Himeji Castle is often referred to as Hakuro-jo (meaning “White Heron Castle”) because of its brilliant white exterior, which is thought to resemble a white heron taking flight. It is characterised by its soaring majesty. The castle was built at the beginning of the 17th century, when Japan’s unique castle architectural techniques reached their peak. It was designated as a National Treasure in 1951 and later became the first site in Japan to be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 1993. Today is it Japan’s largest and most visited castle.
Ikea Terumasa began its construction about 400 years ago. The entire castle, including its Main Keep, comprises an unparalleled complex of wooden buildings, symbolising Japan’s culture of wood craftsmanship and artistry. The current structure provides an almost completely intact example of castle architecture at the time. Small keeps were positioned to the east, west and northwest, to protect the Main Keep, which was was a symbol of authority and power for the Lord. Corridors connected them, in the style of castle architecture known as combined-keep layout.
When approaching the castle, visitors cross the Sakuramon Bridge. This bridge was constructed in 2007 in the image of the wooden bridge that stood it its place during the Edo period. The bridge leads to the Otemon gate (main gate), a Koraimon-type (three-roofed) construction, which was completed in 1938. This gate bears no resemblance to the original, majestic Otemon that stood here in the Edo period.
Just inside the castle entrance stands Hishi-no-Mon (Hishi Gate), a yagura-mon (a gate with a tower set on tope), which fortifies the entrance to the Himeyama and teh Sagiyama hill. It is the largest gate on the site and the name ‘Hishi’ comes from the water chestnut crests carved on the crossbar. Decorative ’katomado’ enhance the beauty of the gate. They are elaborate bell-shaped decorations that often appear in Zen Buddhism. The area behind the gate is a masugata, a space where soldiers would assemble.
On the eastern side of the Hishi Gate is a large stone wall, called ‘Ogi-no-Kobai’ due to its fan-shaped curve, that was constructed by Kanbei Kuroda, a military strategist and master of castle construction. The technique of stacking stones differed throughout the ages and here the oldest method can be seen.
Gravestones, stone buddhist images from temples, stone coffins from burial mounds and other items made of stone were repurposed for use in stone walls and building foundations. One of the foundation stones of the He-no-Mon gate is a hexagonally shaped stone, which was originally the base of a stone lantern.
Within the complex are thirty-two mud walls, which are designated as Important Cultural Properties. These walls were made of blocks of clay formed to uniform size and stacked with clay, though mud walls constructed with a wooden framework were most common at the time.
The Main Keep appears to be five stories tall but is actually seven, including the basement. Two main pillars, almost one metre across, hold up the massive building. Although the west pillar was replaced entirely during the Shōwa restoration (1956-64), the east pillar retains the original material, as only the lower part in the basement was replaced.
The castle’s roof is covered with flat tiles and round tiles, as well as plaster to seal the joints. Eight family crests can be seen on the ridge-end tiles and the eave-end tiles, as proof of repairs done by the lords of the past.
The god, Osakabe, was originally enshrined near the Main Keep as the guardian deity of this land but since modern times, it is enshrined on the top floor as the guardian deity of Himeji Castle.
Opening hours: 9:00 to 16:00/17:00 during some seasons. Admission fee is 1,000 yen per adult and tickets are numbered to limit the number of visitors to the main keep to 15,000 per day for safety reasons. Tickets are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Himeji Tourist Guide & Map
- World Heritage and National Treasure – Himeji Castle
- Information signs at Himeji Castle