Up Close and Personal with the Historic Himeji Castle

Himeji is a city rich in history. It’s about an hour and a half away from Osaka by train. One of the most popular attractions in Himeji is UNESCO World Heritage Site Himeji Castle.

The history

Before the towering structure that exists today was in place, a simple fort was built on the grounds in 1333. After 13 years, it was rebuilt into a castle.

Over the centuries, the castle was rebuilt, remodeled, and had features added for security and military strategy, as well as for aesthetic purposes. Entire buildings were added to the castle grounds as well. The castle survived several bombings in World War II.

Historians estimate that more than 25 million man days were spent building Himeji castle. Aside from erecting the edifice itself, some of the labor went into digging two moats. These were another measure to protect the castle from invaders, alongside the many gates and walls.

Himeji Castle is sometimes called White Heron Castle because of how the facade looks like a bird in flight. You’ll see the heron incorporated into the design of many public places, as it is also the City Bird of Himeji.

The ghost story of Okiku Ido

Okiku Ido (Okiku Well) is said to be haunted by its namesake. Okiku was a maid working in the house of Aoyama Tetsuzan, regent to the lord of Himeji Castle in 1500. The lord of the castle, named Kodera Norimoto, had a loyal retainer, Kinugasa Motonobu, who planted Okiku in Tetsuzan’s place to spy on him. Okiku found out about the assassination plot and warned the retainer, allowing Norimoto time to flee.

Although Norimoto made it out alive, Tetsuzan seized control of the castle in his absence. Tetsuzan’s conspirator, Chonotsubo Danshiro threatened to kill Okiku unless she married him. Okiku was in love with Motonobu and rejected Danshiro.

Despite his rage, Danshiro did not kill Okiku. He did, however, steal a valuable plate belonging to Aoyama family and frame her for the theft. Even then, she refused to marry him, so he killed her and threw her down a well. The stolen plate was one in a set of ten, and according to the lore, if you listen closely, you can hear her voice coming from the depths of the well, counting “One plate, two plates, three plates…” but only ever going up to nine.

Architecture

The Himeji Castle was made to be strong and beautiful, but also confusing. The “confusing” aspect was part of the strategy to keep enemies out. While only 21 castle gates can be seen today, there were originally 84, and none of them led straight to the castle. Some led to even more gates, and some ended at high walls, leaving people vulnerable to shots fired from above. The maze would take invaders through eight different gates before they reached the castle – and they often didn’t.

The inside of the castle has many long, narrow corridors. These once served to make it difficult for attackers to navigate the castle. Now, they just take tourists and staff from one room to another. The many courtyards are connected by halls and walkways which offer views of the castle grounds. The most dizzying view, however, is the one from the windows of the sixth floor – the highest point accessible to visitors.

Shachi

Shachi are ornaments that can be found at the ends of tiled roof ridges. They are similar to onigawara, which are roof tiles carved into ogre or demon faces, commonly found in Buddhist temples. Both shachi and onigawara are believed to offer spiritual protection by warding off evil. The main difference between the two is the design. Instead of looking like demons, shachi are mythical creatures with the head of a tiger and the body of a fish. The creature’s tail is raised and its back is lined with sharp fins.

What visitors should know

A tour of Himeji castle and the castle grounds will require a lot of walking and climbing stairs. Wear comfortable shoes – but also be prepared to take them off for some parts of the tour. In order to preserve the wooden flooring, tourists are asked to wear only socks or the slippers provided at the door in some areas.

The castle is six floors high and does not have an escalator or elevator. The steps are quite steep, so children, the elderly, and people with limited mobility might need assistance.

The entrance fee for Himeji castle is ¥1000. Students (up to senior high school) can get a discounted ticket for only ¥300. I recommend getting a combination ticket so that you can visit both Himeji Castle and Koko-en Gardens for ¥1,050 and save ¥250.

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