Of Japan’s twelve surviving feudal-era fortresses, by far the most impressive is the one in HIMEJI (姫路), 55km west of Kōbe. The fortress, Himeji-jō, made the memorable backdrop to the Bond adventure You Only Live Twice, as well as countless feudal-era dramas and the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, part of which was also filmed here and around the city. The splendid gabled donjons of Himeji-jō – also known as Shirasagi-jō, or “white egret castle”, since the complex is supposed to resemble the shape of the bird in flight – miraculously survived the World War II bombings that laid waste to much of the city, and in 1993 it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Major renovation work is currently taking place at Himeji-jō on the central donjon, and isn’t due for completion until sometime in 2016. During this period, visitors will still be able to enter the castle, and also inspect the repair process from inside protective scaffolding that will cover the donjon. While here, it’s worth visiting the beautiful Himeji Kōko-en, nine linked traditional-style gardens, and there’s also a couple of intriguing museums around the fortress walls.

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