Himeji: More Than Just a Castle
If there is one thing the Japanese excel at, it is creating beautiful structures. From the crystalline Abeno Harukas tower in Osaka, to the Asahi Beer Company headquarters in Tokyo, that looks kind of like a giant pint of Guinness, there’s certainly no shortage of unique architecture to visit and observe across the country.
However, ask tourists to draw a castle that looks quintessentially Japanese and nine times out of ten you’ll probably end up with something that looks like Himeji Castle. It may not be Japan’s most storied or strategically valuable castle, but it is almost certainly one of its most pleasing to the eye.
Unfortunately, much like Edinburgh in my native Scotland, all too many tourists come to Himeji, visit the castle and then head off on their next adventure elsewhere, seldom stopping even for a few hours to see what else the city has to offer. Afterall, given its position, just 70 minutes by local train from Osaka at one end, and 80 minutes from Okayama at the other, and with a Shinkansen station to speed things up even further, Himeji makes the perfect place to stopover for a few hours while transiting from central to southern Japan, and vice versa.
But what does the place have to offer besides its world famous castle? Quite a lot actually, as I discovered on a recent visit.
So join me today as I take you on a tour of some Himeji’s lesser known, but by no means less enjoyable sights, sounds and other distractions.
In some ways similar to some other cities in the region, large parts of Himeji (approximately 63% of the entire city) were destroyed during the Second World War, remarkably the famous castle was untouched. As a result, what we have today is a very modern city that still retains a distinctive traditional charm.
One of the more modern additions to the city has been the famous Himeji Central Park. Whilst I’m sure you’ve probably heard jokes about some of the wildlife that can be found, especially after dark in the park’s New York namesake, in Himeji’s own Central Park there literally is an abundance of wild animals. For Himeji Central Park has, since 1984 been one of central and southern Japan’s most famous safari park zoos!
The safari park is divided into 4 distinctive parts, the drive-thru safari, the walking safari, the sky safari and an amusement park.
In the drive-thru safari, one can see, amongst other things, lions, tigers (but sadly no bears), cheetahs and the exceptionally rare African White Rhinoceros.
The walking safari offers some other fascinating creatures, albeit from a much safer distance. You can marvel at such beautiful creatures as white tigers and lions, bears, kangaroos, and of course those ever-mischievous monkeys!
The sky safari is a fairly recent addition to the park, opening in 2003 and is the only such aerial lift in Japan that is designed specifically for viewing animals. The sky safari gives excellent overhead views of the entire park area and even though the ride only takes about 3 minutes, it’s definitely worth it!
Finally, we come to the amusement park, which is fun, but somewhat generic. The usual favourites are there: a ferris wheel, a rollercoaster, swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter. It’s a fun add-on, but no means an essential ingredient to your visit to Himeji Central Park.
But then again maybe you want something a bit more historic, something a bit of old-world spiritual energy and splendor?
If that’s the case then look no further than Engyo-Ji Temple.
Getting to the Temple itself, takes a bit of time. Engyo-Ji is situated at the top of Mt. Shosha. To get there you’ll first need to take a bus for about 25 minutes from JR Himeji Station.
Once you get to the bus stop, if the weather is favorable and you’re feeling fit, you may fancy tackling the 1 mile trek along the hiking trail to the top of the mountain. Otherwise, the Mt. Shosha Ropeway also provides easy access, so you don’t need to worry if those legs are feeling a bit tired on that day. Upon entering the temple complex, movie buffs may feel they are in familiar territory. A number of scenes from Tom Cruise’s 2003 Japan-centric epic “The Last Samurai” were filmed within the temple’s grounds.
Perhaps you are taking a date to Himeji, or perhaps you just want to treat yourself to somewhere with a romantic atmosphere. In either case, you would do well to stop by Himeji City Tegarayama Botanical Gardens during your stay. The gardens can be found in the heart of Tegarayama Central Park (not to be confused with Himeji Central Park) and is easily found by heading towards the large dome-like greenhouse that can be found in the centre of the gardens.
Within the greenhouse itself you will find all manner of flora and fauna both common and mysterious. Many of the display plaques even have a small English translation on them if your ability to read Japanese isn’t quite up to speed yet.
Finally, the area in and around Himeji Station is a great place to relax and unwind after a hard day of exploring and traveling around the city.
In close proximity to both the JR and Shinkansen Stations (which are themselves interconnected), you’ll find a wide selection of bars, restaurants and izakayas catering to all manner of tastes. Whether you fancy some freshly grilled yakitori (chicken skewers), an okonomiyaki seafood pancake or even just a simple burger and fries, the “Eki-Mae” (station front) area has got you covered.
Himeji may not have the same buzz as its nearby neighbours Kobe and Osaka, but to be honest I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It is a city with its own vibe, its own character and its own unique quirks that make it special.
So next time you are passing through this part of Japan be sure to stop by Himeji, and don’t just visit the castle!