Favorite Castles In Japan You Have To Visit
by Jordan Mounteer
There is a lot of history in Japan, and nowhere else in the world is that history more ubiquitous and apparent – in the middle of tall modern skyscrapers it’s not uncommon to stumble across an ancient Shinto shrine or see makoto walking in traditional dresses that they would have been wearing centuries ago. The blend between old and new creates a fusion that is sometimes startling to newcomers, and this probably true nowhere more than in cities that boast castles. Some of our favorite castles evoke the imagination while at the same time creating an appreciation for the ancient culture that has given birth to contemporary Japan.
Located a hop and a skip away from Kobe and Osaka, Himeji is a bit of an industrial town and is usually passed over by visitors and tourists, which is a bit of a shame. Because located a few blocks from the train station is one of the few remaining castles in Japan that miraculously survived the bombing of WWII. In 2014 and 2015 it finally finished its renovations as well, which were designed to restore the castle to some of its former glory – in particular, recreating the blinding white walls and pavilions that once gave it its name. Shirasagi-jō, known by its motif bird the White Heron, is staggering even from a distance, and is a source of pride for those who live in and around Himeji. It has been built and added to for centuries, ever since its original creator Akamatus Norimura created the first fort on its hill. It’s no wonder then that it’s now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of the most – if not the most – frequented castle in Japan, taking up its mantle with other famous castles like Kumamoto and Matsumoto.
One of the more interesting features of the castle is the moat that encircle the castle grounds as well as the interior courtyard which becomes a flurry of activity during the spring hanami season when the cherry blossoms erupt into a cloud of pink.
Located on the island of Kyushu, Kumamoto is no stranger to samurai politics and incursions. The large castle has a number of structures, and the distinctive sloped stonework at the bases were actually designed specifically to keep out enemies (including ninja). The main compound, or tenshukaku, was actually reconstructed in 1960 but there are a number of out buildings that remain intact, and there is an extensive display of artifacts here, including samurai regalia and weaponry which was used by the vassals and lords. The makeup of Kumamoto definitely makes one think of a military compound – there are many interconnecting hallways and courtyards, many of them built on tiers as if to increase their defence. In fact, you can tour some of the guard outposts where soldiers would have spent most of their time, that overlook the perimeter of the castle grounds. There’s also a small area that used to house “guest quarters” – an ironic term for where a lord would keep his samurais’ families as privileged hostages in order to secure their loyalty.
Unfortunately in 2016 an earthquake ended up destroying one of the guard turrets and damaging parts of the other grounds – but it’s still a fantastic place to check out!
One of my favorites even though it’s off limits to the public, Edo Castle is located at the heart of Tokyo and is the official and formal residence of the Emperor. First built in 1457, it’s become a symbol of Japan’s sovereignty, and the power of its ruling class, and is heavily guarded most of the time – however, every year there is a celebration around New Year wherein parts of the castle grounds are opened up to the public. One of the more iconic buildings is Fujimi-yagura, or ‘Fuji-viewing Keep’, and is one of the only remaining keeps on the property out of an original eleven that used to stand here, and in the past it would have been possible to see Mt. Fuji (although pollution and city smog likely makes that impossible these days). Nearby this keep is the famous Matsu no Oroka – the ‘Great Pine Corridor’ – which has some historical relevance. In 1701 there was an insurrection here that resulted when a prominent daimyo, or vassal, insulted another and this led to the infamous Forty-Seven Ronin incident (in which forty-seven of the murdered daimyo’s samurai took revenge, and is seen as a prominent example of samurai loyalty).
Also known as the Crow Castle, it is one of the top three historic catles (along with Himeji and Kumamoto). However, this castle in the Nagano prefecture is unlike the other three because it’s a flatland castle, or hirajiro, which wasn’t built on a hill or knoll. As a result, it’s even more famous for some of its defensive capabilities, which includes a moat and interior walls. Built back in 1504, it experienced 280 years of rule before the Meiji Restoration eventually abolished the feudal system, but its iconic black roof and walls still evoke the imagery of a crow lifting into flight – hence its ominous moniker. Like the Kumamoto Castle, several floors of the castle have been dedicated to showcasing artifacts leftover from its colorful history, including a full exhibit of weaponry that includes ancient guns (teppo gura).
And, like Himeji, this is a very famous spot for viewing cherry blossoms in spring during April and May. The vast moat often becomes full of floating pink petals from the hundreds of somei yoshino trees. Another really interesting and picture-worthy feature is the long orange-painted bridge that connects the main enclosure to the outer rim of the moat, as well as an outlying guard turret (that was added in 1635 when military threats had started to dwindle) that was designed specifically for moon-viewing. There’s definitely a sense of romanticism here, despite the otherwise lingering atmosphere leftover from when its daimyos feared attacks from outsiders.
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