One of my all-time favorite experiences in Japan was our visit to Himeji Castle during cherry blossom season. In this post, we’ll detail our experience making a day-trip from Osaka to Himeji, as well as review the castle relative to other comparable places in Japan (including whether it’s worth your time if you have to do a day-trip), and share some of our photos.
Let’s start with a bit of background. Himeji Castle is Japan’s best-preserved feudal fortress, one of the twelve original castles that survives today. The ‘modern’ version of Himeji Castle is over 400 years old, dating back to 1609. It was never attacked, nor has it been destroyed by natural disasters. This historical legacy coupled with its beauty (Himeji Castle is also known as White Heron Castle due to its white, elegant appearance) makes it one of the most popular and revered castles in Japan. You can read more about the history of Himeji Castle here.
Our trip to Himeji Castle almost didn’t happen. We were staying at an Airbnb in Osaka, and were scheduled to go to Universal Studios Japan with friends. At the last minute, we decided to call an audible after seeing some insane wait times at USJ (this was during the height of “Cool Japan”) and do something else. Himeji Castle was an easy choice for that, as it’s something that has been on our bucket list since before our first visit to Japan…
As we shared in our Hanami Party at Himeji Castle post, our visit to Japan was during sakura season, and we realized we could not only witness the cherry blossoms in full bloom, but also experience the atmosphere of the Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival (and photograph the evening illuminations of the cherry trees and Himeji Castle). That sealed the deal for us, and we decided to make that “something” else a day-trip to Himeji Castle.
We didn’t head to Himeji first thing in the morning, opting instead to see a couple of Osaka’s highlights for sakura season. Once we did leave, we found it was about 2 hours from where we were on the JR Osaka Loop Line to Himeji Castle. If you’re planning now, you might be tempted to route between Osaka Station and Himeji Station, which shows a 1 hour commute time. However, Himeji Castle is a 30 minute walk (or 25 minute bus ride) from the station, and you’ll likely have a bit of a commute to Osaka Station. In other words, it’s best to allow 2 hours.
Our original plan was to take the bus to Himeji Castle, as this is what Google Maps suggests. However, we could see Himeji Castle towering in the distance from the station, so we decided to walk. The castle towers over the city, and it’s a straight-shot from the station–you couldn’t get lost even if you tried.
For this reason, we recommend walking rather than taking the bus. There’s a pleasant little marketplace in between, and we ended up stopping for (delicious!) udon along the way. The walk took just under 30 minutes to walk, and Google predicted 25 for the bus ride, so I think we made the right choice. Your mileage may vary, but when it comes to Himeji Castle–walking is a great way to see a little more of the place without an additional time commitment.
Our next recommendation would be going later in the day unless you are staying overnight in Himeji. The operating hours of Himeji Castle vary, with it open 9:00 am until 5:00 pm most of the year (September 1 through April 26) and until 6:00 pm during the summer (April 27-August 31). The castle is closed on December 29 and 30. These hours could vary, so it’s best to consult the official site before your visit.
No matter when you go, the last ticket sale is 1 hour before Himeji Castle closes. Due to this, we strongly recommend visiting at the end of the operating day. Despite being outside Japan’s major tourist hot-spots, Himeji Castle is incredibly popular, and can draw large crowds. Most of these crowds will show up earlier in the day, with midday being especially busy.
During our visit, we arrived at one of the busiest times, with a long line just to get in. Seeing this and the ticket cut-off time, we decided to start by exploring the (free) grounds outside Himeji Castle. The area you can explore without charge winds around the castle, and there’s a ton to see, including a little shrine off to the side.
We spent around 2 hours doing this, some of which time was spent just enjoying the delightful hanami ambiance and pretty cherry blossoms on the great lawn in front of Himeji Castle.
We noticed the line disappeared around 2 hours before Himeji Castle was to close, so we headed inside at this point. Despite it being a busy weekend during sakura season, there was almost no one behind us, and we explored Himeji Castle devoid of crowds. (No special effort was made to capture these photos sans other guests–there just weren’t many other visitors in the castle.)
In total, we ended up spending around 60 minutes inside Himeji Castle, which felt like about the right amount of time to see the interiors, read about the castle’s history, and enjoy the breathtaking views from the top of Himeji Castle. In fact, 60 minutes might be more than you need inside Himeji Castle if you employ this strategy. The interior is fairly bare, and a sharp contrast from the breathtaking and intricate exterior of the castle.
On the other hand, if you head inside during the middle of a crowded day, you’ll need to allow more time, we suspect. This is because–despite a dearth of things to see inside–Himeji Castle has a single, linear path to follow from “start” to “finish.” This includes some tight walkways and narrow stairs, which could undoubtedly become choke points at busier times.
At a cost of 1,000 yen for adults and 300 yen for children, we recommend visiting the interior, but that’s primarily because you’re already there. Also, there are some beautiful views of the exterior that you can only get by paying the admission price, which alone makes it worthwhile. It seems crazy to spend so much time getting to Himeji Castle and then not going inside.
However, keep your expectations in check–the interior of Himeji Castle is the weakest experience of any castle we’ve visited in Japan. This is probably due to Himeji Castle’s emphasis on restoration rather than re-creating displays showcasing a slice of life in Himeji Castle, or adding other displays. It’s an understandable approach, but one that doesn’t really lend to an engaging experience when touring the interior.
That provides something of a segue into our review, and whether Himeji Castle is worth your time. A traditional review would be wholly unnecessary. Himeji Castle is a designated National Treasure of Japan, and was the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage list. It’s one of the most breathtaking sites in Japan and is a rightful inclusion on many “best of” Japan travel lists.
It is, without a doubt, a 10/10 travel experience–one of the best places we’ve ever visited, anywhere in the world. We generally favor experiences with a ‘substantive heft’, so for us to not penalize Himeji Castle for its weak interior displays speaks volumes about the overall experience.
A more appropriate question is thus whether it’s worth your limited time when traveling in Japan. It’s pretty unlikely you are actually staying in Himeji during your visit, which means you’re likely considering this as a day-trip from Osaka or Kyoto. From that perspective, is it worth forgoing multiple other experiences in those two places for the 4 hour roundtrip commute plus time spent at Himeji Castle?
That’s a more difficult question to answer. We did this after multiple visits to Kyoto and Osaka, having already seen a lot of those cities (although far from everything) on previous visits. To be honest, the only reason we waited so long was because Himeji Castle has been undergoing extensive restoration work since we started visiting Japan.
As mentioned above, Himeji Castle has been on our bucket list since before the first time we visited Japan. As Disney fans, we first learned about Himeji Castle years ago; it served as the inspiration for “White Egret Castle” (a clever twist on the White Heron Castle moniker for Himeji Castle) in the Japan pavilion in Epcot at Walt Disney World. White Egret Castle is pretty, but the real thing completely puts it to shame (as should be expected).
In any case, the restoration of Himeji Castle that took over 5 years to complete prevented us from visiting the inspiration for the Epcot castle sooner. During much of this restoration, Himeji Castle was closed to the public. As you might notice in some of the photos, there are still some scrims up and minor work ongoing at Himeji Castle, but not enough to cause any hesitations about visiting. For us, it made sense to reallocate some time to finally see this must-do, particularly during sakura season. If you’ve likewise already visited Kyoto and Osaka on prior trips, we’d recommend Himeji Castle without hesitation.
If it’s your first visit to Japan and you have 5 days to spend in Osaka and Kyoto, cutting that to 4.5 or 4.25 and adding Himeji Castle could also make sense. That’s probably the line in the sand I’d draw when considering Himeji Castle, unless its on your Japan must-do list. There is so much to do in both cities that I don’t think the transit time for Himeji Castle is a sensible sacrifice.
Instead, I’d recommend choosing a closer alternative. If you’re visiting both Osaka and Kyoto, Osaka Castle (Ōsakajō) is the best option. If you’re only going to Kyoto, Nijo Castle (Nijōjō) is a good pick. I like both of these castles a lot: Osaka Castle is somewhat similar to Himeji in appearance, and while Nijo Castle is pretty different, it’s an excellent destination for other, compelling reasons. (Actually, I’d recommend most people include both Nijo Castle and Osaka Castle in their itinerary even if visiting Himeji Castle–they’re all very different and complementary.)
In the end, it’s impossible to overstate the beauty and grandeur of Himeji Castle’s exterior. It is simply breathtaking, and seeing it will leave you speechless. This is amplified during cherry blossom season (but really, any time is a great time to visit). The grounds are a veritable labyrinth that give depth to the visit beyond the wow-factor of the outside, and provide some substance to the long commute. The interior is a bit of a letdown relative to the outside, but still worth seeing. The only real question is whether it’s worth the excursion to Himeji to see this national–and world–treasure. That really depends on how much Himeji Castle appeals to you, and how much time you’ve already spent in Kyoto and Osaka. For what it’s worth, this is one of my personal top 10 points of interest in the world. You’re very unlikely to regret visiting Himeji Castle…but that also goes for many things you could do in Kyoto and Osaka, instead. There’s really no wrong decision here.
Have you made the trek to Himeji Castle? Did you feel it was worth the time? Any thoughts on crowds, the quality of the interior’s displays, beauty of the exterior or anything else? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’ve never been, does visiting Himeji Castle interest you? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!