After visiting Kyoto and Nara our plan was to go straight to Hiroshima. While planning our trip I noticed however, that there was an interesting city mid-way called Himeji. The main attraction in Himeji is their castle which you will be able to see right when exiting the railway station. We didn't expect to see much else in Himeji but we were pleasantly surprised how nice this town was.
We had booked a hotel from next to the railway station, so we stopped at the hotel to drop of our luggage. Then we walked to Himeji Castle, which was about ten minutes from the station. You will not be able to get lost on this walk since you will be able to see the castle the whole time on top of a hill. We were in Himeji during Japan's Thanksgiving Day so the castle was pretty crowded, but we did get tickets to go to both the castle and Himeji Kokoen garden which is next to the castle. We parked the baby stroller behind the ticket office and headed to the most beautiful castle in Japan.
The current castle in Himeji dates from the beginning of 1600. Before that there were two castles. The castle today is the biggest castle in Japan, and is said to be the most beautiful. It is also the most visited of the Japanese castles. It was built mostly of wood and then plastered white inspiring it's nickname the "White Egret Castle". You should reserve some time for your visit since there are a total of 83 buildings. You will not be able to visit them all of course, but we did have to wait in line to get into the castle. Himeji Castle was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993.
When you enter the castle you will be given a plastic bag. It is for you to store your shoes during the visit. Be careful of the doorways since they are very small and you might hit your head if you aren't careful. There is no furniture inside the castle but it is nice to wander around to see different rooms. One room has some old artifacts on display, and the upper floor has a nice view over the city of Himeji.
The floor plan of the castle is very complicated, and it might be hard to navigate inside the castle unless you follow the marked route. Little alleys can be deceiving and the castle has many gates, secret rooms and tunnels. There are also about 1000 different holes in the walls. These were part of the defense system of the castle, and were designed so the residents could shoot the intruders. No one ever attacked Himeji Castle so the highly complex defense system was never tested.
THE GHOST OF OKIKU
An old Japanese folktale tells the story of the beautiful maid Okiku who worked for the samurai Tessan Aoyama. Because Okiku persistently rejected Aoyama's romantic gestures, he fooled her to believe that she has broken one of his ten valuable porcelain plates. Normally there would have been the death penalty for that, but Aoyama promises to forgive her if she would be his mistress. Okiku declined, and disappointed by that Aoyama threw her into a well where she died. It is said that Okiku returned as a ghost and comes out at night time. She wanders around the alleys by the castle and counts the plates. After she counts to 9 she breaks into a horrible howl.
There are many different versions of this tale but one of them is situated in Himeji Castle. You can find the well while touring the castle, but be careful if you end up here at night time! The horror movie The Ring which was released in 2002 has been inspired by this story.
We got quite tired after travelling to Himeji and touring around the castle. We decided to skip the visit to the gardens and headed to the city center to find some food. We ended up in a shopping area which seemed huge, and we found a nice restaurant from there. We stopped in few little stores and also had some coffee at a Hello Kitty cafe. For our 4 year old daughter, that was the highlight of the day. I have to admit that it was pretty fun and I wrote about it earlier already in "Crazy Cafés of Japan".
For once we arrived at the hotel before dark and got some rest before our trip to Hiroshima the next day.