What is Himeji Castle?

Brendan McGuigan

Himeji Castle is a large mountain castle in Japan. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1993. The castle was built in the early-14th century, and was heavily refined in the early-17th century.

Himeji Castle is located in Hyogo prefecture in Japan.
Himeji Castle is located in Hyogo prefecture in Japan.

Himeji Castle is the classic Japanese castle, and its architectural style is what most people think of when they imagine Japanese buildings of that period. The walls are whitewashed, lending it its nickname, White Heron Castle. This whitewash is to protect the castle from fire — like most Japanese castles, Himeji Castle is made primarily of wood, not stone like European castles. The roofs feature many of the sweeping, pointed structures associated with Japanese architecture, and give it a fairy-tale look.

Himeji castle, the largest existing original castle in Japan, is nicknamed after the heron.
Himeji castle, the largest existing original castle in Japan, is nicknamed after the heron.

The castle was first conceived during the Muromachi period. In 1331 construction was begun on the castle, and it was ruled by Akamatsu Sadanori until his defeat in the Kakitsu War, after which the Yamana clan took control of the castle and its construction.

In the late 16th century Himeji Castle, which by then had fallen into disrepair, was taken over by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He later granted the castle to Ikeda Terumasa, who would undertake a massive rebuilding campaign, bringing the castle to its modern state.

Himeji Castle remained a fortress until the end of the Edo period. During the Meiji restoration period it was shelled and taken over by the new government, who sold it at auction. Himeji Castle was damaged during World War II, but miraculously survived. In the mid-1950s a modern effort to restore the castle was begun, and it was eventually brought back to full health.

Himeji Castle is now the most visited castle in Japan, and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. It is located in Himeji City, which is a few hours away from Tokyo by train. The castle is open to the public, and visitors can make their way all the way to the sixth floor. Inside, Himeji Castle looks similar to other castles, with long open halls, and massive open space. It is definitely built as a defensive castle, not an opulent exercise, and its internal architecture reflects this.

The castle consists of more than eighty buildings, and most visitors spend hours wandering through the baileys in different ways. The ladders can be a bit steep and tricky, but even those who have trouble getting around will find plenty to inspire them.

Probably the most popular aspect of Himeji Castle for visitors is the intricate and innovative maze that protects the structure. Making your way through these structures requires a fair amount of awareness, and it is easy to get lost. Originally, this design allowed the defenders ample opportunity to rain down arrows and rocks at any attackers, as it would take even the most dedicated invaders some time to make their way to the inner tower.

Himeji Castle is without a doubt one of the most interesting examples of Japanese architecture, and with its relatively accessible location, is well worth a visit for anyone who finds themselves in Japan.

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