As soon as you exit from Himeji Station, you'll see Himeji Castle straight ahead at the end of a wide boulevard called Otemae Dori. Perhaps the most beautiful castle in all of Japan, Himeji Castle is nicknamed "White Heron Castle" in reference to its white walls, which stretch out on either side of the main donjon and resemble a white heron poised in flight over the plain. Whether it looks to you like a heron or a castle, the view of the white five-story donjon under a blue sky is striking, especially when the area's 1,000 cherry trees are in bloom. This is also one of the few castles in Japan that has remained virtually as it was since its completion in 1618, surviving even the World War II bombings that laid Himeji city in ruins. From 1956 to 1964, the castle underwent massive restoration, during which parts were totally disassembled and then rebuilt using traditional methods. In 1993, the castle, along with Horyuji Temple in Nara, became Japan's first UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.

Originating as a fort in the 14th century, Himeji Castle took a more majestic form in 1581 when a three-story donjon was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during one of his military campaigns in the district. In the early 1600s, the castle became the residence of Ikeda Terumasa, one of Hideyoshi's generals and a son-in-law of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He remodeled the castle into its present five-story structure. With its extensive gates, three moats, turrets, and a secret entrance, it had one of the most sophisticated defense systems in Japan. The maze of passageways leading to the donjon was so complicated that intruders would find themselves trapped in dead ends. The castle walls were constructed with square or circular holes through which gun muzzles could poke; the rectangular holes were for archers. There were also drop chutes where stones or boiling water could be dumped on enemies trying to scale the walls.

On weekends (and sometimes weekdays), volunteers hang around the castle ticket office and are willing to guide tours of the castle for free. It gives them an opportunity to practice their English while you learn about the history of the castle and even old castle gossip. But even if you go on your own, you won't have any problems learning about the history of the castle, as there are good English-language explanations throughout the castle grounds. With or without a guide, you'll spend at least 2 hours here. But beware, there are lots of stairs. Tip: A combination ticket, allowing discounted admission to both the castle and Koko-en, is available at either entrance. Note: Himeji Castle is under renovation until March 2014, during which parts of the castle may be restricted to visitors. An observation area, however, will allow visitors to observe the repair process utilizing traditional techniques.