For many visitors, particularly those with the Japan Rail Pass, Himeji Castle is a popular day trip from Kyoto or Osaka. This guide covers the city of Himeji, and offers our tips for things to do, how to get there, and dining tips based upon our trips to Himeji for cherry blossom, fall colors, and other seasons.
While often viewed as a day trip location for a singular point of interest, Himeji is not some quaint village built around a castle. It’s a bustling city of over 500,000, the second largest city in Hyogo Prefecture after Kobe (which also has more to offer than just cows). To be sure, Himeji’s eponymous castle is the major reason to visit, and the National Treasure of Japan and UNESCO World Heritage Site does not disappoint.
We’ve already done an Ultimate Guide for Kyoto, which covers a range of topics and ended up being thousands of words long. Now, we’re going to try another approach, offering more concise guides for day-trip destinations outside of the major tourist cities. For the first of these city guides, Himeji seems appropriate, as it’s about the ideal day-trip destination from Kyoto…
As should be clear by the fact that we’ve visited Himeji multiple times in different seasons (although seeing a snow-covered Himeji Castle still eludes us), we love the city. It’s one of our favorite day trips from Osaka or Kyoto, and a place we’d visit with or without a Japan Rail Pass. Hopefully, this guide will convince you a day in Himeji is worth your time, and help you plan a satisfying day in the city!
Top 5 Things to Do in Himeji
You might be tempted to choose the cities you visit in Japan based upon the volume of things to do, rather than the quality of them. Before our first visit to Himeji, our big dilemma was whether we should take a several hour roundtrip train ride just to see a castle and its garden.
The experience turned out to be well-worth it, and we enjoyed Himeji so much that we’ve returned on several subsequent trips to Japan. Here are our favorite things to do in Himeji based upon our visits to the city…
Himeji Castle – Also known as “Hakuro-jo” or White Egret Castle, Himeji Castle is one of the most stunning sights in all of Japan. Seeing it from the train for the first time might take your breath away, and it’s easy to see why this was the first place in Japan to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Himeji Castle is also looking better than ever, as the multi-year refurbishment project is now substantially complete. We last visited in April 2018 (click here to read about our previous visit to Himeji Castle during cherry blossom season), and while minor work continues on the periphery of the castle, the main keep no longer has any scrims around it, and the building looks stunning. The interior of Himeji Castle is a preservation of its original design, which means it’s somewhat bare in some places. Nevertheless, the exterior and grounds of the castle earn it a deserving spot atop Japan bucket lists. For more photos and thoughts, read our full post about Himeji Castle Tips & Review.
Mt. Shosha & Shoshazan Engyoji Temple – Mount Shosha is on the outskirts of Himeji, and is home to Engyoji, a sprawling mountain temple complex with numerous beautiful buildings and a secluded atmosphere. This temple recently gained additional fame as a prominent filming location for the Last Samurai.
Engyoji is one of our favorite temples in all of Japan. We first visited during fall foliage season, and it was absolutely stunning–one of the best fall colors spots we visited. Upon returning during sakura, it was not quite as impressive, but still good. The approach is a big part of the experience, as you take a ropeway gondola up, before walking to the main gate of the temple. A combined bus/ropeway ticket is available from the bus station outside Himeji Station, and we recommend doing that. (Do Engyogi Temple in the morning, followed by Kokoen Garden, before finishing at Himeji Castle.) For more photos and thoughts on Mt. Shosha & Engyoji Temple, read our ‘Himeji to Hikone Fall Trip Report.’
Kokoen Garden – On the western side of the Himeji Castle moat is Kokoen Garden, which is a 1990s reconstruction of the original residence, Nishi Oyashiki, of a highly-ranked samurai. Kokoen features nine Edo Period gardens, small carp-filled ponds, plus a teahouse and restaurant.
These gardens are each walled off, are beautifully designed, and are supposed to represent the four seasons. We really like Kokoen Garden, and find that despite its location immediately adjacent to Himeji Castle, it’s comparatively uncrowded. The experience in these gardens is rather intimate thanks to the walled design, which we think really enhances the experience. All things considered, definitely a very strong point of interest, even if it’s not in the upper echelon of gardens (like the temple and castle). Be sure to purchase the combined castle and garden ticket to save money.
Public Parks – Just outside the castle gate, near the Himeji City Zoo (which you should absolutely not visit; even though it’s cheap, it’s awful, depressing, and inhumane) there are a pair of public parks. These parks are nothing special, but they offer nice views of Himeji Castle, and we find that a lot of locals take their dogs here to play. In other words, the #4 thing to do in Himeji is “see dogs.”
Senhime Shrine – This shrine is absolutely nothing special, but the hill upon which it’s situated offers a nice view of Himeji Castle. So basically, one of the top 5 things to do is “a hill.” If you want to continue in this direction, you can walk another 20 minutes or so to Nagoyama Cemetery, which features a beautiful stupa.
Okay, it’s probably apparent that there’s a bit of sarcasm in those last two things to do. There is no escaping the fact that there are only 3 major things to do in Himeji. Trying to find add museums or other locals-oriented attractions onto a Himeji itinerary is a fool’s errand.
This is the case not just because other experiences offer little for foreign visitors, but because the 3 major things to do in Himeji (plus meals) will provide for an incredibly satisfying visit to the city. The quality of these three experiences really cannot be understated. Himeji Castle is the best castle in Japan. Engyoji Temple is one of the country’s best temples. Kokoen Garden is one of the best gardens.
In other words, a visit to Himeji is all about quality, not quantity, and these three things plus a bit of wandering and eating will leave you with an incredibly satisfying experience.
From both Kyoto and Osaka, it’s pretty easy to get to Himeji, and the good news (at least for those of you without the Japan Rail Pass) is that you do not need to take the Shinkansen to get there in an efficient manner. While that is an option, it’ll only save you a little bit of time while costing significantly more.
Instead, take the Tokaido-Sanyo Main Line, which is a legacy rail line that parallels the Shinkansen. This same line also services Osaka and Kobe, so you can take this train from those cities, as well. This costs less than half the price of the Shinkansen, and while not quite as quick, it is pretty efficient.
If you do have the Japan Rail Pass, and thus aren’t paying for individual tickets, you should just use the Shinkansen. (Read our “Should You Buy the Japan Rail Pass?” here.) For Japan Rail Passholders, doing Himeji from Tokyo is also a possibility, but one that we would definitely not encourage. You’re looking at ~8 hours of roundtrip transit time, and that’s simply too much.
Once you arrive at Himeji Station, you will see Himeji Castle towering in the distance. Although it’s tempting to be in a hurry to leave the station and get on with your day, note that there is a tourism office, interesting historical exhibits, and quality shopping and dining in the station complex.
From Himeji Station, Otemae-dori Street leads directly to the main Otemon Gate of Himeji Castle. This is essentially main street of Himeji town, and it’s a lovely area with nice development. There are numerous statues (including a surplus of nudes–both male and female), which are a bit odd at times but whatever.
Although Otemae Street is nice and features a range of good shopping and dining, you might consider instead wandering over to the parallel shopping arcade, Miyuki Street. As with most shopping arcades in Japan, this is a good spot for dining and grabbing local souvenirs. It’s also nice in the event that you’re visiting on a rainy day, as the arcade is covered.
While Himeji has its own regional takes on udon (with vinegar flavored soy sauce), takoyaki, and soba, we’ve only done a few meals in Himeji. They’ve all been good, and we’ve enjoyed these regional variations, but we typically skip the restaurants.
Instead, what we’d recommend doing is stopping at one of the many conveniences stores along the way to Himeji Castle, grabbing sandwiches, sushi, pizza chips, mochi, or whatever else strikes your fancy, and making a little picnic on the public grounds of Himeji Castle. This is particularly enjoyable during fall colors or sakura seasons, especially in the evenings when locals will show up to do the same.
If you do plan to dine at a restaurant in Himeji, one other thing we’d note is that many restaurants close early. Once the business day is over and Himeji Castle closes, the city becomes a veritable ghost town. If you want to dine after 7 or 8 p.m., your options will be significantly limited, with most of the best choices being in the mall and shopping area near Himeji Station.
That’s it! As promised, we kept this concise. While we could devote more text to things like the language barrier, money, etiquette, etc., all of that has been covered in our guides about other cities in the Kansai region, and none of that materially differs for Himeji (at least to our knowledge…hopefully we aren’t committing terrible faux pas with each visit to Himeji by failing to observe some obscure form of regional etiquette! 😉 )
Have you visited Himeji, Japan? What did you think of the experience? Which points of interest did you visit in the city, and what did you think of them? Would you recommend Himeji as a day-trip from Kyoto or Osaka? Is Himeji Castle on your Japan bucket list? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? 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!