Hyogo prefecture is the proud host of one of Japan’s most fascinating cultural and architecture wonders – Himeji Castle. My visit to Himeji Castle, listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage since 1993, made me further appreciate the role and the true meaning of the concept of cultural heritage. These are not only beautiful places to visit but experiences to elevate cultural curiosity. The grandeur of Himeji Castle and its maze-like interior structure ensures not only an aesthetically gratifying experience but also an awakening one.
Fortunately, Hyogo prefecture is home to many smaller and lesser-known but visually impressive castles. These are, along with Himeji, some of the most rewarding castle experiences in Hyogo that each stands out with their own history and unique aesthetic beauty.
Himeji Castle, A World Cultural Heritage Site: Japan’s Most Impressive White Castle
As I enter the modestly sized Himeji city located in the southwestern part of Hyogo Prefecture, the splendid Himeji Castle soon appears. Its distinguished and commanding architecture dominating the entire city feels magnetic. Even a glance at the castle’s main keep is enough for me to understand why it is one of Japan’s most praised cultural properties and how it earned its flattering nickname – White Heron Castle. With its tall and imposing silhouette and the mesmerizing elegance of its white exterior, Himeji Castle mimics a heron bird ready to fly away.
On this rainy autumn day, the castle is embraced by the autumn colors, which warm up the gray skies. But come springtime, the colorful autumn leaves are replaced by the joyful atmosphere created by thousands of cherry trees around the castle grounds, making it one of Japan’s prime sakura viewing spots.
In the words of UNESCO, the castle represents the finest example of 17th-century Japanese castle architecture combining function with aesthetic appeal and is a masterpiece of wood construction. Himeji is also one of the handfuls of castles in Japan that has remained fully intact since the early 17th century, allowing the visitors the chance to experience centuries-old architecture and not a replica or a reconstruction.
The original castle built on Himeyama Hill in 1333 went through substantial remodeling and reconstruction through the centuries. The elegant and centuries-old structure that welcomes visitors today is a result of the rebuilding that occurred between 1601-1609. At this time, the walls of the castle were completely white, giving it the appearance known as the “White Egret Castle.”
While the castle looks mesmerizingly beautiful from a distance, the structure gets even more intriguing and inviting when one starts wandering through the zigzagging castle alleys.
The castle grounds, spread to 23 hectares and castle tower, turrets, gates, earthen walls, and other structures safely guarded by well-preserved moats, carry the aura of medieval European castle towns. The narrow maze-like paths leading to the main keep, originally built to slow down the potential enemies approaching the main keep, make me willingly take many breaks to soak up the atmosphere.
Inside the castle, there are various exhibits related to Himeji Castle.
The admission-free Sannomaru area of the castle, accessed via picturesque Otemon Gate, is another popular section. The spacious grassy grounds offer some of the best views of the castle’s main keep and turn into a sakura wonderland in the spring season.
The main keep (also referred to as donjon or tenshu) – the most well-known façade of Himeji Castle – covers an area of more than 2,400 m2 spread into five stories, six floors, and one basement floor that gradually get narrower as one climbs up. The floors host many permanent exhibits related to the city’s and castle’s history. The top floor is home to a small shrine and a great place for the splendid views of the surrounding Himeji town.
One can easily spend at least half a day in Himeji Castle happily getting lost in its alleys or even turn it into a full-day affair with a visit to the nearby Kokoen Gardens.
Kokoen Garden: Stroll Through the Autumn Colors
As I leave Himeji Castle, I am soon walking into an autumn wonderland. The rain, which gets stronger as the hours pass, feels like a blessing in Kokoen Garden, where the mist and the colorful umbrellas of the fellow visitors enhance the already vivid atmosphere created by the fall colors.
Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Himeji City, Kokoen Gardens opened in 1992 on the site, which hosted the west residence of the Himeji domain’s feudal lord in the old days, features nine gardens. Each garden has a unique landscape reflecting different and popular styles from the Edo Period.
Kokoen, especially during the autumn colors season, is not a place to rush through. Each of the walled gardens hosts different features such as pine, bamboo trees, or flowers, begging its visitors to slow down and enjoy the serene feeling they gracefully transmit. In addition, there are many rest huts throughout the nine gardens where visitors can immerse themselves in the picture-perfect scenery.
One of the visually most stunning places in the garden is the Cho-an-sai rest house, the terrace which opens to a pond inhabited by dozens of colorful koi fish and an impossibly picturesque waterfall.
While the beautiful gardens may steal all your attention, don’t forget to look up and salute the Himeji Castle, which adds to the beauty of the scenery on a clear day as a magnificent backdrop. Here, you can enjoy the seasonal scenery of cherry blossoms in spring, fresh greenery in summer, autumn leaves in autumn and snowy scenery in winter.
Tatsuno Castle: A Symbol of the City Overlooking the Picturesque Town
Tatsuno Castle, which can be reached in less than half an hour by car from Himeji city or in less than an hour by train and on foot, offers a rewarding experience, especially for those looking for a more intimate castle visit.
Tatsuno Castle was originally built as a mountain top castle in 1499 during the Muromachi period on Mount Keiro. After several changes of the lord, the castle was opened and the castle tower was destroyed. Later, the castle was built as Hirayama castle on the present site. The current Honmaru Goten was rebuilt in 1979.
As I walk into the castle grounds, I am greeted by Honmaru Oten, where visitors can visit free of charge (except on Mondays) and browse through its ancient armors collection. Speaking of more intimate experiences, I am one of the only three visitors today, and all of us seem happy to marvel at this colorful scenery and the misty atmosphere surrounding us in such privacy.
With its picturesque location surrounded by the woods, Tatsuno Castle is, just like Himeji Castle, one of the prime spots in the area for hanami (flower viewing) during the sakura season. Many other sights surrounding Tatsuno Castle offer plenty for visitors to fill an entire day of discovery. For more castle exploration, a hiking trail from the west side of the Tatsuno Castle Honmaru Goten leads to the ruins of the original castle built in 1499.
Takeda Castle Ruins: Japan’s Machu Picchu! The Castle Floating in the Sky
A visit to Takeda Castle Ruins and the surrounding hills near Asago City is one of the most visually pleasing experiences in Hyogo Prefecture, where the beauty of nature meets and even (literally) elevates the emotional and intellectual impact of history.
Often referred to as the Machu Picchu of Japan, Takeda Castle – built on top of the 353.7-meter-high mountain in 1443, was abandoned about 157 years later. The abandoned castle buildings gradually deteriorated and eventually fell apart. Fortunately, the castle’s stone walls had been restored during the 1970s, and the premises have been open to visitors ever since. While the castle buildings have no remains, the original stone walls, which once marked the castle’s boundaries, firmly preserve the feeling of visiting an ancient castle site.
You may still be wondering what this all has to do with Machu Picchu. The answer requires an early morning hike to Ritsuunkyo, the observatory on top of the hill facing Takeda Castle Ruins. Luckily, the climbing required (40 minutes) to witness scenery that inspired the nickname of Machu Picchu of Japan is much shorter and less strenuous than the one needed for the real Machu Picchu. The early morning fog that surrounds the castle ruins creates the illusion of a castle floating among the sea of clouds. The best season and time to experience this phenomenal scenery reflecting the perfect union of nature and history is between 6:00 am to 6:30 am on clear October and November mornings.
EN Takeda Castle Town Hotel: Stay in a Sake Brewery with a 400-Year-Old History
To expand your time in the area and enhance the visual joy of experiencing the floating castle of Japan, consider an overnight stay at an old converted sake brewery-turned luxury accommodations at Takeda Castle Town Hotel EN. This authentic, comfortable, and aesthetically rewarding lodging experience deserves to be a destination on its own.
This sake brewery has 400 years of history and has been registered as a “tangible cultural property” of Japan – a list that aims to register and preserve the properties with unique cultural or artistic value. Since its foundation, two fires have hit the original building, and the current building, dating back to 1902, now hosts its lucky guests.
With its 13 guest rooms in six buildings, each with its own blend of Japanese architecture, simplicity, and stylishness, the hotel aims to ensure that every visitor has a unique and comfortable accommodation experience.
There is also a restaurant in the hotel where guests can enjoy the cuisine, which combines the region’s traditional dishes with French Cuisine. Every ingredient is handpicked among the regional favorites, including matsutake mushrooms, Tamba black soybeans, Tamba chestnut, and Tajima beef.
I hope you will feel as inspired by your visit to Himeji Castle as I am. And when you do, how about expanding your time in Hyogo and covering these other lesser-known castles with exquisite scenery where you are almost guaranteed to have a more intimate visiting experience?