Himeji, the second biggest city in the prefecture of Hyogo, is within easy reach of popular tourist hotspots like Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto, meaning it’s a great place to slot into any travel itinerary of the Kansai region. It is mostly known for its magnificent castle, and rightly so, being one of the best examples of a surviving feudal castle in all of Japan, but there are two other not-so-famous, albeit just as magical, places within the city limits that are well worth checking out. They are Kokoen Garden and Engyoji Temple. Along with the castle, these make up Himeji’s Big Three Must-See Attractions. In this article we will break each one down and see what they have to offer.
Himeji Castle and its thick stone walls that acted as a fortification during feudal times
The complex detail within the structure of the various buildings makes for some great photography, and offers excellent insight into the construction techniques used in traditional Japanese architecture
The main keep at Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle, or as it’s often referred to, White Heron Castle (due to its brilliant white exterior that is believed to resemble the shape of a bird taking flight), is an exceptionally good example of a feudal era Japanese castle. It was originally constructed in 1333, but underwent several phases of reconstruction up until the early 1600s, when the site was expanded into what stands today.
The castle and its sprawling grounds are both a national treasure and a listed world heritage site. It is the largest and most visited castle in all of Japan. The complex consists of over eighty buildings that are spread across multiple baileys, and connected by a series of winding paths. It has one main entrance that is free to enter, and then another entrance that brings into the castle proper, this one requires a small fee.
The complex surrounding the main keep is made up of a series of winding paths that lead to various outposts
The view of Himeji Castle from the castle grounds. Stone fish like the two featured here are usually used as roof ornaments on Japanese castles, they are believed to protect the building from fire
At the heart of the castle complex stands the main keep, which is a six-story building, surrounded by what can sometimes feel like a labyrinth of gates and baileys, designed to keep intruders at bay. The main keep can be accessed via the first floor, visitors can then climb steep steps to the upper floors. There are little furnishings inside the main keep, although there are multilingual signs explaining various aspects of the architecture employed to not only make the castle, but also preserve its structure. The uppermost floor allows great views across Himeji City.
Himeji Castle is also a popular site for cherry blossom viewing during the spring, with more than 1000 cherry trees inside the grounds.
Also within the castle grounds is the small, but beautifully kept Gokoku Shrine, a tranquil Shinto Shrine just minutes from the castle. Traditional Japanese weddings are often held here, if you’re lucky you may get to witness one too!
Gokoku Shrine, which can be found just minutes from Himeji Castle
Gokoku Shrine, which can be found just minutes from Himeji Castle
Kokoen is situated to the west of Himeji Castle
Although relatively new the garden does a great job of seamlessly incorporating various landscaping techniques from the Edo period
Located approximately 100 meters from the entrance to Himeji Castle is this relatively new (constructed in 1992), but very well-maintained Japanese Garden, designed in various styles of the Edo period to match the castle which is a few minutes away by foot, and often in view beyond the bounds of the garden. It is a great place to stroll and see various elements of Japanese landscaping up close.
Large stepping-stones lead you across ponds and into different sections of the garden
Kokoen Garden has a large pond filled with Koi Carp
The garden has been designed to reflect the best of the four seasons
Kokoen Garden is located on the former site of the west residence of Himeji Castle’s daimyo lord. A total of nine separated gardens have been designed to allow great views of the castle which acts as part of its backdrop. The gardens include a water garden, tea garden, bamboo garden and flower garden. They have been designed to reflect the best of each of the four seasons. The total size of Kokoen Garden is 8.5 acres, allowing for lots to see over the course of a 1-2 hour visit. A teahouse also serves green tea and traditional Japanese sweets, to add to the experience. There is also a Japanese restaurant on the premises.
The entrance to the teahouse has been constructed to blend well with its surroundings
There are plenty of relaxing places to sit and take in the scenery and wildlife at Kokoen Garden
Engyoji and Mt. Shosha
Part of the Engyoji Temple complex
Paper lanterns hang outside the main temple building - Maniden
The complex has a genuine feeling of “Old Japan” making it a popular filming location
Engyoji is a Buddhist Temple with a history of over 1000 years (constructed in 966) situated on Mt Shosha, approximately 6km north of Himeji Castle. The temple complex and its various buildings are spread over a spacious, forested area on the mountaintop (371 meters elevation). The foot of the mountain can be accessed in about thirty minutes from downtown Himeji (Himeji Station and Castle), and the temple itself can be reached either by cable car from the bottom or by hiking the one mile trail, which takes approximately fifty minutes.
The main building inside the complex, known as Maniden, is a beautiful wooden temple hall, constructed on large wooden pillars on a steep slope. A short walk beyond this will take you to several other large wooden temple buildings, each with their own unique and mystical feel.
The main hall, Maniden, is constructed on a complex assortment of wooden beams and pillars
The entrance to the main temple building, Maniden
Inside Maniden Buddhist Monks can sign your Goshuincho book
Due to its magnificent scenery and the genuine feel of “old Japan” that can be found at Engyoji, it is often used as a filming location for Japanese period dramas, and was even used in the Hollywood Blockbuster, The Last Samurai featuring Tom Cruise, which was filmed in part here in 2003.
The Ropeway that can be used to access the mountaintop was constructed in the 1950s, it uses two cable cars, that can carry up to 60 passengers each. From the top of the cable car there is a shuttlebus that will take you to the temple, it is however a pleasant walk from the bottom to top, so neither the ropeway nor bus are absolutely necessary.
One of several smaller temple buildings that sit beyond the main Maniden Hall
A moss-covered stone lantern in the thick forest that surrounds the temple complex
Two stone lions guard the entrance to one of the smaller temple buildings