Himeji is Hyogo Prefecture's second largest city by population and has been the center of the historical Harima Province for over a thousand years. It is most famous for its history as a castle town and the location of Himeji Castle, one of Japan's most famous World Heritage Sites. Himeji is the principal city in Western Hyogo and balances out Kobe's dominant presence in the east. But where Kobe feels modern and cosmopolitan, Himeji feels distinctively historical. In addition to the castle, it boasts a number of other famous sites and activities, making it a must-stop on any trip through Western Japan.
Visitors who arrive by train can exit Himeji Station to the north and almost immediately be able to see Himeji Castle in the distance. It's about a fifteen minute walk along wide sidewalks lined with benches and various bronze sculptures. Alternatively, you can walk one block east of the main road and go to the castle via the shōtengai, or covered shopping street. In many cities across Japan, shōtengai are going out of style in favor of modern shopping centers, but Himeji's is still thriving. You can expect to find many unique shops, restaurants, and cafes as well as access to both the Yamatoyashiki Department Store and the more modern Forus shopping center.
Himeji Castle is the biggest draw to Himeji and for good reason. It is Japan's largest, most visited castle and one of the first structures in the country to be registered as a World Heritage Site. Many people gather for special events on the castle grounds, and it is one of Hyogo's most popular places for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing picnics. Sections of the castle are currently under a five-year restoration project, but this should in no way keep you from visiting. Adjacent to the castle you can also visit Koko-en, a traditional Japanese garden.
Himeji's other main attraction is Mount Shosha and Engyo-ji Temple. The temple complex has a history going back over 2,000 years and is composed of a variety of buildings that stretch across the mountain. The serene setting atop Mount Shosha has been used as a filming location a number of times, most notably for The Last Samurai in 2003. Mount Shosha is one of the best places in Hyogo Prefecture to take in the changing autumn colors.
Himeji also offers a myriad of other museums and attractions including the Himeji City Zoo and Himeji City Aquarium, Himeji Central Park (amusement and safari park), Himeji City Museum of Literature, Himeji City Museum of Art, Himeji City Art and Craft Museum, and the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History.
Himeji's most famous annual festival is the Nada No Kenka Matsuri, Japan's largest fighting festival. At many autumn festivals in Japan, men carry mikoshi, or portable shrines, through the streets. During a fighting festival, multiple shrines are intentionally rammed into each other instead of just parading. It is worth a special trip in October to experience the Nada fighting festival.
Himeji Station is a bullet train stop, which makes it a convenient stopping point for those travelers taking the bullet train from Tokyo or Kyoto to Hiroshima. Many visitors try to squeeze in a quick stop to the castle as they pass through, but the sights, history, shopping, restaurants, and ambiance of Himeji make it well worth spending the night and seeing what the city really has to offer.