Castle to Castle: Himeji to Hikone – Japan Trip Report

Our original plan for our first full day in Kyoto was to relax and decompress. It was a weekend during foliage season, meaning all of the tourist spots with fall colors would be crazy-busy. The day before, I suggested maybe we should do something in Osaka or Nara to get more value out of our Japan Rail Passes.

Sarah was surprisingly receptive to this; we had been going hard non-stop for nearly a month at this point, without a single day to unwind. Still, it seemed like a smart plan to save money. Both cities were a relatively easy train ride away, and I agreed we could take it slow.

When the day rolled around, it was raining in both cities, with a forecast for more rain. In this circumstance, a sane person would probably revert to the original plan of taking it easy. I am no sane person.

Instead, I checked the radar for the nearest place with good fall colors where it wasn’t raining. Himeji. Of the places to visit in Himeji for fall colors, Mount Shosha was the best option. That would require hiking and we were already pretty worn out, so i was on the fence about it…until reading that the Last Samurai was filmed there.

When I learned a film I’ve never seen was shot there, it was a done deal. We had to do it. I mean, c’mon! That movie has [checks IMDB] Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise in it. How could we not go see where these living legends had performed their craft?

Then I started reading more about Himeji Castle’s fall colors and, one thing led to another, and I was reading about the autumn illumination at Hikone Castle. My planning often snowballs like this. One minute I’m looking at a cool photo on Instagram, the next I’ve moved to my computer, have 50 browser tabs open, and am plotting the next 39 steps on Google Maps.

Even though Hikone Castle is in the opposite direction of Himeji, of course we had to do that, too. Oh, and Kokoen Garden…but THAT’S IT. Just Mount Shosha, Engyoji Temple, Himeji Castle, Kokoen Garden, and Hikone Castle. Nothing else. Well, except the 4 hours 44 minutes of train time (plus walking and transfer time).

To her immense credit, Sarah just went with my plan. She’s incredibly accommodating with my ill-conceived ideas, and usually just reminds me that my conception of how much time and energy it takes to do things is a bit ‘off.’ Also, I might have downplayed just how ambitious of an itinerary this was, but in my defense…it was for the greater good of castle photos? I don’t know.

So we left Kyoto for Himeji via Shinkansen. This is a pleasant journey we’ve done a few times, and riding the Shinkansen is always a treat, so we really didn’t mind. We did some more work, and tried to also meet our ‘quota’ of relaxation time for the day.

Upon arrival in Himeji, we purchased tickets for Mount Shosha. There’s a combined bus and ropeway ticket for this experience that saves a bit of money, so we opted for that. Part of me wanted to skip the return ropeway ticket and hike down, but I was already pushing my luck, so I didn’t even suggest that.

Then, disaster struck. After obsessing over a few shots of a model of Himeji Castle in the station, I realized my battery was almost dead, and figured I’d change it now given that I had a couple of minutes. Oddly, there were no batteries in the normal battery pouch. I started scrambling through the other pockets, already knowing there was nothing there.

For the rest of the day, I had a battery already on its last bar. At this point, Sarah suggested we head back to Kyoto and get them. Knowing we’d have to gut the itinerary I had “carefully” built that morning to do that, I suggested we just press on, and I’d use my phone to take most of the photos, saving my camera battery for sunset and night photos.

If necessary, we could always stop back in Kyoto that evening before continuing to Hikone…at least in theory. In any case, we continued on, boarding the bus and then the ropeway to Mount Shosha. The entire time I had this sinking feeling, worried that I was going to miss out on amazing photos, as my camera battery could die at any moment.

When we arrived at the top of Mount Shosha, it was mostly overcast. Good conditions for photos of details, but poor landscape photography conditions. Normally, I’d be disappointed by this, but I was actually a bit relieved. the iPhone and its portrait mode can handle detail shots just fine. Landscapes with more dynamic range…not so much.

Here are some of the photos I took of Mount Shosha/Engyoji Temple that day, all shot with my iPhone (as are all of the photos in this post of Mount Shosha):

The judicious use of my Nikon D850 that day, as I carefully assessed whether a given shot was worth my limited battery juice, was probably the closest I’ll ever get to ‘the good ole days’ of film photography. Well, if photographers in those good ole days had highly capable phone cameras as a backup. But aside from that, it’s basically the same. 😉

By the end of our time up there, the sky was starting to clear and the photo conditions were much more favorable. I took a few DSLR shots, not wanting to leave only with a bunch of iPhone photos that might look crumby when viewed on a larger screen.

Mount Shosha and Engyoji Temple were incredible. I’m actually a bit embarrassed we’d never been up there before. We’ve been to Himeji a couple of times before this, but just for Himeji Castle. While that remains my favorite ‘thing’ in Himeji, Mount Shosha is a very close second.

That’s not all that high of praise given that the only other major things in Himeji are the garden (nice, but not that nice) and the city zoo (downright depressing and creepy). To put it into better context, I’d consider the full experience of going up Mount Shosha and experiencing the temple to be among our top 20 experiences in all of Japan. Probably top 15, even.

Mount Shosha could easily be a half day experience, and even though we spent a good three-plus hours up there, I think we could’ve done more. However, we still had several stops, and it was approaching sunset!

After making it back down the ropeway and boarding the bus, I began plotting out our remaining time. It was starting to seem like maybe we should nix Himeji Castle and Kokoen Garden from the itinerary. Or skip eating dinner, which was my preference.

Given that we had already skipped lunch, Sarah was not on board with the latter option. So we reached a “compromise” with Sarah heading back to Himeji Station and grabbing a meal there or on Otemae Street. Meanwhile, I’d jump off the bus at a random stop closer to the castle, and race around there to get photos.

Fortunately, there was a bus stop right at Kokoen Garden (and it was a free admission day!), so I went there, quickly perused the garden, used a handful of my remaining DSLR photos on the sunset in the garden, and then continued on to Himeji Castle.

At this point, it was clear the sunset was going to be something special. The sinking feeling returned, and I thought oh crap. That’s an abnormal reaction for a photographer to have towards a nice sunset, but this created a new dilemma with my Nikon D850 battery situation.

Ultimately, I decided to just go for broke, taking a ton of photos. It was the best sunset of the trip thus far, and if we ended up skipping Hikone Castle as a result of my battery dying, we could always pay for a train ticket at a later date. No matter what would happen with the battery, I think this was the right call.

The “problem” with this sunset is that Himeji Castle’s public areas are on the wrong side to get the castle with the beautiful sky in the background. The scene was great when it was a matter of golden hour light on a sun-kissed castle, but as soon as the sun disappeared below the horizon, I had to scramble for a new vantage.

After literally running around for a few minutes finding nothing (except a path that was closer), I exited through the adjacent Himeji City Zoo, thinking it might provide a good angle. I’m pretty sure the zoo was in the process of closing at this point, but no one said anything to me as I passed through, and several security guards saw me.

Either they didn’t care, or saw me briskly walking, and figured I must know what I’m doing I was walking with such purpose. I snapped a few photos of Himeji Castle from within the zoo, and then bee-lined for the opposite exit, as I needed to head farther north to get the best angle.

In large part, this was a wild goose chase. I ran around for a good mile trying to find good vantages, and never attained the ideal perspective during the peak light.

Finally, I found a spot in a random public park behind Himeji Castle with fall colors in the foreground. It was already dusk at this point, but I still really like the photo–I can only imagine how beautiful this scene was during the peak of sunset:

Around this time, I received a text from Sarah asking where I was. We need to catch one of two trains if we wanted to make it to Hikone to arrive before the fall illumination ended. One of those trains was in 7 minutes, and the other in 25 minutes. Per Google Maps, I was 35 minutes away.

With my full camera bag (well, minus the 70-200), I started a dead sprint to the train station. Along the way, I zig-zagged among hordes of tourists, passed several bikes, and got really lucky with the timing of numerous intersections. I made it to the station in under 15 minutes. Sarah saw me drenched in sweat as I approached, and just shook her head and chuckled. (I get that a lot.)

As we sat there on the nearly 3-hour train ride from Himeji to Hikone, I thought about what an absurd idea this all was. We had more tripled the amount of transit originally planned for on this day had we just gone to Nara, and I probably should’ve called off the Himeji to Hikone plan as soon as I noticed my battery was nearly dead that morning. Or, even before then, when I saw the weather report.

Instead, I doubled down on our Japan Rail Passes, and we covered half the length of Japan in a single day. Sarah had remarked while we were hiking Mount Shosha that “today would’ve just been a nice day to relax after a few weeks of heavy travel.” She was right. And yet, here we were, with our most ambitious day of the trip.

Nevertheless, we had “accomplished” everything in Himeji, I got some good photos out of it, and we arrived at Hikone and walked to that castle successfully with almost 20 minutes to spare before admissions closed. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that my camera battery still had some juice left.

Before taking any photos in Genkyuen Garden (where the fall illumination occurs), I walked the entire perimeter, scouting locations. I wanted to mentally prioritize these spots, as I might only get one photo. In this case, the scene was way too dark for iPhone photos to be usable.

After finishing my first long exposure with battery remaining, I continued to my second most important perspective. With my battery still having juice after that, I continued. And so on and so forth. The number of photos–particularly long exposures at night–I got out of a single bar of that battery was astonishing.

I joked to Sarah that this was like “Nikonukkah” but I’m not sure she was all that amused. By this point, it was late and freezing outside, and it had been one long day. I’ve already posted more of these in our Autumn Illumination at Hikone Castle & Genkyuen Garden post. If you’ve already read and remember that, this whole story might’ve been a bit anti-climactic.

After capturing a couple dozen long exposures, I suggested we get a photo of us. The first photo was not even close to perfect, but the camera battery finally died before we could get another, so here it is:

That seemed like as fitting of a way to end the day as any, and also for concluding this report.

On the way back, we fell asleep on the train, missing our stop and having to backtrack to return to our Airbnb in Kyoto. One way to look at this was as important research, as we learned that, yes, the Japan Rail Pass is still valid for the last train of the night even if that occurs just after midnight. In retrospect–or as a casual observer reading now–this day might sound preposterous and filled with terrible ideas, but it’s one of my fondest memories from our time in Japan.

Check out All Installments of Our Japan Trip Report for more on what we’ve done. If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.

Your Thoughts

So…are we crazy for riding the rails halfway across Japan with almost no (DSLR) battery, or was it all worth it for the memories and the story? Have you ever visited Himeji or Hikone Castles? What do you think of them? Any questions or other comments? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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5 replies
  1. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    I really like the iPhone photos. Actually some of my favorites of this trip, the kind I would go back to a post to scroll through. Fun story too, although I commend Sarah for her spirit. I would have been like “Sayonara! I’m staying here.”

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      For most of the iPhone photos, I used portrait mode, which is really a game-changer for improving the quality of phone photos. Unfortunately, it’s a software-based solution, so it’s not perfect (you can see the imperfections in a couple of these photos if you look closely).

      Still, pretty amazing how far phone cameras have come.

  2. Clara
    Clara says:

    I love this story! I wonder if that much juice from one bar of battery is actually typical, or if some battery gods just happened to be smiling down on you. Either way you lucked out completely. What an amazing sunset, and fantastic photos you got of it!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I don’t think there really is a “typical” number. I’ve had cold batteries that die almost instantly once they reach the last bar, and others that last long–but not this long.

      I think a big part of it is that I didn’t review a single photo or mess with any of the camera settings, but even then, it lasted a surprising amount of time. It had to have just dropped from 2 bars.

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