Himeji; Come for the Castle, Stay for the Sake

Himeji is a city famed for its castle. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s beautiful. Maybe even Japan’s most spectacular castle. Its grand size, beauty and immaculately preserved grounds have earned it the nickname ‘white heron castle’ for its pristine exterior that mimics the elegance of a heron in flight.

The castle is both a national treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage site and in contrast to most other of the Japan’s castles, it has never been destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and survives today as one of the country’s twelve original castles. Impressive. In 2015 it was fully reopened to the public after a huge renovation project to restore the interior and grounds, and it’s no wonder that the finished structure, a legacy from a ferocious time when samurais ruled the land, is so popular with tourists today.

The castle garden, Koko-en, is also a sight to behold. It’s pretty new compared the ancient castle itself, with the Japanese style garden opening in 1992 on the site of of the old feudal lord’s former residence (Nishi-Oyashiki). The Edo period design style has nine separate, walled gardens filled with flowers, ponds and even a tea garden where you can enjoy sencha and matcha amongst the beautiful natural scenery.

But there’s more to Himeji than this historic house. Take the Harima (the ancient name for Hyōgo) sake district, one of Japan’s most famous sake producing regions and often considered to be the birthplace of sake. According to ancient cultural records known as the Harima Fudoki (compiled around 1300 years ago in the Nara period), the process of making sake for the first time is described, at none other than Niwata Shrine, nestled on the edge of a tiny mountain town called Shiso-shi, which itself has a thriving sake-making industry today.

It was written in the Harima Fudoki that rice intended as an offering to the gods had been spoiled by mildew, so it was turned to sake (using the mildew, known as koji, a form of yeast) and instead this drink was used in a great feast that was held in honour of the gods. This is thought to be the first mention of using koji to ferment booze and people obviously enjoyed it as it’s now the most popular method in modern day sake production.

Today there are 22 towns and cities in the Harima region, spread out over three areas; West Harima (Isogawa and Chikusagawa river basins), East Harima (Yumesakigawa and Ichikawa Kakogawa river basins) and North Harima (Kakogawa river basin and Akashi). Each region has heaps of traditional, operational sake breweries, many of them with a rich history and time-honoured tradition of brewing perfectly-balanced sakes.

The area is very accessible from Himeji city, only a short car ride away and mainly clustered within pretty, well-preserved rural towns and villages, that show off a side of rural Japan filled with beloved breweries, bars and shops that are totally off the tourist track. I love driving through Japanese countryside too. The wilderness and mountains are like nothing I’ve seen before and their beauty is makes me want to pack up my things and become a recluse, surrounded by deep, ancient forests and breathtaking mountain scenes.

Hiring a car in Japan is easy, needing either a translated version of your current driving license, an International license or an International Driving Permit that you can pick up before you leave for your trip. Just search online to see the exact requirements for your home country and remember that drinking and driving is ILLEGAL in the country, so ALWAYS appoint a designated driver when visiting breweries!

Otherwise search online for the Harima Sake Culture Tourism group who run events like overnight sake stays to their one-day Harima Brewery Hop Bus Tour, where they do all of the hard work for you, taking in a selection of sights associated with the area’s famous sake production. What could be easier?!

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