Himeji (姫路; ) is a small city at the western edge of the Kansai region of Japan with Japan's finest castle. At one point in the late 1500's, it was the biggest castle in all of Asia.
Himeji does not have its own airport. The nearest international airport is Kansai International Airport; buses run eight times a day to Himeji station (about 2 1/4 hours, ¥3000).
The nearest domestic airports are in Kobe and Osaka. By train from Kobe Airport, take the Port Liner to Sannomiya and connect to the shin-kaisoku train service to Himeji (about one hour with good connection, ¥1270), or take a bus straight to Himeji station (1 1/4 hours, ¥1300, six per day). From Osaka's Itami Airport, there are direct buses every hour or so to Himeji station (1 hour 20 minutes, ¥2100).
A 700-series shinkansen train entering Himeji
Himeji is along the Sanyo shinkansen line from Osaka and Kobe to Okayama and Hiroshima. The Hikari Rail Star offers frequent service to Himeji within the Sanyo region, as do the all-stopping Kodama trains. As the station is raised it is possible to see Himeji Castle from a passing train.
From Tokyo, one Nozomi train per hour runs through to Himeji, covering the journey in just over three hours (¥15710). If you have a Japan Rail Pass, there is also one Hikari train departing each hour, running through to Himeji, which you can take at no charge. Due to additional stops, the Hikari takes 3 hours and 40 minutes to reach Himeji from Tokyo.
An inexpensive method of reaching Himeji from within the Kansai region is to take one of the frequent Shin-kaisoku (新快速 - Special Rapid) commuter trains, which charges only the price of a local train. The ride takes 34 minutes from Kobe (¥950) or 57 minutes from Osaka (¥1450).
It is possible to travel from Osaka to Himeji using direct trains over the private Hanshin and Sanyo Railways but as this takes longer than JR (one and half hour, ¥1250) it is only really worthwhile for holders of the 3 day or 5 day pass for Kansai's private railway system.
Shinki Bus runs an overnight service from Tokyo (Shinjuku and Shibuya) to Himeji at a cost of ¥9450 one way and ¥17010 round trip. As of this writing, the bus leaves Shinjuku at 22:30 and arrives in Himeji at 7:45, with the return leaving Himeji at 21:00 and getting to Shinjuku at 6:15.
It's easy enough to walk along Otemae-dōri from the station to the castle and back, but buses will also cover the distance in 5 minutes.
Himeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji-jō). . Dating to 1609 and also graced with the name "White Egret Castle" (白鷺城 Shirasagi-jō), this striking white edifice is generally considered the most beautiful of Japan's castles and is one of the few that has escaped the ravages of civil war, earthquakes and firebombings. The castle was designated as a national treasure in 1931 and was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. It is virtually the last castle in Japan that still manages to tower over the surrounding skyscrapers and office buildings.
Admission is ¥600 adults and ¥200 children. The castle is open 9 AM to 4 PM daily or until 5 PM from June until August (The castle is closed between December 29 – 31.) A free guided tour in English is included if a guide happens to be available (no reservations are possible). The castle is an easy 10-minute walk north from the station.
Other points to visit in Himeji include:
- Koko-en, a beautiful walled garden just West of the castle
- Senhime Shrine, a little further West on the flank of Otokoyama, a small hill that provides excellent views of the castle and region (great place for taking pictures)
- Shoshazan and Engyo-ji Temple, a 30 minute bus ride from Himeji castle on the orange bus #8, with beautiful temples and great hiking. The beautiful temple complex is best known among the locals as the setting for part of Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai". Mt. Shosha is particularly beautiful in the fall, when the Japanese maples change colors.
- Tegarayama, southwest of Himeji castle, with an aquarium and small amusement park.
- Asago Sculpture Park, 30 minutes by car or train is a large sculpture park and museum.
Himeji Castle is particularly striking (and crowded) in cherry blossom season in April, when all the trees planted in and around the castle burst into white splendor.
Most people visit only the Castle and the area between the castle and the station. However, the area around the castle is a great place for a refreshing walk or a picnic. For families in particular, the park behind Himeji castle offers a decent play structure and ample space to sit down and have a picnic in the shadow of Japan's most famous castle.
- Nada Matsuri
- Aboshi Matsuri
- Himeji Ceramics market
Himeji has a number of matsuri (festivals) throughout the year.
- Cherry Blossom Viewing Party, usually around the second Sunday in April. Lots of koto and taiko drumming.
- Yukata Matsuri - mid June. Locals criticize this festival for having no roots or real reason to exist other than an opportunity for girls to dress up in summer yukatta, eat delicious food from booths, and play fair games. Which is a good enough reason to go.
- Oshiro Matsuri - late august. A large parade down the main street ending at Himeji castle. There is also a big stage to see lots of dancing, which can range from either very tradition to very hip. Often it's a combination of the two.
- Moon viewing - in September near the time of the Harvest moon. Features traditional plays and drums.
Himeji isn't particularly known for crafts or goods, but there are numerous shops along the route to the castle selling a variety of Himeji Castle and other assorted souvenirs. Additionally, the streets in the area surrounding Himeji Station are filled with shopping arcades (particularly Miyuki dori) and the usual department stores (there are several lining the way to the Castle, including Sanyo, Forus, and Yamatoyashiki.)
- Festa, located above and below Himeji station, Festa has a wide variety of small shops and restaurants. More specifically, the 2nd floor of the station building houses a large selection of female clothing stores and the 3rd floor is home to Junkudo, a bookstore that has a fairly large selection of English language books, comics, and magazines, as well as a good selection of Japanese textbooks.
- Animate, running perpendicular to the shopping arcade next to Miyukidori (turn at the 7-11 and taiyaki corner shops), Animate has two floors for those into anime and manga. The ground floor has a large selection of manga and doujinshi for all tastes and ages. The second floor has anime goods, CD soundtracks, and DVDs.
- Bon Marche, there are two in the station area, one on Miyukidori close to the castle, and one tucked behind and between Sanyo department store and Mitsubishi UFJ Bank (left hand side of Otemae dori). These gourmet grocery stores stock an impressive (though sometimes pricey) selection of foods, including some import foods.
- Daiso, located above the Bon Marche behind Sanyo department store, is arguably the largest 100-yen store in Himeji. This store is made up of three floors, and sell goods that run the gamut from housewares to clothes, electronics to food - most (but not all) available for ¥100 apiece. A great place to pick up cheap souvenirs for your friends back home, but getting there and getting out can be a bit inconvenient.
- Hon to Ongaku no Mori, translates to "Book and Music Forest". Accessible from both Otemae dori and Miyuki dori (above the Miyuki dori Bon Marche), this store has, unsurprisingly, a large selection of new and used books and CDs, but also has a large selection of new and used DVDs and games.
Additionally, for those who prefer the finer smokeables, there is a tobacco shop just off of Miyuki dori (turn right at the Fujifilm corner shop) on the right hand side just past the Softbank store that, in an unusual move for Japanese tobacconists, sells a variety of cigars. Not the top quality Cubans, mind you, but decent enough (and rare-in-Japan) "hamaki" (cigars).
As you exit the station facing the castle (North), the main shopping street (Miyuki dori) will be on your right and the main entertainment area on your left. Both areas have some fine restaurants. Himeji has a full selection of foods, from fast food (Western and Japanese) to gourmet dining. For breakfast there are countless coffee shops, including a Starbucks that has small waffles.
Vegetarians in Himeji would do well to visit either Baobab or Everest. Baobab is a pan-Asian restaurant with an English menu for lunch and dinner, located just east of SMBC bank on Miyuki-dori, the main shopping arcade. Everest is a Nepalese (and Indian) restaurant just West of Himeji Station. Everest also has an English menu and the owner and chef also speaks English fluently.
- Sakura-saku, Honmachi 68, Himeji 670-0917. Vegetarian-friendly restaurant (also a kind of greengrocer's) with nice open-air frontage and view of Himeji castle. You can get a fantastic veggie meal of (for example) rice with peas, tofu steak and pumpkin, pickles, soup, dessert with coffee, and all the green tea you can drink, all for ¥1000. From the intersection in front of the castle, facing towards JR Himeji station, walk down the main street towards the station, go right at the first set of traffic lights you reach, and it's a few buildings down on your left.
- The Blue Plate Cafe, a 5-minute walk north from JR Himeji station on Miyuki dori (B1, under the Subway sandwich store) is a small, friendly restaurant with a mostly Western-style menu. Lunch includes soup, salad, unlimited bread, choice of entree, dessert and coffee or tea and starts at ¥1200. Dinner starts at ¥1500, and there is also a cake set available in the afternoons for those looking to satisfy their sweet tooth. Only the owner/head chef speaks passable English, unfortunately, but they have an English menu.
There is a 24 hour McDonald's on the Miyuki dori, for those of you who fancy something quick, simple and recogniseable.
Himeji has three main bars. The bars tend to be frequented mostly by foreigners living in the city, and there is little or no indigenous night life. The city has many Westerners living there, and your choice of bar should depend on the type of people you like drinking with.
- Tiger Pub, Uomachi-dori (a few blocks away from the station). The biggest local gaijin (foreigners) bar. The customers tend to be older ex-pats and office workers who, while they are friendly, can come across as a bit desperate and lonely. Tiger can be a bit messy on busy nights. Avoid the Guinness!!!!
- Nobu, close to Tiger Pub, . Nobu is a tiny, cramped little bar with English speaking staff. It may be small; but Nobu is a friendly place. This bar is frequented mainly by a younger crowd than in Tiger, mostly English teachers, who are fresh college graduates from America, Canada, Australia, Britain and Ireland.
- Hossana Irish/British Pub, also close to Tiger Pub. The city's resident Irish Pub, except that the city's small Irish population tend to avoid it at all costs. Serving good food in a warm and relaxing setting, Hossana is however over-priced and a bit lifeless and the staff don't speak good English. The Guinness is below par, but better than in Tiger.
Most people visit Himeji as a day/half day trip. Like most Japanese cities, there are a number of inexpensive business hotels clustered around the station. For example:
- Toyoko Inn, 97 Minami-Ekimae-cho, . This simple business hotel is located right next to the train station. Rooms are smallish, but the price includes internet in the room and Japanese-style breakfast. (Double room ¥8,000)
- Hotel Nikko Himeji (Ekimae), (South side of the JR train station). The Nikko Himeji (along with a few other hotels) is on the side of the JR station opposite the castle. Unfortunately, traversing Himeji through the JR station is not easy, and absent a JR ticket requires a 1-block detour through walkways on either side of the station. Regardless, the Hotel Nikko is a pleasant hotel for the business traveler (although possibly pricey for those on a budget - about ¥12,000 as of 10/2008).
- To see Himeji Castle's evil twin, the brooding black Crow Castle, hop on a train 50 kilometers west to Okayama. In Okayama, you'll also find the lovely Korakuen Garden, one of Japan's Top 3 gardens.
- Kurashiki, only a short distance further from Okayama, is famous for its large Bikan Historic District with many well-preserved building from the Edo Period, as well as the famous Ohara Museum of Art which contains a large amount of works by the most famous European artists.
- Tsuyama, a quiet town with rich history, is famous for Kakuzan Park, a great place for cherry blossom viewing, Joto Street, and the beautiful Shurakuen Garden.
- For those interested in Japanese swordmaking or pottery, Bizen features museums that display its rich history. Bizen pottery and swords are reknowned throughout Japan as being of the best quality since ancient times.
- To the East, one can easily visit the port city of Kobe, with the scenice Harborland and Meriken Park around the port. The city is also the location of the devastating Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, and visitors can go to the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Museum to learn more about the earthquake and how the city dealt with it.
- For those interested in the performing arts, the city of Takarazuka is home to Japan's all-female theater troupe, the Takarazuka Revue. The plays are well-done and the actresses are so convincing, you may forget that the male characters are not really men. The city also home to the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum, which features works from all of his most famous manga.
- 30 mins north of Himeji, on the Bantan line train, is the small town of Fukusaki. The birthplace of famous author Kunio Yanagita; Fukusaki boasts many great restaurants, small shrines and shops, in a relaxed rural setting. Yanagita's beautiful house can also be visited free of charge.
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