I had seen other gorgeous Edo period castles, most notably in Osaka, but Himeji was the real deal. Himeji castle still stands as it was after extensions over four hundred years ago, surrounded by moats and high defensive wall system. Himeji was conveniently on my way from Tottori to Osaka, so I stopped there for two days. The train from Tottori took less than two hours, and I was in Himeji around 1 pm, as I took the first direct train that morning at 10:46 am. My hostel was 5 minutes walk from the train station and from the castle, but then pretty much everything was in the small city. You could even see the castle from the railway station!
The weather being warm and sunny on the day of my arrival to Himeji, I left my luggage at the hostel and went to explore. The bridge over the moat on the south side of the castle is, if not original, at least in the same place as it has been for centuries. There was a painting somewhere in the castle that showed the area at its peak and the bridge is right where it is today. Across, and with my entrance ticket in hand, I set off on the grounds.
A helpful tip from a girl working at the hostel took me first to the Long Corridor, a series of corridors and apartments used by court ladies, in the West Bailey of the castle. As I was walking along the corridors, taking peaks at the views from the windows, I was marveling at how good a condition the apartments were. Except for the small size of the windows, and what I assume is not very good insulation against cold, I would have quite happily moved in. Whitewashed walls, wooden beams, walls and floors – what’s not to like!
The long corridor lead to the main keep, which had been visible on and off from the windows. The castle is just breathtakingly beautiful. It was recently cleaned so the main keep got its pale grey roofs and sparkling white walls back. While it looks like there are five stories, judging from the number of roofs, there are actually six plus a basement and the route through the castle takes you through them all. The floors are connected with what I assume are original wooden staircases, two per floor, which provided a well structured tour around the castle. Up one set of stairs, down the other. The floors got consecutively smaller the higher we climbed. There was little lighting inside so I don’t have many photos, as I don’t like to use flash inside. It was austere, functional, and in very good nick.
After the castle tour, I hastily went to the Koko-en gardens to the west of the castle. There was rain forecast for the next day, so I had to make the best of the first afternoon in Himeji. The gardens are a series of interconnected small Japanese gardens, set in a network of no longer existing Edo period mansion. The buildings are long gone and the landscaping is pretty recent. It makes for a nice quiet visit, as at least when I was there, there weren’t that many visitors. The nine gardens have names that reflect the landscaping. One has a small bamboo grove, another ponds and koi carp, a third a flower garden, and so on. The garden of the lord’s residence was my favorite with the mentioned pond and carp. There was one absolutely massive white one, which must have been 80 centimeters long. I guess with no natural predators in these protected ponds, what else is a fish to do but eat and grow? As carp can live to be over a hundred years old, they have a long time to grow.
The following day was overcast and soon started to drizzle. I took refuge at a Himeji City Museum of Art near the castle where there were two exhibitions of French painters. The first was a “Manet to Matisse”, a collection of paintings from the impressionists to the fauvists. There were some lovely pieces by Pissarro, Manet and even a sculpture by Rodin. The other exhibition was a retrospective of a French painter, Maurice Utrillo, and there must have been close to a hundred of his works there. He painted the bulk of his work in Paris, especially Montmartre, from 1910 to 1925. I have been to Paris many times and love it, so it was wonderful to “re-visit” Paris through the paintings, in Japan. Alas, there were no photos allowed so I have nothing to share.
It was drizzling when I left the museum, so I walked quickly to nearby covered shopping streets and wandered around, doing a bit of shopping. I even had a much needed hair cut there! As the rain intensifies, I walked to my hostel and spent the rest of the afternoon bingeing the new season of Sense8 on Netflix. Hurrah for rainy afternoons!