Himeji Castle, the white castle
Himeji Castle or also nicknamed “White Heron Castle” is located in the town of Himeji, in Hyogo Prefecture. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993 and it is one of Japan’s three most famous castles, along with Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle.
It should be noted that in Japan most castles are replicas of old castles that were destroyed by fire, earthquake or war. However, Himeji Castle is the original. It was first built in 1346 and is now one of the oldest structures in medieval Japan.
The castle is situated on a hill. The area surrounding the main tower is a labyrinth of gates, passageways, walls and secret rooms that made it difficult for the invader to enter the castle and made it easier for defenders to attack them by surprise.
Where to stay in Himeji?
If you don’t have too much time, you don’t need to stay a night in Himeji. You can see the castle in the morning and at noon you can go and see Okayama Castle. So you will see two castles in one day, one white and one black.
However, if you travel with time and feel like staying over in Himeji you won’t find much variety of hostels. In my case, I stayed at the One Hostel & Standing Bar. It cost me 2500 yen (20 euros) one night. It seemed very expensive for what it was but the location, close to the castle, was unbeatable.
What’s the cheapest way to get to Himeji from Kyoto?
In my case that I went without the JR Pass I was always looking for the cheapest way to move around Japan. To go from Kyoto to Himeji, I took the Hankyu line to Umeda station in Osaka for 400 yen (3.2 euros).
Then I got out of the subway and went to the train station which is only 10 minutes walk from the Umeda station. If you follow the signs in search of the Hanshi train line you will not be lost. Once I reached the entrance gates to the Hanshi tracks, I bought the ticket to Himeji in the vending machines for 1280 yen (10 euros).
Okayama Castle, the black castle
Okayama is only 90 km south of Himeji. If you want to escape from Japan’s most popular tourist routes, this is a good place. Yet in Okayama there is not much to see. Highlights include Okayama Castle and Korakuen Gardens, both built during the Edo period (1603-1868).
Okayama Castle is a replica built in 1966 as in 1945 the original castle was bombarded by Allied troops during World War II. Korakuen Gardens are privileged to be among the top three gardens in Japan, along with Kenrokuen Gardens in Kanazawa City and Kairakuen Gardens in Mito City.
The tale of Momotaro
Okayama is also known in Japan as the place where the tale of Momotaro, the peach child, one of the most famous traditional tales in the country, takes place. It is about a family that cannot have children and are blessed with a child born of a peach. The story recounts the misadventures of this child as he grows up to become a national hero. Here you have a link to a video about the tale of Momotaro.
How to get there and where to stay in Okayama?
From Himeji I took the one and a half hour train to Okayama for 1390 yen (11.2 euros). You can stay overnight in Okayama or Kurashiki, a small village with a nice old town with traditional Japanese houses and canals where you can take a boat ride if you like.
Accommodation in both Okayama and Kurashiki is quite expensive. At Okayama prices do not fall below 20 euros per night and at Kurashiki they do not fall below 30 euros. That’s why and because I was a little bored of traveling only I decided to do Couchsurfing. For those who don’t know, the Couchsurfing platform is an ideal place to meet other travelers, meet local people while you are traveling and even stay with them.
Kurashiki, the old town
In Kurashiki I stayed two nights at the house of a rather nice Japanese boy. He worked in Okayama, so I stopped there to meet him. The first day, he left me his bike to go see Okayama Castle and took me out for a drink at night.
The second day, already in Kurashiki, as he returned to Okayama to work, I spent the day looking at the old part of the city. Around the old town there are many museums, shrines and even a small typical Japanese garden perfect for relaxing for a while.
Among the three places, Kurashiki was the most beautiful. Above all, if you are one of those who likes to visit traditional places to imagine what Japan would be like in the past, this is an almost obligatory place for you.
Personal opinion about Himeji, Okayama and Kurashiki Castle
The two days I spent in these most unknown cities were quite entertaining. I enjoyed getting to know a part of Japan that was more traditional and less touristy than the other places I had been before. Of course I liked Himeji Castle more than Okayama Castle and I liked Kurashiki City more than Himeji and Okayama. Here I leave you a small video that I made where you can see a little bit of each place.
However, I found it annoying that when I left the tourist areas everything was much more expensive. You can see that they take advantage of the fact that there is not a lot of competition and not a lot of options to choose from.
In spite of that, these three places made me curious about the countryside of Japan so on my way to Hiroshima I decided to make a short stop at Onomichi. This small coastal town would end up becoming one of the places I liked the most in this country. In my next post I will tell you about this charming place in every corner and every temple.
Time always flows with inverse speed to the need of the one who lives it.
(Carlos Ruiz Zafón)