Himeji is the second largest city of Hyogo Prefecture after Kobe and it is less than one hour away from Osaka. With this in mind, the city is a must if you’re in the Kansai area with an afternoon to spare. Himeji Castle may be one of the most beautiful and well preserved castles in all of Japan, so if you’re fond of Japanese history and feudal-era architecture, this national treasure and world heritage site ought to be on your itinerary.
Getting from Osaka to Himeji (more on Kobe later) is really easy – you can either take the shinkansen from Shin-Osaka which takes 30-40 minutes (I would only advise this if you have a rail pass because it’s quite expensive otherwise), or you can take the JR Kobe Line which takes about an hour. There is a third option – a direct limited express from Hanshin Osaka-Umeda Station to Sanyo Himeji Station – but the journey is 30 minutes longer than the JR Kobe line for only 200 yen less. I’d therefore recommend the JR Kobe Line (you can also get this train if you have a JR pass).
A tip! If you get the JR Kobe line or the direct limited express, try to get a seat on the left hand side of the train (facing the direction of travel) – you’ll be rewarded with some awesome views of Osaka Bay and the suspension bridge across to Awaji Island.
Himeji City Tourist Information Center is on the ground floor of Himeji Station near the North Exit. The centre has English speaking staff, free maps, free Wi-Fi, and a limited number of bicycles which can be borrowed for free. There is a retro style sightseeing loop bus – one ride costs 100 yen for adults or 50 yen for children. There is also a Day Pass which costs 300 yen for adults and 150 yen for children. The Day Pass includes some discounts on entry into Himeji Castle, Kokoen Garden, and Himeji City Museum of Art.
The north exit is also where you want to go if you want to walk up to the castle instead of using the bus – it’s a flat, 20 minute walk and it’s quite pleasant to see the castle at the end of the road.
Though Himeji Castle’s history dates back to 1333, it was rebuilt, remodelled and expanded many times and its current form dates back to the early 17th century. Incredibly, the castle survived a direct bombing during World War Two, when a bomb dropped in the area miraculously failed to explode. There are often wait times to get to the main keep (when we went it was an hour), so allow around 2 hours to visit the castle unless you don’t intend to go inside. I would recommend going to the top if you can – the views are amazing. Admission is 600yen and they regularly conduct guided tours in a number of languages (including English).
There is, of course, much more to Himeji than its castle – there’s also the nearby gate of So-sha shrine, and we walked back through Miyuki-dori, a long shopping arcade full of food and goods. There’s also a zoo, Kokoen Garden, the museum and the nearby coast.
My recommendation would be to stop at Kobe on your way back through. We left Himeji as the sun was setting but by the end of the 40 minute journey to Kobe, it was dark (in Japan during winter, it’s usually dark by 5pm). We therefore only had a few hours in which to do anything, so we decided to skip Kobe Station and head for Sannomiya. From there, we got a city loop bus to the Mount Maya Ropeway and boy, were we glad we did! Here’s a little infographic on the buses and the ropeway:
To get to the top you rid a cable car then a ropeway – I think all in it was around 1500 yen per person? The views once you get to the top are totally worth it. You can see right across Kobe, Osaka Bay and even as far as Kansai Airport. Because we were there at night, we were treated to an awesome view of the city lit up. Usually the cable car/ropeway shut at 5pm but over new years they were open until 8pm. At the top of it all is a really cute cafe serving all sorts of food (we had cocoa and scones!). In summer they also offer yakiniku out on the terrace – what a view to accompany your BBQ! After an hour or so, we decided to head back down to Kobe city, have some dinner and catch the train to Osaka.
There is much more you can do in a day between Himeji and Kobe, especially the latter. We didn’t leave Osaka until lunchtime, so if we had been inclined to leave that morning, we could’ve really explored Kobe. I’ll be going back for sure! I hope you will consider going to Himeji and Kobe the next time you’re in Osaka – both cities are definitely worth the journey.