It’s time for ‘Japan by Prefecture‘ again! This is the series that aims to provide the highlights of each prefecture of Japan, along with my personal favourites and suggestions from readers. This week, we’re looking at Hyogo (兵庫県).
Hyogo Prefecture is part of the Kansai Region (関西地方) and the capital is Kobe (神戸). I’ve been to some parts of Hyogo, but there are quite a few places in this prefecture that are still on my list. Thank you to Japan Australia, Artemis, Rosco, Alex, Zooming Japan and terikaormandi for making lots of great suggestions for this week’s post!
The most famous attraction in all of Hyogo Prefecture has to be Himeji Castle (姫路城) in Himeji (姫路). Himeji Castle is widely considered to be Japan’s most spectacular castle, and it is one of the few remaining original castles in Japan (dating back to 1333). I was lucky enough to visit the castle back in 2009, but since then it has undergone extensive renovation so I’m sure it looks even more wonderful now it has reopened. Himeji Castle is sometimes known as ‘Hakuro-jo’ (White Egret Castle) or ‘Shirasagi-jo’ (White Heron Castle) due to its brilliant white exterior.
If it’s castles you like, there are plenty in Hyogo. One other castle I think is really worth noting (though I’ve not been there yet) is Takeda Castle (竹田城 ), often called ‘The Castle in the Sky’ or ‘The Machu Picchu of Japan’. The ruins of Takeda Castle are in Asago (朝来市), in the north of Hyogo Prefecture. The castle was originally built as a stronghold of Izushi Castle in or around 1441. The castle was constructed on a mountain at the height of 353 meters above sea level, and in early autumn fog surrounds the castle each morning creating a view like you can see in the picture below. The castle has been abandoned since 1600.
Ako Castle (赤穂城) in Ako (赤穂市) is also worth a brief mention. This castle is smaller than those mentioned above, and was built between 1615 and 1648. It is famous for its associations with the classic tale of the forty-seven Ronin (四十七士). In 1702 the forty-seven Ronin avenged the death of their lord, Naganori Asano (浅野 長矩), the daimyo of Ako, by killing Yoshinaka Kira (吉良 義央). Their leader, Yoshio Oishi (大石 良雄), and there is a shrine called Oishi Shrine which stands in the grounds of Ako Castle where the Oishi mansion used to be. On 14th December there is an annual festival, the Ako Festival, which takes place at the shrine to commemorate the day the forty-seven Ronin attacked Kira. Ako Castle is often used as a location in movies portraying the story of the forty-seven Ronin. (Source: Japan Visitor)
Talking of movies, somewhere in Hyogo Prefecture that’s high on my list of places to visit it Mount Shosha (書写山) in Himeji. Mount Shosha is the site of Engyoji (円教寺), which is a temple complex with a history of more than 1,000 years. Although the ropeway for Mount Shosha is only about 30 minutes’ away from Himeji Station, it seems like a different world. The temple buildings are set in a beautiful, densely forested area, and it looks like a Japan of the past. This is why the area is often used for filming, and in fact it was used for some scenes of the Hollywood movie The Last Samurai.
Japan is full of picturesque hot spring towns, and one that comes highly recommended is Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉). Kinosaki Onsen is in northern Hyogo Prefecture, on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The town is built along a willow-lined river, and it’s one of those really traditional towns where everyone just puts on a yukata (light cotton kimono) and geta (wooden clogs) and strolls about from hot spring to hot spring.
I’ve not been to Kinosaki Onsen, but it’s supposed to be one of the best hot spring towns in Japan. Rather than everyone just staying in the one ryokan they have booked, the ryokans here encourage visitors to go out and visit other public baths, restaurants and shops, making a lively and fun atmosphere in the town. It also seems like a really pretty town which would be a lovely place to stay.
A place that many people forget is in Hyogo Prefecture, as it’s so close to Osaka, is Takarazuka (宝塚). The city is famous for two things: being the place in which manga artist Osamu Tezuka (手塚 治虫) was born, and being the home of the Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団).
Osamu Tezuka is most famous for his creation Astro Boy or Mighty Atom (鉄腕アトム), a series which was around from 1952 to 1968 in Japan, but is still popular today. Tezuka is often called ‘the father (or godfather) of manga/anime’, and is considered the Japanese equivalent to Walt Disney by many fans. There is a museum, the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum, in Takarazuka.
The Takarazuka Revue, which is also something Takarazuka is famous for, is an all-female musical theatre troupe who have their own theatre in the city (as well as one in Tokyo). I would absolutely love to go and see one of their shows one day, as they look absolutely spectacular. Takarazuka performers have fan clubs and cult followings, and tickets can be hard to get. Here’s a clip I found on YouTube to show you what it’s all about:
The capital of Hyogo Precture, Kobe (神戸), is a fantastic and often neglected city. I’m biased, as I love a port city, but I really enjoyed my visit to Kobe in 2009. Kobe is the sixth largest city in Japan, and yet many people bypass it in favour of Kyoto and Osaka when visiting Japan. It’s a pretty modern city, but also has some really quirky and unique elements. Kobe Port was among the first to be opened to foreign trade in the 19th century, and the foreign influences are evident in the architecture and food available there.
Personally I love the look of the harbour area, but actually I didn’t visit there when I went to Kobe. I visited the famous Chinatown, Nankinmachi (南京町), and also Kitano-cho (北野町), the former residential area of foreign merchants.
Between Kobe and Awaji Island (淡路島) lies the world’s longest suspension bridge, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (明石海峡大橋). The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge is about four kilometres long, and is part of the Kobe-Awaji-Naruto Expressway which connects Honshu with Shikoku. I’m hoping I might be able to take a highway bus across this route later this year, but I’m not sure if it will fit into my plans yet.
Awaji Island is the last part of Hyogo Prefecture I will mention. The island sits in the eastern part of the Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海) between Honshu and Shikoku. It is the largest of the Inland Sea’s islands. I hadn’t ever really thought about this island until I heard that Tadao Ando (安藤 忠雄), a famous Japanese architect, had designed several structures on the island. The most famous of these is the Honpuku-ji water temple (本福寺). I’m not a massive fan of Ando, but for those that are this is certainly a reason to visit Awaji Island.
So, it appears Hyogo Prefecture is jam-packed with things to see and do! Whether you like ancient castles, temples on mountains, modern cities, art, architecture or theatre – there’s something for everyone!
The Omiyage Section
Whilst not really a souvenir (or ‘omiyage’ / おみやげ), Kobe beef is one of the most famous food products to come out of Hyogo Prefecture, so I think it deserves a mention. I wouldn’t recommend trying to smuggle some home in your suitcase though! As a non-meat eater, when I visited Kobe I prefered to indulge in the cheesecake and Kobe Pudding Kit Kats. Kinosaki is known for its straw works, as pictured below. Lots of souvenirs are, of course, available in Himeji, including cute items with the castle on them and some more classic-style castle souvenirs. Many of the products will feature Himeji’s character, Shiromaruhime, who is really cute!
Next week I will be writing about Nara (奈良県). Have you been there? What’s good to eat there and what omiyage should I buy? What are the best sightseeing spots or hidden gems? Please do share your thoughts below, and join me next week for Japan by Prefecture!