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5 Spectacular Japanese Castles You Have To Visit
Few architecture are as instantly recognisable as Japanese castles. As much as Mount Fuji itself, Japanese castles symbolise the exoticism of the land of the rising sun, especially its medieval era. With so many of them, original or reconstructed, still found across Japan, no visitor should forgo a chance to experience one of these magnificent citadels. Here are five of the most spectacular and famous Japanese castles for you to choose from. All are established tourist hot spots, and are extremely convenient to get to.
Osaka Castle (大阪城)
Easily the most famous Japanese castle, Osaka Castle (大阪城) is the beloved symbol of Japan’s third largest city. A concrete reconstruction, the original castle was burnt down in the 17th century, then destroyed again by lightning a few decades later. The third version survived WWII air raids relatively unscathed , and nowadays, it is one of the most visited destinations in Japan. If visiting in February and March, do not miss the popular plum and cherry blossom displays. They are especially enchanting during night time light-ups.
Modernity complements history
In stark contrast to its medieval facade, the interior of Osaka Castle features a modern, interactive museum.
Osaka Castle can be reached by taking the subway to the Tanimachi 4-chrome station. Or the JR train service to Osakajokoen Station.
Himeji Castle (姫路城)
Nicknamed the “white egret” castle, elegant Himeji Castle (姫路城) is considered to be the finest example of classical Japanese castle construction. A massive structure, it is not only the largest castle in Japan, but also one of Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage sites. The castle recently underwent several years of restoration, and was fully reopened to the public on March 27, 2015. With Himeji town just a short train ride from the major cities of Osaka and Kobe, this is one castle no visitor to the Kansai region should miss.
Himeji castle is a short walk from Himeji train station, which is serviced by the Shinkansen bullet train service.
Kumamoto Castle (熊本城)
In its heyday, Kumamoto Castle (熊本城) was heavily fought for, resulting in its unfortunate destruction in 1877. Today, its reconstructed version is standard itinerary for visitors to Japan’s south. One of the country’s three premier castles, the other two being Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle, the castle grounds are also popular cherry blossom viewing spots, with a full reconstruction of a daimyo’s palace building near to it. Many visitors to Kumamoto City come just to visit this stately, majestic structure. If in Kyushu, you should do so too.
Update Apr 16, 2016
Tragically, Kumamoto City was hit hard by the double shocks of the April 14, 2016 Kyushu Earthquake. The castle keep remains standing, but its roof is badly damaged, with many shingles dislodged. Parts of the historical ramparts have also collapsed.
In the midst of current chaos, reports state that repairs would take years. I think statements like these tend to trend towards the pessimistic, but it would be safe to assume the Castle would be closed for months. Possibly the rest of 2016.
Kumamoto Castle is a short tram ride from Kumamoto station. The station is a major stop on the Kyushu Shinkansen line.
Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
Serene Matsumoto Castle (松本城) is famous for many things. It is one of Japan’s three premium castles. It stands within a moat instead of on a hill, and is a wooden original, not a reconstruction. Its keep is also the oldest in Japan, built well over four centuries ago. When visiting the interior of the keep, do be mindful of the steep steps. While it is a tourist hot spot nowadays, it was once a defence construction. Just imagine samurais, all decked out in armour, racing up and down those foreboding. Those fellows must have truly sturdy legs.
The castle is a 5-min bus ride from Matsumoto Station. Matsumoto station can be accessed directly from Nagoya or Nagano Shinkansen stations.
Nagoya Castle (名古屋城)
Nagoya Castle (名古屋城) shares several similarities with Osaka Castle. Both are visually similar. Both stand at the hearts of Japan’s most important industrial cities. Both are also former strongholds of medieval Japan’s most powerful families, with Nagoya Castle the seat of the Tokugawa family, whose most famous son, Tokugawa Ieyasu, unified Japan after decades of bloody civil war. Today, the reconstructed keep contains a modern museum about the history of the castle. There is also ongoing work to reconstruct the castle palace, which visitors could view up close. The latter could provide for a unique, most unusual travel experience.
Nagoya Castle could be reached by subway from Nagoya station. It is a ten minute journey, with one change of line.
Some tips for visiting Japanese castles
- Be ready to walk to the keep. All famous castles are surrounded by expansive gardens and grounds, and even tour buses can only deposit you at the main entrance. In the case of Osaka Castle and Kumamoto Castle, it's also quite a steep uphill walk to the keep. The elderly and disabled should especially take note.
- Other than Osaka Castle, I don't remember any other castle having elevators in its keep. This means steps, sometimes very steep steps. Typically, it is at least four floors up to the topmost viewing platform. Again, the elderly and disabled should take note. You should also not schedule a castle visit at the end of the day, when your legs are worn out from hours of sightseeing.
- Many castle parks have staff members walking around in Samurai armours. Unless these are stationed at a booth, there is no fee for a shot with them.
- Like most historical attractions of Japan, castles close at sunset.
- To preserve the interior of the castles, visitors are frequently required to remove their shoes and wear slippers. Those could be uncomfortable in some situations, such as during winter. It could also be cumbersome because visitors are sometimes required to carry their shoes with them in plastic bags. Do be prepared.
- Unless there's a museum, there's usually very little else to see within the keep. Smaller museum would also not have English displays, or would require you to have a deep knowledge of Japanese history / culture to appreciate. For these reasons, visiting the keep interior is mostly for the panoramic view at the topmost floor. If that's not for you, you can safely skip this part of the tour.