World famous for its UNESCO World Heritage 'white heron' castle, Himeji is often relegated to a day trip for those staying in neighbouring Kansai. But beyond its magnificent castle lies a secret city. One with a history steeped in crafts and traditions, that rewards greater exploration.
Sake, swords and the iconic samurai have all played their part in shaping this small but important city.
In this Himeji City Guide, local resident and passionate advocate Gerard O'Sullivan guides us through Himeji's past and present, unveiling a vibrant city also offering a vast hidden Buddhist temple, a buzzing contemporary food scene and year round festivals.
Himeji City Guide
Secret City of Sake, Swords and Samurai
by Gerard O'Sullivan
Himeji City Guide: Introducing Himeji
Himeji is a city known for its magnificent Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. With a population of a little over 500,000 people, Himeji offers a blend of rich history, cultural attractions, and natural beauty.
Himeji’s White Heron Castle is one of Japan's most iconic landmarks. Its stunning architecture, surrounded by cherry blossom trees, makes it a must-visit destination for history enthusiasts and architecture lovers alike.
Where is Himeji?
Himeji is located in Hyogo Prefecture in the western part of Japan's main island, Honshu, just North of Shikoku and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea.
Situated between Osaka and Hiroshima, Himeji is right on the so-called Golden Route, making it easily accessible from major tourist cities such as Kyoto, and Osaka. It is one of that well-beaten path’s hidden gems.
The climate in Himeji
Himeji experiences a humid subtropical climate with hot summers and mild winters. Summers, from June to August, are hot and humid with occasional rainfall. The temperatures can reach around 30°C (86°F) during this time.
Winters, from December to February, are relatively mild with temperatures ranging from 5°C to 12°C (41°F to 54°F). Spring and autumn are considered the most pleasant seasons to visit Himeji, with comfortable temperatures and beautiful foliage.
When to visit Himeji City
The best time to visit Himeji is during spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November).
Spring brings cherry blossoms, when tourists and locals alike flock to the castle grounds to enjoy one of the best Hanami spots in Japan, while autumn showcases vibrant colours as the leaves change. These seasons offer pleasant weather for exploring the city's attractions and taking part in cultural festivals and activities.
Himeji Travel Guide: How to get around
One of the most convenient modes of transportation is the Himeji Loop Bus service. This bus route offers an easy and cost-effective way to access the city's main attractions. The Loop Bus stops at major tourist sites, including Himeji Castle, Koko-en Garden, and the Himeji City Zoo, making it an ideal option for travellers seeking to explore the city's highlights without the hassle of changing multiple modes of transportation.
Public buses, taxis, and walking are practical choices to move around beyond the Loop Bus route. Himeji's relatively compact layout and pedestrian-friendly streets make walking an enjoyable way to explore the city's local atmosphere and stumble upon small shops, cafes and restaurants.
If you prefer a more active experience, renting a bicycle can be an excellent choice. Himeji's relatively flat terrain and well-maintained cycling paths make it a cyclist-friendly city. Riding a bicycle allows you to leisurely explore the city at your own pace, providing the flexibility to discover those less well-known spots and charming neighborhoods that might be missed when using public transportation.
Top Attractions in Himeji
Himeji Castle is the main highlight of the city. The castle’s main keep dominates the city skyline, both day and night - when it is lit up. So it's worth staying the night to experience that. Its grandeur and historical significance attract visitors from around the world. UNESCO describes Himeji Castle as "the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture".
Known as the 'White Heron Castle', it is Japan's largest castle in original condition and stands out as the country's only castle recognised as a World Heritage Site. Its remarkable construction, combining defensive mechanisms with elegant beauty, makes it a true architectural masterpiece. Despite enduring earthquakes, firebombing, and even the threat of demolition, the castle has miraculously survived.
Himeji Castle also looms large in popular culture, serving as a backdrop for many films and TV, including the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice featuring Sean Connery, as well as scenes from two of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's greatest samurai epics, Ran and Kagemusha. It even stood in as Osaka Castle in the hit TV series Shogun.
These films and TV shows highlight the enduring appeal of Himeji Castle and its ability to captivate the imagination of audiences across generations. For ¥1,000 visitors can explore the castle's interior, which includes exhibits showcasing the castle's history and architecture. The castle is especially breathtaking during the cherry blossom season when the moat and gardens are framed with delicate shades of pink.
VIDEO: Discover Himeji Castle
Koko-en Garden: tranquility amidst nature
Adjacent to Himeji Castle is Koko-en, a traditional Japanese garden that spans over three hectares. It features nine separate gardens, each with its own unique design and landscape elements. Walking through Koko-en, visitors can experience the serenity and beauty of Japanese gardens, complete with meticulously manicured trees, ponds, and stone paths.
There is even a restaurant Katsui-Ken to take a vegetarian noodle, tempura course, or wagyu steak lunch while overlooking the main pond. Get the combined Gardens and Castle pass–just ¥50 extra than the castle-only entry fee.
Engyo-ji Temple: A spiritual mountain retreat
Perched on Mount Shosha, Engyo-ji Temple is a secluded Buddhist temple complex known for its stunning views and serene atmosphere. Engyo-ji Temple is also famous for its appearances in movies, including The Last Samurai and more recently Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
Accessible via a 25-minute bus ride and scenic cable car ride, the sprawling temple compound offers you a chance for an easy mountain walk to immerse yourself in the peaceful sounds of nature and experience the tranquility of a mountain retreat.If your schedule allows I recommend taking the time to rest a while and experience the meditative practice of shakyo - sutra copying.
LEARN MORE about Engyo-ji Temple: 7 Extraordinary Things To Do In Himeji (Beyond The Castle)
Myochin: from samurai swords to peaceful windchimes
This family of armorers has been working iron and steel, forging swords and armor for 53 generations. A legacy that stretches back to at least the mid-12th Century when Emperor Konoe praised their skills and gave them the family name that means "rare" and “bright”.
Nestled on the northern fringes of Himeji's urban limits this little-known, family-operated forge traces its lineage back to the Heian era (784–1184). And the Myochin family has upheld the skill of crafting armor and helmets through the generations since. Within this establishment, swords are meticulously shaped by hand, requiring approximately a month of dedicated work to complete, and they are made available for purchase at a price of approximately $25,000 each.
The sword forge is limited and strictly by appointment only, however their main workshop specialising in fine quality windchimes, is open to the public without appointment and easily accessible by taxi or bus.
Guided tours and experiences in Himeji
If you're looking for guided tours and experiences in Himeji, then Viator is definitely worth a look. Options include half and full-day tours with a government-licensed guide. As well as including the essential Himeji castle, you can also choose to visit a sake distillery, shrines and temples, the Museum of Literature, among other attractions.
If you'd like more control over your itinerary, then there's a private half-day custom tour that can be built around your particular interests and preferences.
What To Do In Himeji: Seasonal events and festivals
Himeji comes alive with vibrant festivals that celebrate the castle, the seasons, and its rich cultural heritage. One such festival is the Himeji Castle Festival, held annually in April. And the Yukata Matsuri, held during summer in the downtown area. Autumn brings the Harvest Moon Festival where you can sample many of the local sakes from half-a-dozen breweries.
A common feature of many of these festivals is traditional Japanese music such as taiko drummers filling the air with powerful rhythms as dancers perform traditional dances. During these events, the city is adorned with colorful decorations, and locals dressed in traditional attire can be seen on the streets. You will also usually find food stalls in Otemae Koen the large park across the street from Himeji castle.
Himeji Nada Kenka Matsuri (Fighting Festival)
The Nada Kenka Matsuri (Nada Fighting Festival) is an annual grand fall festival held October 14-15 at Matsubara Hachiman Shrine in the neighborhood of Shirahama in Himeji. As the name implies, the festival is a boisterous event that mixes participants with spectators, including a Shinto ritual with three mikoshi (portable shrines) smashing into each other and a float battle that involves intricately decorated floats from each town smashing together. When night falls, the floats are illuminated with electric and fire lanterns, creating a bright and lively atmosphere.
Sake: a toast to tradition
Hyogo is the No. 1 sake-producing prefecture in Japan. accounting for almost a third of all domestic sake production. The most popular strain of sake rice Yamada Nishiki was first cultivated in the region. In short, the region has its share of good breweries. So for sake lovers here is my top sake-tasting spots in Himeji City.
Nadagiku Sake Brewery: the French connection
In the heart of Himeji, the Nadagiku Sake Brewery is an easy 10-minute taxi ride from Himeji station south gate. Visitors can immerse themselves in the art of sake production, and take a tour through the facility, where old-time sake production equipment and buildings have been preserved as museum exhibits to show the painstaking lengths they used to go to, to create exquisite sake.
There's also an area devoted to the former (prodigal) son of this brewing family, Mikinosuke Kawaishi, who turned his back on sake and ran away to France to pursue his passion to teach Judo to the world. Kawaishi is responsible for spreading the seven-coloured belt system, familiar to anyone who has studied Japanese martial arts, and is known in France as 'The Father of French Judo'.
As a tribute to his legacy, a new sake named Judo won the first prize at the prestigious World Sake Concours in Paris in 2022. Raise a glass of Judo sake, celebrating both tradition and the enduring spirit of innovation. There is even an on-site restaurant Maegura with a great sukiyaki lunch course made with cotton candy and accompanied by in-house sake.
Honda Shouten: the power of the dragon
Step into Honda Shouten and immerse yourself in the world of sake at an industrial scale, where the Honda family has dedicated themselves to preserving traditional family techniques while constantly improving with the help of modern food science R&D. It all comes together to create a wide range of smooth and subtle-flavored offerings.
Located near Aboshi Station, (three stops, 10 minutes from Himeji station) Honda Shoten Sake Brewery is one of Himeji’s best-kept secrets. One of their flagship offerings is 龍力 Tatsuriki (meaning Dragon Power). Their sake is crafted with meticulous attention to detail using pure local water and hand-selected rice with attention paid even to the soil type of the field where the rice was grown.
They operate two tasting bars near the station and castle and can also be tasted at Kokoromi (see below).
Don’t have time for a brewery tour but want to sample the region's finest brews? Then drop into the sake-tasting haven Kokoromi. Just a stone's throw from Himeji JR station. This standing-only bar, is a veritable Hyogo sake library, offering a vast array of over 200 local sakes and liqueurs.
Equipped with a multilingual computer terminal for easy browsing, and starting at approximately ¥260 for a shot glass-sized serving, choosing from the impressive selection becomes an enjoyable challenge.
The friendly bartenders, armed with pocket translators, cater to both Japanese and non-Japanese speakers, ensuring a delightful exploration of the Hyogo sake collection. Not to mention the positively Instagrammable, futuristic decor.
Kokoromi is a must-visit destination for sake enthusiasts and sake-curious travellers in Himeji.
Day trips from Himeji
Japan Toy Museum
Located a short train ride (five stops 17 minutes) from Himeji on the Bantan line, the Japan Toy Museum is one man’s passion for toys turned into a family labor of love. Seguyoshi Inoue’s private collection now spreads over five buildings and offers a captivating experience for visitors of all ages. The extensive collection includes antique and folk toys from various Japanese prefectures and over 50 countries worldwide, evoking nostalgia for vintage toys and sparking curiosity in the hands-on play area.
Despite its slightly remote location, travellers can find their way from JR Koro station with the help of well-placed signs or smartphone map apps. They often have special exhibitions, and the museum shop offers handpicked toys and crafts from Mr. Inoue's global adventures.
Takeda Castle ruins - elusive 'Castle In The Sky'
This magical spot is every photographer’s dream (or possibly nightmare). At the right time of year (late autumn to winter), at the right time of day (early morning), and with the right weather conditions (a clear sunny day after a cold night) you too may capture a glimpse of a view that inspired one of Studio Ghibli’s most famous movies and lured many tourists to come to Japan.
Nestled amidst the lush mountains of northern Hyogo, the Takeda Castle ruins are a magnificent reminder of the region's turbulent history. Perched on a mountaintop, and shrouded in mist (should you be so lucky) the ruins evoke a sense of mystery and grandeur, reminiscent of a lost kingdom, and has been called the Machu Pichu of Japan.
It is said to be the inspiration for the floating city of Laputa in Hayao Miyazaki's renowned film. As the sun rises, the castle ruins are enveloped in a mesmerizing sea of clouds, creating a breathtaking spectacle known as the 'castle in the sky'.
For the best photo angle, I recommend the view from Ritsuunkyo, a nearby observation deck where you have a panoramic vista where you too may be lucky enough to capture the ethereal beauty of the castle ruins amidst the rolling clouds. At 1 hour and 20 minutes drive from Himeji it is an easy drive for those with cars. By train, it is a five hour round trip, so I would plan ahead and check conditions are really favorable, before making the journey by train.
Ieshima Island - scenic spot in the Seto Inland Sea
Separating the main island of Honshu and Shikoku Island is the Seto Inland Sea. Nestling in that stretch of water are 44 small islands, only four of which are inhabited. Ieshima is the largest of those inhabited islands, but at just 5.46 km², and with around 4,000 inhabitants, it's tiny in comparison its major neighbours.
Old castle ruins on Ieshima and other Edo-period remains make up the Ieshima Jukkei, a collection of 10 scenic spots in the islands. On Ieshima Island, a shrine dedicated to seafarers, Ieshima-jinja, has a 1,000 year old history, and the stones used to build Osaka Castle were quarried on the island. Ieshima Island is approximately a 30 minute ferry ride from Himeji Port.
Local delights: Exploring Himeji's culinary scene
Koba & More ramen shop
Located on Mizo Suji a side street not far from Himeji Castle is a delightful destination for ramen enthusiasts in search of a diverse range of flavors. Patrons are treated to a delectable selection of flavors, including Koba’s signature milk ramen, curry ramen, shoyu ramen, and choosey each leaving a lasting impression.
The gyozas and dumplings offered at the shop are particularly noteworthy, with their exquisite chili sauce that creates a harmonious blend of flavors. While it is important to note that the shop does not permit entry for children, and you must request permission before taking photos, the cozy ambiance of the establishment, accompanied by the soothing sounds of old-school jazz music, provides an inviting atmosphere for an unforgettable dining experience.
Koba & More is a must-visit destination for ramen aficionados exploring Himeji City. Of nearly 1,300 local restaurants on TripAdvisor K&M currently holds the top spot. Nuff said. Seating is limited so go early to avoid disappointment.
Kushiyaki Kobe beef: Western twist on Japanese wagyu beef
This cozy and unpretentious restaurant is located just a short walk from Himeji Castle's main entrance. Offering a range of dishes featuring wagyu and Kobe beef, their Kobe beef burger stands out as a delightful fusion of Western and Japanese flavors. The thin slices of carefully arranged Kobe beef, complemented by greens and a mayo sauce, create a delicious combination.
The burger comes with a tasty hash brown, completing the meal. While the atmosphere may be simple, the super-fast service from English-speaking staff and flavorsome food make Kushiyaki Kobebeef a worthwhile stop for anyone craving quality Kobe beef in various forms, from burgers to skewers and rice dishes.
Eki Soba: Old school train station buckwheat noodles
One key to a successful business is a good location with a lot of foot traffic and what better location than next to a train station? In the station right on the train platform that’s where! And this little stand-up noodle shop has been serving up hundreds of bowls of hot buckwheat noodles every day for more than 70 years.
Many a cold winter night in my youth have I grabbed a quick hot bowl of soba and tempura here between changing trains, wondering who else might have slurped one of the millions of bowls that preceded my own. You should too if you find yourself at the station waiting for your train with 10 minutes to spare. They also have a downtown location on the main street to the castle. It’s simple Japanese salaryman soul food.
Yamasa Kamaboko fishcake
About a 5-10 minute taxi ride from Mt Shosha bus stop is Yamasa Kamaboko, a fishcake factory that is popular with locals, but almost unknown to foreigners even those living here.You can try the freshly made fishcakes in a variety of flavors many only sold at their stores, and take them upstairs to eat in their beautiful eating area with a restful mountain view.
You can even take a tour of their factory to see how they make the cakes and at certain times of year, they have beautiful flower displays on their grounds that are free to view.If you can’t get to the factory but would like to try, there is a shop downtown on the main street, Otemae doori. Their mild almost sweet Jogamachi cheese dog is worth trying even if fishcake is not your cup of tea.
One cannot talk about Himeji local dishes without a mention of Himeji oden. Oden, is a traditional Japanese winter dish of boiled vegetables, konyaku, and fish cake but the local take on the dish is to add a ginger-infused soy sauce. If you are in the city during the colder months it is worth a try. And here are the best places to sample it.
Nadagiku Kappa Tei
Owned by the brewery of the same name (see above) their twist on the dish is to use the sake lees from the brewing process to make sauces and pair the oden with their sake offerings.
SEE ALSO: 15 Must-Try Japanese Foods
Notable downtown cafes and restaurants
Bakery Lamp - an array of delectable treats
Bakery Lamp is a hidden gem tucked away on a charming side street near Himeji Castle. This bakery/cafe offers an array of delectable treats, from freshly baked bread and pastries to mouthwatering burgers made with large beef patties and fresh veggies that really hit the spot.
The seasonal baked items, such as the chestnut and chocolate bun, are a must-try. Whether you're looking for a delightful breakfast, a quick takeaway to enjoy in the park, or a cozy spot to savor your treats, The menu is conveniently available in both Japanese and English, ensuring a pleasant experience for all visitors.
Hamamoto Coffee - Showa style and service
Showa style and service with a smile. Nestled in a side street halfway between the station and castle. This old-school cafe has been brewing cups of drip java for almost five decades. Its retro decor with wood panelling and marble counters is straight out of another decade and redolent with the aroma of coffee and nostalgia like taking a trip back in time.
The chilled-out atmosphere, friendly baristas, and coffee brewed with meticulous detail and tailored to the seasons may just make this a cherished memory for decades to come. And don't miss the almond toast, a local specialty.
Memme - beloved udon restaurant
Memme is a beloved udon noodle restaurant in Himeji, renowned for its flavorsome bowls that have been satisfying locals and visitors for over 40 years. Situated a short walk from Himeji Castle and the JR station, Memme offers a cozy atmosphere and an English menu for convenience. With their udon noodles made fresh right in front of you, it’s a culinary and visual experience.
The noodles are accompanied by a delicious broth and a range of toppings to choose from like raw egg, wakame, kamaboko, spring onions, curry, or my personal favorite topped with a thin slab of fried tofu known as kitsune udon. The springy texture of the noodles adds to the comforting taste and the reasonable prices make Memme a must-visit spot for udon enthusiasts seeking an authentic and delightful culinary experience.
Sakura Saku - top vegan recommendation
This is my top recommendation for vegan visitors. Tucked behind the souvenir shops and a little park facing the castle bridge and Gate is Sakura Saku.
This restaurant and greengrocer is dedicated to dishes made from the freshest local ingredients with a special emphasis on catering to various dietary needs. The standard set meal includes options like chicken or fish, but the friendly English-speaking hostess is more than happy to create delicious vegan or gluten-free options upon request, to ensure you have a fantastic meal.
The vegan meal prepared would make any carnivore reconsider their life choices. featuring an assortment of pickled vegetables, delicately fried tofu, sweet potato, salad, rice, fruit, and a warm cup of coffee or tea. Don't miss the chance to indulge in their mouthwatering desserts too. Sakura Saku is not only a culinary gem but also a place where you'll find genuine hospitality and enjoyable conversations.
If you need to get your caffeine fix on, or a western-style breakfast, the jet-black Smash Cafe is the perfect place to settle in for a chic, professional cafe experience, or grab a take-out coffee for your spin around the castle. They also have a smoking room as much of the downtown area and parks are no smoking zone.
Where to stay in Himeji
Due to its small size, accommodation in Himeji is more limited than its better-known, and larger, counterparts elsewhere in the country. However, a few of Japan's reliable hotel groups have hotels in the city, including Daiwa Roynet, Richmond and Nikko in the 3 and 4-star price range. All are centrally located.
If you're on a limited budget, take a look at the modest but quirky 588 Guest House. It gets a 'superb' 9/10 rating by guests who've stayed there.
How to get to Himeji
Himeji is well connected by the efficient Japanese railway system. Tokyo is around 3 hours away on the fastest Nozomi shinkansen, or 3.5 hours using Hikari services included in the Japan Rail Pass. From Kyoto, you can reach Himeji by bullet train in approximately 45 minutes.
From Hiroshima, the journey by bullet train takes around 1 hour and 15 minutes. Himeji Station is conveniently located near Himeji Castle and other major attractions, allowing for seamless exploration of the city. Use the Japan Route Planner site to check train services and timetables.
The nearest airport to Himeji is Kobe (UKB) Airport, 52 km away, but the largest close airport is Kansai International Airport (KIX) - 65.4 km, Osaka Itami (ITM) - 67.6 km, Okayama Momotaro (OKJ) - 77.6 km and Takamatsu (TAK) - 91.2 km. If you're travelling from overseas and heading for Himeji, then Osaka's Kansai International (KIX) is your best option.
For those traveling by car, Himeji is approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Osaka and can be reached via the Hanshin Expressway. From Hiroshima, it is approximately 180 kilometers (112 miles) east and can be accessed via the Sanyo Expressway.
Use a website such as 12GoAsia to check timetables to and from Himeji and reserve seats on highways buses.
I hope this Himeji city guide inspires you to add it to your next itinerary. If you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment below...
About the Author
Himeji resident for 20+ years, Gerard is a self-appointed Japan and Himeji ambassador and loves to share his passion. Since 2020 his Facebook Group Go To Japan has helped tourists find answers, ideas and tours that take them off the beaten path. He offers unique guided tour experiences in Himeji.
Location Guide Map: Himeji City
Visit Himeji (Official Travel Guide)
JNTO Himeji Guide
Things To Do In Himeji
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My List of Recommended Japan Travel Resources
Prepare For Your Himeji Trip
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