Himeji Castle, also called Shirasagijo (White Heron Castle) due to its white outer walls, is the best preserved castle in all of Japan. It serves as a classic example of Japanese castle architecture and in 1931 it was designated a national treasure. Himeji Castle was originally built in 1346 by Akamatsu Sadanori as a fortification against local shoguns. After the emperor, Nobunaga Oda, took control of the Harima district in 1577, he placed Hideyoshi in control of the castle, who converted the fortified building into a castle with over 30 turrets.
In 1601, Ikeda Terumasa (1564-1613) was handed control of Himeji Castle as a gift for his support of Ieyasu Tokugawa in the Sekigahara battle against the Toyotomi Daimyo. He intended to model the castle after the emperor's own castle at Azuchi. He undertook a nine year construction program, at the end of which Himeji Castle assumed its present day form. The area which Terumasa ruled over, the districts of Harima, Bizen, and Awaji, was filled with sympathizers of the Toyotomi clan. Thus Himeji Castle played a crucial role in enabling Terumasa to assert his rule over the districts. Some historians believe over 25,000,000 man days were spent on the construction of the castle, which included a five-storied tenshu and a middle and outer moat. Materials from Hideyoshi's old fortress were used in the construction of the castle which was ironically used to prevent Hideyoshi's son from communicating with the lords in the west. Several families took control of the castle after Terumasa, including the Honda, Okudaira, Matsudaira, Sakakibara, and Sakai.
Himeji Castle is a hill castle located on the Harima plain. Actually the main complex, which consists of one main donjon and three secondary ones, is located on two hills. The main tower, almost 150 feet tall, is located on one hill and the western tower is located on the other. The size of the entire complex is 140 meters on the east-west axis and 125 meters on the north-south axis. The main tower is connected by corridors and passages (wateriyagura) to the other three towers, forming an inner court. At the base of the main tower once stood a palace, which was later destroyed by fire. In the southeast corner of the court is an area called harakiri-maru, which was where a samurai would commit suicide. The main donjon consists of seven floors, five of which are visible. The tower is strengthened by two wood columns that run from the fifteen meter stone foundation to the roof. The eastern and western towers consists of four floors, three of which are visible. The northwestern tower has five floors, only three of which are visible from outside.
In addition to the main complex there are several other buildings at Himeji Castle, which are serve as residences and storehouses. These buildings are enclosed by the the middle and outer moat, as well as stone walls. These buildings are also connected to one another by corridors and passages. The design of Himeji Castle is that of a spiral with the main complex located in the center, which the remaining buildings surround and protect.
Himeji Castle was originally intended as a defensive fortification, though it was never actually used in a battle and thus has remained in its present shape for over three hundred years.
From its initial construction by Akamatsu Sadanori in 1346 to Ikeda Terumasa's additional building in 1613, military function dictated the design of the castle.
The location of the castle is the most influential element in determining its strategic importance. Himeji is a hill castle that employs the surrounding geography as a bulwark against an enemy attack. The three moats -- inner, middle, and outer -- serve as three lines of defense. The moats were always full of water and prevented the enemy from completing an attack or siege in a short period of time. The rational behind the moats was that the enemy would be forced to unload materials and supplies and then to transport them across the water in a slow and inefficient manner. By the time the enemy had gotten past the third moat, their strength and reserves were considerably lessened.
Besides the use of its natural surroundings, the architects of Himeji also employed contemporary castle technology so as to make Himeji near impenetrable. The fifteen-meter sloping stone walls make it impossible for the approaching enemy to view the castle directly from the base of the walls. The wandering passages of the castle are intended to confuse an enemy unfamiliar with the layout. The 84 gates are very heavily fortified by wood and stone as well as very small so as to make it difficult to move a great many men through at one time. There are openings (ishiotoshi) in the walls of the main complex for throwing stones and scalding water. There are also holes (sama) from which rifles and arrows can be shot. Passages connecting the four towers allow easy access and mobility. There is a residence for the lord of the castle, as well as a kitchen and a storehouse for supplies. The integration of nature and technology in Himeji Castle creates a physical and psychological barrier designed to confuse and exhaust the enemy.
The beauty of this castle is unrivalled throughout Japan and the condition of surviving structures is amazing. Even for someone who is not particularly interested in castles or history, a trip to Himeji Castle is fascinating. This can be a half day side trip on the way to Hiroshima or a short day trip from Osaka or Kyoto.

When planning to visit Himeji Castle be sure to allow enough time to see the Castle Gardens.

Himeji Castle Restoration
If you are thinking about visiting Himeji Castle in the next few of years, please be aware that they will be conducting restoration on the main keep from October 2009 until 2014. See the English link below for more details.

Renovation of Himeji Castle Main Keep