Castles are not the first things you think of when thinking of Japan, but this country has some amazing, original castles straight from the 16th and 17th century to keep every historically inclined traveller busy for days. You can even dress up in a Kimono and spend the day taking pictures at Osaka Castle!
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
At 480 meters, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle (also known as Takahashi Castle) is the highest castle in Japan, built atop a rocky cliff. The castle is located in Takahashi, in the Okayama Prefecture. Takahashi Muneyasu built the first castle on this site in 1331. The castle that stands there today was built in 1683 by Mizunoya. The castle is quite small compared to others in Japan but the towering stone walls makes this a must-see. The ruins of the ootemon gate stands at the entrance. Head to the back of the castle for the best view of the original yagura.
The main keep of Hikone-jo Castle in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, was constructed by making use of a number of different types of gables and construction techniques to make it well fortified. The yagura and main keep are National Treasures. The donjon is still made from its original wood, as is the moat network. Some parts of the castle like the go’ten, or castle palace, has been reconstructed. While there isn’t as much to see in the keep as in other castles, the grounds and external structures are very impressive, and even hosts cherry blossoms in the spring. The site hosts a museum in the reconstructed part of the go’ten. Here visitors can see artifacts, noh-theatre and music instruments as well as objects used during tea ceremonies.
Building on Hirosaki Castle (also known as Tsugaru Nobuhira) started in 1603 and concluded in 1611 (with a 3-year break inbetween). The castle, located in Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture, was built using materials from Horikoshi and Daikoji castles. The original 5-storey keep was destroyed in a fire in 1627. Today the renovated Ninomaru tasumi yagura watchtower serves as the 3- storey keep. Hirosaki Castle is a historical treasure of the Tohoku region and hosts an annual cherry blossom festival – with over 2600 cherry trees displaying their blooms.
The buildings and walls of the castle are unique and hosts 9 castle structures which includes the main keep, 5 original yaguramon gate houses and a 3 yagura. The entire castle was rebuilt in 1810 and the original ceramic roof tiles were replaced with copper, giving the castle a unique look. The area around the castle is known for its apples- said to be the best in Japan and offer tasty treats and apple juice for hungry and thirsty travellers.
Originally built in 1537, Inuyama Castle (also known as Hakutei-jo) was the only privately owned castle in Japan. It has recently been sold to the city of Inuyama and will be taken over by the Aichi Prefecture. The main keep of the castle came from a different castle, called Kanayama Castle. The views from the top of the castle is spectacular. There are two museums in the old part of town. One has a display of karakuri ningyō while the other focuses on the castle town in its peak.
Iyo Matsuyama Castle
The main keep was destroyed in a fire caused by lightning in 1784. Construction of the current keep was completed in 1854. The castle was handed over to the city of Matsuyama in 1923 and have been undergoing restoration since 1966. The castle gates are opened with a ceremony each day where beating drums can be heard while a castle guard announces the opening of the castle. There is a Honmaru (main bailey), the main keep, Ninomaru (second bailey), Ushitora Gatehouse, Kuromon (Kuromon Gate) ruins and kokuins (carved insignias).
A panoramic view of the castle and surrounding buildings can be seen from the large Sannomaru, or third bailey. Iyo Matsuyama Castle boasts the longest curtain wall of all the castles in Japan, running all the way from Ninomaru nearly to the Otemon Gate ruin.
The area near Nohara Yagura offer views where the wall is higher- offering opportunities to take even more impressive photographs.
In 1615 Marugame Castle in Marugame in the Kagawa Prefecture was decommissioned to comply with the one-castle-per-country law. It was reinstated in 1641 by Yamazakie leharu who built the structures seen today. The original keep is the smallest in Japan, but being built on the top of the only mountain in the area, it offers amazing views.
Nearly 2 thirds of the hill atop which Marugame Castle sits in encased in ishigaki (stone wall), surrounded by a moat. Concentric tiers of stone rise up from the surroundings, creating a very impressive sight.
A masugata defensive courtyard is formed by the nozura-zumi, uchikomi-hagi and kirikomi-hagi. – Ōteichinomon and Ōteninomon (first and secondary main gate). The guard’s house, go’den and udon can also be explored.
The original castle was built in 1611, mostly destroyed in a fire in 1727 and rebuilt between 1748 and 1753. The current main keep dates from this time. Interestingly all the structures from the original honmaru and palace can be seen today. The Tsumemon gate is an interesting feature that splits the honmaru and ninomaru into two- leading attackers to believe that they were entering the inner enclosures of the castle.
Japanese castles used channels dug into the ground and built into stone walls (ishigaki), called ishidoi to channel ground water away from the baileys. This prevented landslides. Kochi Castle offer a chance to see excellent examples of these.
Another unique feature at Kochi Castle are the “ninja-gaeshi” – iron spikes on the outside of the donjon to keep ninjas from entering.
Maruoka Castle in Sakai in the Fukui Prefecture was originally built in 1576. In 1948 the castle was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt using 80% of its original materials in 1955. The 3-storeyd keep has its original wood interior and stone-tile roof. The interior stairway is super steep with a rope for assistance.
Maruoka Castle is an Important Cultural Property and a small museum beneath the keep has a number of artifacts on display, including objects used by the lords of the castle and even a piece of horse armour!
The main keep of Matsue Castle, also known as Chidori-jo, is original, fairly big compared to other castles in Japan and built in the borogata style. The main keep was built in 1611. The grounds are vast with many walls, cherry blossom trees and moats to see. Three turrets, based on old black and white photographs and original designs can be seen in the area. Towards the North of the castle, outside the moat is the home of Lafcadio Hearn (a Kwaidan author also known as Yakumo Koizumi) along with an old samurai house.
The castle has an artefact exhibit on the second floor that includes armour, weapons and a model of the castle in its peak.
Matsumoto Castle, also called Fukashi-jo, in the Nagano Prefecture is a National Treasure, built in 1590. The Tenshi (main keep) of Matsumoto Castle is 30 meters tall with six storeys and 5 tiers. The third floor is a secret (safe) room, not visible from the outside. The top floor enshrines Nijūrokuya-shin – God of 26 nights. Every of the 26th of every month 500 kilograms of rice is offered to a Godess in exchange for protection of the castle.
The castle has a moon viewing turret, cherry blossom trees, blooming azaleas (in May) and of course the famous red bridge. There is a man wondering around the property until 11 AM in the mornings. He is dressed up as a Samurai and very willing to take pictures with visitors.
Uwajima Castle in the Ehime Prefecture was built in 1595. The layout of the castle hasn’t been changed since 1615 when yagura, gates and stone walls were added. Uwajima Castle boasts the oldest (1596-1615) and one of the largest existent Yakuimon-style gates, called Noboritachimon. The property has a weapons storehouse built in 1845 – this building is unique because few of these buildings have been preserved.
The castle hill is covered in greenery, as many of the walls are covered in moss. This creates the impression that the structures are part of nature.
The 12 original castles of Japan offer glimpses into the past along with impressive architecture and wonderful natural scenes. Each castle has its own unique stamp –encouraging tourists to visit the top 100 castles in Japan. How many have you visited?
*A version of this article first appeared at www.zafigo.com
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