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The Castles of Japan

Updated on May 30, 2010
Hiroshima Castle, Hiroshima, Japan.
Hiroshima Castle, Hiroshima, Japan.
Himeji Castle. Often considered Japan's finest.
Himeji Castle. Often considered Japan's finest.
Matsuyama Castle, Matsuyama, Shikoku. One of twelve in Japan with an orignal tenshu.
Matsuyama Castle, Matsuyama, Shikoku. One of twelve in Japan with an orignal tenshu.
Matsumoto Castle.
Matsumoto Castle.
Okayama Castle. A reconstructed version of the original.
Okayama Castle. A reconstructed version of the original.
Katsuren Castle, Okinawa.
Katsuren Castle, Okinawa.
The rebuilt Shuri Castle, Okinawa. The former seat of the Ryukyu dynasty.
The rebuilt Shuri Castle, Okinawa. The former seat of the Ryukyu dynasty.
Nakagusuku Castle, Okinawa.
Nakagusuku Castle, Okinawa.

Introduction. Japan’s castles (城, shiro) are the centerpiece of its historical monuments. Many cities in Japan have these monuments to their samurai past when warlords and a strict code of honor ruled feudal Japan. Not unlike Europe, Japan had a vigorous castle-building era and during that time almost 5000 castles were constructed. The most famous castles today are seen in Himeji, Nagoya, Osaka, and Matsumoto, but many have been carefully reconstructed after being completely destroyed during World War II, or earlier, during the Meiji Restoration. Virtually all of the reconstructed castles are primarily made of reinforced concrete, a necessity in a country given to frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons. Among these are the famous castles in Nagoya and Osaka. Unlike their European counterparts, Japan’s castles were largely made of wood with stone masonry mostly at the base of castles bordering the moats. Today many cities are still rebuilding their castles perhaps to add a feather in their cap and make an effort to restore a bit of cultural heritage. While these later reconstructions seem somewhat artificial many are done with the utmost effort to faithfully restore the original and master craftsmanship, still very much appreciated and practiced in Japan, is used in the reconstruction efforts. Many of Japan’s castles are moated or sit on high hills – a legacy to their strategic and impregnable value. Today many are surrounded by beautiful parks which are a reprieve from the notoriety of the Japan’s concrete-laden cities.

History. The castles you see in Japan today, whether originals or reconstructions are the product of a historical period in Japan which saw the proliferation of these heavily fortified garrisons. This period is known as the Sengoku period (1467-1603), where rival warlords built castles made of wood and stone. The period is characterized by the rise of the daimyo, or warlords, who filled the political void of a decentralized government. During this time rival shogunates battled for control and power and Japan experienced a number of civil wars starting with the Onin War (1467-1477).

The Original Castles (Castles that preexisted the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and survived the destruction of World War II).

Bitchu MatsuyamaCastle (Takahashi), OkayamaPrefecture, Honshu. The castle dates from 1331 although the current structure dates to 1683. Although it fell into disuse much of it is in original condition including the yagura (turret) and tenshu (main building/keep).

Hikone Castle. ShigaPrefecture, Honshu. The tenshu is considered of the finest in Japan and it dates from 1603. A series of moats and defensive enclosures makes its grounds maze-like – an excellent place for exploring.

Himeji Castle, HyogoPrefecture, Honshu. Often considered Japan’s finest castle this is a huge complex consisting of 80 buildings. It is nicknamed the White Heron because of its white exterior. It is not surprisingly a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle dates to 1333 although it was demolished by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1580 and rebuilt between 1601 and 1608.

Hirosaki Castle, AomoriPrefecture, Honshu. Constructed in 1611 Hirosaki Castle is in Japan’s Tohoku region, the far northern reaches of the main island, Honshu. Hirosaki has a three story tenshu and has a large moat system with six concentric baileys, or walls. The large grounds almost one kilometer square are very famous for the cherry blossoms. This is the most northerly of Japan’s original twelve castles.

Inuyama Castle, AichiPrefecture, Honshu. Inuyama Castle was founded in 1440 and majestically overlooks the Kiso River on a steep hill. The tenshu (keep) was constructed between 1601 and 1620.

Kochi Castle, KochiPrefecture, Shikoku. Built between 1601 and 1611 the five storied tenshu is at the center of the honmaru (innermost bailey). Kochi Castle overlooks the city of Kochi. Most of the structure burned down but was reconstructed between 1729 and 1753.

Marugame Castle, KagawaPrefecture, Shikoku. Construction was started in 1602 and the original tenshu still stands as do many of the stone walls although most of the remaining structure was destroyed by fire and disuse. This is one of the smaller castles of the original twelve.

Maruoka Castle, FukuiPrefecture, Honshu. Maruoka’s donjon, or tenshu, is the oldest in Japan dating to 1576. There is nothing remaining except the tenshu, but the grounds are no less worth visiting because of the park-like setting. The castle is also known as Mist Castle because according to legend it is hidden in heavy mist when an enemy approaches.

Matsue Castle, ShimanePrefecture, Honshu. Constructed between 1607 and 1611 Matsue Castle is considered of the three finest along with Himeji and Matsumoto. Nicknamed the black castle or plover castle because of its dark exterior color, Matsue Castle original wooden tenshu and high stone walls rising above its moat are its most well-known hallmarks. Among the twelve original castles, Matsue is the second largest and the third tallest at 30 meters.

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture, Honshu. Matsumoto rivals Himeji as one of the two most famous and beautiful of the twelve original castles. While not as big as Himeji, Matsumoto’s black exterior, moats, wall system, and gate houses give it a certain distinction not seen among other castles. Furthermore, it is a flatland castle in that it does not sit on high ground. Construction of the castle started in 1504 although it was not fully completed until 1594.

Matsuyama Castle, Ehime prefecture, Shikoku. Matsuyama Castle was first built in 1603 and sits on Mount Katsuyama above the surrounding city of Matsuyama. The current tenshu was the latest of the original twelve to be constructed between 1820 and 1854. The older one was burned down after a lightning strike.

Uwajima Castle, EhimePrefecture, Shikoku. All that remains is the original three story tenshu built between 1585 and 1586 and some stone walls. The remaining castle was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration.

Famous reconstructed castles (destroyed mostly during World War II).

Nagoya Castle. Nagoya castle is one of the country’s most famous. Its high profile location in Japan’s third largest city midway between its two largest metropolitan areas ensures enough visitors but this location contributed to its demise during World War II. NagoyaCastle was completely destroyed because the city, a major manufacturing center in Japan, was heavily targeted during World War II. It was originally a huge complex and plans to reconstruct the entire surroundings are on going. A raid by the U.S. Army Air Corps hit the castle on May 14, 1945, and the fire burned the original castle down – a structure that was completed in 1612 by Tokugawa Ieyesu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. Today’s faithful reconstruction sits on high ground and is famous for its seasonal cherry blossoms.

Osaka Castle. Osaka Castle is a huge complex that sprawls across 15 acres of land and has some of the most impressive moats characterized by high, steep stone walls. Similar to Nagoya castle, Osaka was destroyed but its ruin was earlier – during the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The city raised funds to rebuild it and this reconstruction was completed in 1928. World War II raids destroyed most of the tenshu which was again rebuilt by 1997 complete with elevators and concrete. The sheer stone walls surrounding and the wide concentric moat are originals and the most impressive aspect of this complex.

Tokyo (Edo) Castle. The only castle in Japan which is still functioning as a seat of authority, the Edo castle, a gigantic sprawling complex in the city’s center, still serves as the imperial seat of the Emperor of Japan. Within its generously walled enclosure is the Imperial Palace. This castle, designated s a flatland castle, was built in 1457. Because it is still the working residence of the Emperor, access is limited but the famous gates that overlook the moat are approachable and visible from the surrounding park. The tenshu was destroyed by fire on various occasions in 1657, 1873, and again during World War II.

Hiroshima Castle. This five story castle was rebuilt in 1958 after being obliterated in the atomic bomb attack of August 6, 1945. The height of the present tenshu is 26.6 meters, which sits on a stone base 12.4 meters high. Inside the castle is a museum dedicated to Hiroshima’s pre World War II history. It was also known as the “Carp Castle”.

The castles of Okinawa. Okinawa is a good collection of castles that are well known for their elaborate stone work. Known as gusuku, the Okinawan castles were different than their mainland counterparts and stone masonry was heavily used. The largest of Okinawa’s castles is ShuriPalace, which is a huge walled complex that has been rebuilt since its destruction during World War II. Okinawa had its own royal family, the Ryukyu dynasty, and was functionally its own country until it was forced into to Japan’s shogunate in 1609 when the Satsuma clan invaded the Ryukyu Islands. In fact, Okinawan culture, history, and language was quite distinct and independent of Japan’s until this time but shared strong cultural and economic ties with both China and Japan. While there were influences from Japan before this period, Chinese culture and language was equally influential in Okinawa until Japan actively outright annexed Okinawa in the 1872 after the Meiji Restoration. Beyond Shuri Palace the influence of the Ryukyu royal family can be seen in the royal tombs of Tamaudan and a number of small monuments that have been rebuilt since World War II. The other well known castles of the island include Nakijin, outside of Nago, Zakimi, Katsuren, and Nakagusuku, all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nakijin is famous for having the earliest cherry blossoms in the country,



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