Mention Himeji and the very first thing that comes to mind is its beautiful white castle. It really isn’t a surprise as Himeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan — and the reason why anyone makes a visit to Himeji.
Half Day Visit to Himeji
Himeji is located in the Hyogo Prefecture in the Kansai Region of Japan. The city makes an easy day trip or stopover when you’re traveling within the southern-central region of Japan’s main island of Honshu. During my autumn travels in the country, I had already spent a few days exploring the lovely city of Okayama, and traveling towards Osaka before making my way back to Malaysia. I decided to drop by Himeji for a half day visit — to see its castle and gardens, and walk around its streets.
Getting to Himeji
I was using the JR Kansai WIDE Area 5-Day Pass (it costs JP¥9K ~ US$80) to get around the region during my visit. The pass allowed me to travel on the Shinkansen from the Okayama Station to the Himeji Station (20-minutes), and then for my onward journey to the Shin-Osaka Station (30-minutes). There are normal trains to the city as well — it is cheaper than the Shinkansen (if you don’t have a JR Pass), and takes probably twice the time.
I arrived at Himeji Station at noon. I was traveling between two cities and had my luggage with me — but it wasn’t a problem because there were tons of coin-operated lockers around Himeji Station to stash my possessions for a couple of hours while I tour the city.
As soon as I got out of the station, I was on the Otemae-dori Street — it is the city’s main street and has a view of the Himeji Castle right at the end of the street. There is a Himeji Castle Loop Bus (JP¥100~US$1) that runs along the road every 30 minutes. However, it was autumn and the weather was beautiful, and it was only a 20-30 minutes walk along the street. And the pretty yellow trees that line it had leaves falling all over the pathway. It was so beautiful. So I walked.
Lunch at Tamagoya
Time for lunch and I was famished! I heard about a restaurant called Tamagoya that serves raw eggs on rice — it’s a local specialty and because I love eggs, that was where I was headed. I ordered the Tamakake-Meshi that comes with a bowl of rice and raw eggs (with free refills), miso soup, seaweed and pickles for JP¥580~US$5.5; and an extra side of ikura (salmon eggs) for JP¥350~US$3. The meal was pretty damn good, and I’d have it everyday if I could get eggs as fresh as theirs. These special eggs are called the Yumesaki Egg — since 1951, the Fujihashi family brings these ‘safe eggs’ fresh every morning; laid by hens that eat on carefully selected food and listen to classical music like Mozart. It’s a little bizarre, really… but I guess it works!
Tamagoya is located just across the road from Himeji Castle. The Himejijō (姫路城) is Japan’s biggest and best-preserved castle from the feudal era dating back to 1333. It is one of the country’s 12 original castles and never destroyed by war, earthquake fires. Himeji Castle is also known as Shirasagi-jō, which translates to the ‘white heron castle’ because of its beautiful pure white exterior with winged roofs that resemble a bird about to take flight. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I bought the ticket for entrance to both the castle and the Koko-en Gardens for JP¥1040~US$9.50; as I entered through the main Otemon Gate. There are a total of eight buildings spread around the castle grounds (built throughout the feudal years by different owners/rulers) — but the main keep stands at the heart of the complex. I had to walk through huge lawns, winding walled paths and high baileys to get to it (the trees around it were barren in autumn, but I’m sure it looks gorgeous during sakura season).
We had to take our shoes off and put on specially provided socks to enter the main castle. It has 6 floors (including the basement), and each level gets smaller as I slowly made my way up the steep and narrow wooden staircases. I can almost imagine how stately and classy the interior of the castle could have been back in the day, with its beautifully polished wooden floors, windows and beams — but it is mostly left empty now so I could really feel the spaciousness and the scale of each floor. There is shrine located on the highest floor of the main castle, and the many windows provide beautiful views of the building roofs, the castle grounds and the city of Himeji from all directions.
It was almost closing time by the time I finished visiting the castle and its grounds (it closes at 5pm in autumn). The place was less crowded by then as the tour groups and day-trippers have gone — so I got to walk around on my own for a little bit.
The Koko-en Garden (好古園) is located right next to Himeji Castle, opened in 1992 on the grounds of a former feudal lord’s west residence. It has 9 separate gardens over 3.5 hectares — all designed in many different styles from the Edo Period. Just like all Japanese gardens, Koko-en offers different views during the different seasons of the year. I was visiting in autumn (late November) when the colors of the trees of the garden peak, showcasing a beautiful shade of red, orange and yellow.
Most of the time, visitors get to admire the garden only during day, but Koko-en opens to visitors to witness the beautifully lighted night view of the gardens — only during autumn weekends. I was lucky I had the chance to see it. The atmosphere at night was completely different to other gardens I’ve visited during the day, and the lights gave the autumn colors on the trees a gorgeous (and a little eerie) glow. It was mesmerizing.
Himeji Shopping Streets
There are many shopping streets and malls located between Himeji Castle and Himeji Station — Omizosuji Shopping Street, Ichibangai Shopping Street, the Piole Himeji Mall, and the most popular one, Miyuki-dori Shopping Street. The Miyuki-dori shopping arcade runs parallel to the Otemae-dori Street and is completely shaded — so on rainy days or hot days, it is a convenient option to get from Himeji Station to the castle. I chose to walk outdoors because of the lovely weather, and left exploring Miyuki-dori Street at night. Most of the shops were still open while I was there, but the day crowds had left so it was pretty quiet. I also stopped by one of the many restaurants along the street for a quick dinner of delicious yakitori meat sticks (don’t know the name of the place because everything was in Japanese), before heading off to my next destination — Osaka.
And that was my half day visit to the lovely castle town of Himeji. Most people go to see the castle and only the castle — and I guess that is what I did too. I really wished I could have spend more time exploring the city’s museums or try the popular Himeji oden (meatsticks and vegetables dipped in a brown Japanese broth); or even head beyond the city to hike Mount Shosha and drop by the famous Engyo-ji Temple. I guess there really is just too much of the beautiful Japan to see!