Also known as Shirasagi-jo (White Egret Castle), Himeji Castle is visible as soon as you exit the train station. Universally beloved, it dazzles the city from atop a nearby hill. A visit to Himeji-jo could well be one of the high points of your trip to Japan, especially if you can manage to see the brilliantly lighted castle soaring above cherry blossoms or pine branches at night. Thanks to frequent rail service, it should be easy to hop off, visit the castle, and jump
on another train two hours later.
Himeji-jo is regarded as medieval Japan's crowning achievement of castle design and construction. It arrived at its present state of perfection after many transformations, however. It was first a fortress in the year 1333 and was transformed into a castle in 1346. Radically enlarged by Terumasa Ikeda in the period 1601–1610, it has remained essentially the same ever since, surviving numerous wars and—perhaps even more miraculously—never once falling victim to the scourge of fire.
The five-story, six-floor main donjon (stronghold) stands more than 100 feet high and is built into a 50-foot-high stone foundation. Surrounding this main donjon are three smaller ones; all four are connected by covered passageways. Attackers would have had to cross three moats, penetrate the outer walls, and then withstand withering attack from the four towers. It was an impregnable fortress then, and its grace and grand proportions still inspire awe. Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa used Himeji-jo's exterior and the castle's grounds in his brilliant 1985 movie Ran.
Major renovation work on the rooftop will continue through early 2015. Until then, scaffolding completely obscures the main castle exterior. The castle interior will be off limits during much of the renovation period, but other buildings will remain open.
Free guided tours in English are usually available from volunteer guides, though they cannot be booked in advance; ask when you buy your entry ticket. Tours usually take 90 minutes. From the central north exit of JR Himeji Station, the castle is a 15- to 20-minute walk or a 5-minute bus ride; also, bicycles are available free at the tourist office next door. The bus departs from the station plaza, on your left as you exit.