Celebrating the 30th anniversary as a World Heritage Site: An in-depth look into the charm of National Treasure Himeji Castle

This year, Himeji Castle, also known as “Shirasagi-jo” for its graceful appearance that invokes the image of an egret spreading its wings, is celebrating its 30th anniversary since it was registered as Japan’s first-ever World Cultural Heritage Site. In this article, we are going to take an in-depth look into this iconic place that attracts many tourists every year.

Since the 1300s, Himeji Castle went through many expansions and renovations by various powerful people. It wasn’t until 1609 that the main keep was finally completed by Terumasa Ikeda, a military commander who was renowned as an expert castle builder, also taking part in the construction of Edo Castle and Nagoya Castle. After he began working on the renovation of Himeji Castle, it took him eight years to complete the main keep, and it is said that 24 million workers took part in the project. Later, Tadamasa Honda built Nishinomaru (the west ward), and it is said that it wasn’t until 1617 that Himeji Castle was fully completed, when things settled down after the warring period.

It is said that there were about 170 castles throughout Japan at that time. However, many of them were lost due to the government’s Haijo Edict (castle abolishment order), natural disasters, wars, etc. As a result, now there are only twelve castles which still have keeps that were built in or before the Edo period. Due to the fact that, out of all these castles, Himeji Castle has extremely well-preserved structures such as keeps, turrets, and gates, it was registered as Japan’s first-ever UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1993, along with Horyuji Temple in Nara.

The view from Otemae Street. Himeji Castle is built on a hill called Himeyama.

Himeji Castle has so many fascinating things, but its most prominent feature would be its white walls after which it got its nickname “Shirasagi Castle.” It is due to the white plaster applied on the walls throughout the castle for preventing fire from spreading when it is attacked by enemies with matchlock . With the white exterior, combined with the way it is towering on top of the hill, Himeji Castle looks truly awe-inspiring. You should definitely see it at night too when the white walls stand out the most under illumination.

Beautiful Himeji Castle at night

Another distinctive feature of Himeji Castle is the magnificent keeps. The four keeps have been arranged in a quadrilateral manner, and all four of them have been designated as a national treasure. The largest one, the main keep, is 31.5 meters high, and it is the largest one of the twelve keeps still remaining since the Edo period. It is truly a miracle that a structure of this size still exists to this day without being affected by wars or fires.

The only castle registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site in Japan

The main keep is about 31.5 meters high, and the castle is on top of the hill, so you can enjoy an amazing view of the entire city.

Another unique feature of the castle is the tile decoration called “Shachihoko Gawara” installed on the roofs of the keeps as protectors against fires, as the legend has it that they would blow out water when they saw fire. Typically, one with its mouth open and the other one with its mouth shut are installed as a pair, but Himeji Castle is a rare case because all the Shachihoko Gawara there have a closed mouth. The reason behind that is not that complicated, though. When there was a major renovation of the castle during the Showa period, the people mistakenly restored the Shachihoko Gawara that way by using only the ones with a closed mouth as a reference.

Shachihoko Gawara of Himeji Castle, installed on the roof as a protector against fires.

The gigantic, monumental Shachihoko Gawara in Shiromidai Park are life-size restorations of the ones installed on the main keep.

Moreover, in celebration of the 30th anniversary as a World Heritage Site, the inside of the six buildings, which are normally closed to the public, will be open to the public from August 11 through September 24, 2023, as part of a summer exhibition. The last time these six buildings were shown to the public at the same time was 14 years ago in 2009. Let’s not miss out on this special and valuable opportunity. At Himeji Castle, there are countless other fascinating things other than the ones introduced here. The castle looks magnificent, but there are also so many stories and so much history even behind each piece of tile and behind each stone of the stonewalls. In addition to shrines and hot springs, we highly recommend visiting castles when you come to Japan.

■Himeji Castle Address: 68 Honmachi, Himeji City, Hyogo Opening hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Last entry time is 4 p.m.) Fee: \1000 for adults, \300 for children (elementary, middle, and high schoolers) Official website: https://www.city.himeji.lg.jp/castle/ ▼Photo credit: Himeji City (Information as of July 2023)