on 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 makes for a really easy and interesting break from the city. Some people alternatively use it as a calling-off point on their journey between Kyoto and Hiroshima. Works well either way.