When someone says Japan, “castle” isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. Generally, individuals will associate Japan as the land of sushi, geishas, and bullet trains, but Japan is actually home to a variety of fortified castles, primarily designed and built during the 16th century. Similar to European castles, Japan’s shiros were built to protect major ports and cities. Many of them were built mainly with wood and some stone, unlike more commonly known European castles which were built almost exclusively with stone. Today, Japan is home to over 100 castles, though at the height of Edo period, more than five thousand castles were thought to have existed.
Japanese castles were known for using the land in their buildings, earning the name mountain castles or yamajiro.
Kumamoto Castle is one of the largest and most beautiful castles in Japan. It was constructed at the beginning of the Edo period, in 1607, and though much of it has been reconstructed, it is one of the few remaining Japanese castles with original structures.
The castle is best visited during March and April when the grounds’ 800 cherry blossoms bloom.
Built within the same period as the Kumamoto castle, the Hikone castle was completed in 1622. Hikone’s splendor lies in its form. The castle keep combines multiple different types of architecture, making it an outlier from other types of Japanese castles. Because of its unique architectural structure, the Hikone Castle is one of the five Japanese castles to be named a national treasure.
Like many of these Japanese castles, Hikone has a museum which visitors are encouraged to peruse.
If there’s one castle to visit in Japan, it’s the Himeji Castle. Known as the White Heron Castle, this castle might just be Japan’s most spectacular one. Remarkable in size and design, it is older than most of the other surviving Japanese castles — some of its first fortifications were built in the 1400s. The castle complex has also remained largely untouched by fires, attacks, or earthquakes. Due to the delicate nature of these castles (having been constructed largely out of wood) such a feat is impressive.
Today, the castle has over 80 buildings connected by small trails, gates and cherry blossom-lined paths.
More tower than castle, the Hirosaki Castle is a small complex consisting of a five-story keep and a three-story tower that was built by Tsugaru Clan in 1611. The complex also features moats, gates, and a giant surrounding park for visitors to explore and digest.
Following a unique reconstruction period, the castle was actually moved about 250 feet to fix the foundation and some fortifications. It was recently moved back to its original position in April 2016.
The boldness and austere nobility of the early lords who built and designed castles has been retained in Inuyama. Because of its perfectly preserved interior, which has the traditional paneling and walls of earlier castle designing periods, Inuyama is one of the five castles to be named a national treasure. Though the interior can feel dark and cramped, this reconstruction is true to the designs of the time.
Inuyama is also the oldest castle in Japan, and was constructed in 1537 by Oda Nobuyasu who was the uncle of a famous samurai by the name of Oda Nobuhide.
Marugame Castle is like many of the other Japanese castles because of its plethora of cherry blossoms, beautiful panoramic views, and a small museum containing a handful of relevant relics.
The castle overlooks the Seto Inland Sea—also known as Setouchi—which is a small, but very important, body of water that separates three of the four largest Japanese islands.
Standing in stark contrast to the White Heron Castle is the Black Castle, or the Matsue Castle. Built in 1607 by a local lord, Horio Yoshiharu, the castle is the second largest original castle remaining in Japan. It is complex, with towers ranging up to six levels, and earned its nickname due to it being mostly painted black. the castle is austere, and because it was built after the last feudal war in Japan, it was saved from attacks and fire.
The castle has been exceptionally well maintained, and because it was made for a war it never faced, it has been able to weather time.
Matsumoto Castle, or the Crow Castle (named because its black exterior and roof look like opened wings) is a complex, well maintained, and historically prominent castle located in the heart of Japan’s Matsumoto domain. The castle is one of Japan’s most well maintained and prominent castles, with a series of interesting little quirks built within it. Openings to drop rocks onto attackers are in the floors, windows for archers, and a number of moon viewings exist. The castle is surrounded by fields of cherry blossoms, and offers a stunning view of not only the surrounding city, but the surrounding mountain peaks.
Built in 1504 by Shimadachi Sadanaga, the castle is one of the oldest standing Japanese castles.
Matsuyama Castle (Iyo)
Located at the very top of Mount Katsuyama, the Matsuyama Castle is a sight to behold. The surrounding fortified gates, towers, and varied turrets gives the tower an almost magical feeling. Because of the the castle’s location, a chairlift has been constructed that give visitors an easy and peaceful way to climb to the top of the mountain. Alternatively, individuals who are up for the challenge can climb up the side of the mountain. At the base of the mountain is the Ninomaru Garden, where some of the castle’s exterior fortifications were located and can be easily visited.
Visitors can also try on classical samurai costumes and take fun pictures.
The last in this series is the small and modest Uwajima Castle. Located on a small hill in Uwajima, the castle is for the outdoorsy, as it can be a bit of a hike to get there. Those who make the trek will be rewarded with a quaint tower that was built in 1596.
The castle’s main keep, also known as a donjon, has survived throughout the years, and is one of the twelve original surviving Japanese castles.
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