17 Jul Himeji Castle and Kokoen Garden
Ever since studying Japanese at school I had wanted to see Himeji Castle in person. I’ve now visited twice and it is still one of my favourite places. The weather forecast for the day included rain and several chances of thunderstorms. We were unsure about our plans for visiting Himeji Castle before continuing on to Hiroshima. It turned out to be fine and we were able to visit both Himeji Castle and Kokoen Garden.
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Getting from Osaka to Himeji
We took the midosuji subway line from Honmachi station to Shin-Osaka station. There we got a shinkansen to Himeji station. We arrived in Himeji at about 11am, a lot later than we had planned, due to being unsure about the weather and a long wait for the elevator at the hotel. We left our overnight bag in a locker at the station and headed for Himeji Castle. Exiting the station, it was easy to know what direction to walk in as we could see the castle up ahead.
Japan’s most impressive castle is referred to as “white heron” due to its white exterior. The castle gets its appearance from the white fire-resistant plaster that covers its buildings. Situated on top of Himeyama hill in Himeji, the castle dates back to 1333 when Akamatsu Norimura first built a fort on the site. In 1346 the fort was dismantled and Himeyama Castle was built in its place, two centuries later it was remodelled into Himeji Castle. The Castle was remodelled again in 1581 and a three-story keep was added.
During the early 1600s, the castle was rebuilt and expanded with several buildings and moats being added to the castle complex. Himeji Castle has remained intact throughout the years, surviving bombings during world war two and natural disasters. In 1993 Himeji Castle was registered as a UNESCO world heritage site and it is also a national treasure.
Himeji Castle restoration
After undergoing several years of restorations, Himeji Castle was fully re-opened to the public in March 2015. Our first visit to the castle was in October 2014. It had previously been covered with scaffolding and the public were able to enter an observation area to watch the restoration works being carried out. When we visited, the scaffolding had all been removed and the castle was now fully visible. A crane still remained on site.
I had known before our visit that we would not be able to see the castle’s interior but I couldn’t find much information about whether certain areas would be out of bounds. It turned out that a large section surrounding the main keep was a no enter zone, with large safety fences in place. Although it was disappointing to not be able to see the castle from close-up, we all really enjoyed our visit and still found Himeji Castle extremely impressive.
Due to ongoing construction, entry was discounted to 400 yen. We purchased a combined ticket that included entry to Kokoen garden for a little extra.
The castle grounds are set out to be maze-like as this was a form of defence, to confuse any approaching force. The castle’s defensive systems from the feudal period include roughly 1,000 loopholes in the shapes of triangles, rectangles and circles that can be seen all around the castle buildings. We followed the arrows around the castle complex, exploring the many different angles, levels and high stone walls.
Himeji Castle with kids
Our first visit to Himeji Castle was with a toddler. We had to leave our stroller in a designated area just inside the entrance, so our two-year-old was free to walk around the grounds. We came to a small museum and I told Fletcher he wasn’t allowed to touch any items. He was really good at just looking but reached up to a barrier rope. The second his little hand touched it, a staff member rushed over, told him off and frightened him, so we exited the building.
There was a hall that was open to enter but we decided to let our toddler roam free outside. He really enjoyed seeing all the different sized rocks that made up the large walls and the shaped loopholes. He ran up and down steps and tackled steep climbs and made it around the entire grounds.
The next time we went, he was four-years-old and loved exploring the castle even more.
Our return visit to Himeji Castle
We decided to return to Himeji Castle as part of our Japan trip in 2016. We were visiting with my parents and I knew they would enjoy seeing this beautiful Japanese castle. With renovations finished, we were able to see the interior. This time we had a four-year-old and a nine-month-old. It was early summertime in Japan and the day was so hot that the city put warning announcements over the speakers. Despite the extreme weather we all thoroughly enjoyed strolling around the castle grounds.
The best part about this second visit was that we were able to enter the main castle interior. The stairs leading to the top are very steep and are more like ladders. Everyone around us was patient and friendly as our 4-year-old climbed up. He was so proud himself for reaching the top. From the windows, you can look out to a great view over the castle grounds and Himeji city.
Visit Himeji Castle and Kokoen Garden with a local guide
Would you prefer to have someone guide you around both the castle and the garden? Magical Trip has a half-day walking tour that you can book online. It includes entry to Himeji Castle and Kokoen Garden as well as a tea ceremony experience. All of this is done with a local guide.
Next to Himeji Castle is Kokoen Garden, a beautiful Japanese style garden divided into different sections.
After leaving Himeji Castle and collecting the stroller our toddler fell asleep. At the garden entrance, I asked the attendant if we were able to push a stroller around and they showed us an accessible path.
The path lead us past a large pond with waterfalls on either side. By the pond was a building with a restaurant. We continued to a viewing platform that looked out over the pond, filled with several large Koi fish.
It was fascinating to watch a gardener manicuring a tree. They had a ladder set up in the pond and an umbrella hanging off the tree to catch the trimmings before they fell in the water. There were parts that were only accessible by stepping stones or narrow gravel paths. We took turns staying with the stroller while the other viewed these sections. The Bonsai area was open and we were able to walk through it together looking at the different varieties. Some of them looked to be really old.
After we walked past a tea ceremony house, we came to landscaped gardens separated into different areas with a variety of trees and plants throughout. In one section there was a small pond with stepping-stones and little bridges. At one end there was a Japanese style gazebo over the water.
The bamboo garden was the last section of Kokoen gardens. A path looped through the bamboo. Some people confused. I think that they expected to find the exit. We went out through a wooden gate, I love Japanese style roofing and stopped to admire this mini version up close.
Kokoen Garden with a toddler
It was really nice to just wander around and take in the different areas. Our toddler was sound asleep in the stroller and the timing was perfect as we got to enjoy a relaxing walk through a Japanese garden in peace. Obviously, it would have been a lot different if he was walking around. It is a wonderful place to explore but it may be a little stressful watching little ones around the ponds.