Castles are truly fantastic destinations for any occasion. Whatever the weather, whatever the time of year, there is always something to see and fascinating history to uncover. From the monolithic structures of Northern Wales, to the fairytale edifices of Bavaria, castles come in many shapes and sizes, evoking different emotions and gifting rewarding trains of thought for wandering minds. This article is about one of the greatest.
Himeji Castle in Central Japan is one of the few remaining original castles to be found in the country. While castle visits are easy in Japan, most of the ones to be found are concrete reconstructions with traditional facades, the originals having been destroyed in the 19th Century and by bombing in World War II. Himeji survived all that, as well as emerging unscathed from the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake. Yet even if the castles in Japan were all originals, Himeji would surely still be cream of the crop. Towering magnificently over the landscape, its buttresses, courtyards, walls and towers dwarf everyone and everything around them. The area is tended beautifully, surrounding the brilliant white walls of the castle itself with trees and grass, trimmed to perfection. Cherry blossoms in the Japanese Spring may almost be a cliché, but there can be few sights more glorious than the castle rising from a sea of white and pink. Simply everything about the place overwhelms and impresses.
Himeji Castle’s history dates back to the the mid-14th Century and it has undergone reconstruction a number of times. It was first transformed into the complex we see today in the years after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. During the 17th Century it was expanded and improved with the addition of many features typical of Japanese castle architecture. More than a thousand arrow loops are built into its walls, as are holes for dropping stones and tar on attackers. The route to the main keep is through a long series of gates and steep-walled passageways which endlessly double back on themselves, forcing any would-be invader to run a punishing gauntlet. As it happens, Himeji Castle was never attacked anyway, so its formidable defences were never put to the test. It is a real thrill to walk through the passages, imagining what it would have been like when it was a functioning castle and home to a samurai lord and his retainers. The original interiors, with their wooden floors and tiny staircases, only add to the experience.
Entrance to the castle is a wonderfully cheap ¥600, far more reasonable than many castles in the UK (I’m looking at you, Warwick Castle!) and there are plenty of volunteer guides ready to show you around and introduce the fascinating history and design of the place, including a lot of tiny details that are easy to miss if you go alone. All in all, a fantastic destination, with a lot to enjoy for all the family.