There’s a whimsical magic about places that used to serve significant purposes over the course of history. You could say there’s that same air about temples, churches, battlegrounds, and ancient landmarks. The same can be said about castles. Castles of all shapes and sizes can be found all over the world, erected for their own special purposes, housing usually royalty or those of royal blood. Other castles were just used to hoard weapons and military gear. We’ll be talking about the castles in Japan particularly, which have unique looks, as well as stories to them.

A Little More Info About Castles In Japan

The Japanese constructed fortresses initially around the 15th century, when Japan was having civil problems. This was during Muromachi period, which occurred between 1333 – 1573. Within that period was the Sengoku, which was an era wherein Japan was made up of independent states that were constantly at war with each other. To build a territorial defense, members of those independent states would build castles upon mountaintops, and the Feudal lords (daimyo) would live here. These warlords would try to outdo each other with the architecture, size, ammunition, and elegance of these castles as a means of intimidation. Later on, the friction between states was eased as Japan was unified by a central authority. This was called the Edo period. The leaders (also known as warlords) of that authority were Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Oda Nobunaga. As peace reigned all throughout Japan, other castles emerged. However, unlike their older predecessors who were built at high altitudes, these castles were built on hilltops. These were known as castle towns. Why the sudden shift from mountaintop to hilltop? Well, there was no war-related need to strategically place it on a mountaintop anymore. Instead, these castles were used as places that held centers of government and military needs. Even though there were laws enacted to preserve the castles, (the first law being signed in as early as 1919), sadly, many of these castles were destroyed during the wars that would happen later. Rebels during the feudal wars may have found the old relics offensive and decided to ruin it themselves, or they were destroyed in the crossfire of the shelling that occurred during the 1940’s. Some of those castles that were destroyed were later on reconstructed, however the materials used during the reconstruction was no longer the same as the materials used during the initial creation of the castle.

Your Own Castle Map

Each castle has its own story, and it’s up to you to choose which story you want to listen to. Japan is quite a large place, so it’s best that you have an idea of the castles and the areas they’re located in by doing a little research. You may want to initially look through a list of all the castles that still exist, and match them up to the area that you’re planning to visit. There are hundreds of castles in Japan, but as mentioned earlier, many of them were ruined over time. As of today, there are only twelve castles that truly stick to their authentic form, build, and material. Here is a list of those 12 castles. It’s important to note that the castle’s names are usually named after the places they are located in and that it’s best to go during cherry blossom season, as many of the castles have massive arrays of cherry blossom trees surrounding them! Cherry blossom season is from March 20 to April 14, with April 1 being the peak blossoming day.

Authentic Japan Castles: A List

There’s the Himeji castle, built in 1333, and sits on top of a hill. The structure of this castle has a very pristine, airy characteristic about it, partially perhaps of its rarity of never being ruined by both natural disaster or the fray of war. In fact, it’s called “Shirasagijo” or The White Heron Castle because of its light and crisp exterior, alike that of the Heron bird about to take flight. The Marugame Castle is also a hilltop castle, initially constructed by the Nara clan. This castle dates back to being erected as early as 1597, as it was passed on from Lord to Lord within prominent Japanese clans. Tourists have notably marveled at the detail of its architecture that has withstood the test of time, such as the main keep and the stone walls. Matsuyama Castle (Iyo) is surrounded by beautiful cherry trees, and is a lovely sight to see when they blossom. The tower was completed by 1628. This castle is another prime example of what a feudal castle is like. Because this castle is located on top of a steep hill, you must ride a chairlift to visit it. The Hirosaki castle, which is also sometimes called Takaoka Castle, was completed in 1611. This moat-surrounded castle was created by Oura Tamenobu, who was part of a samurai clan. On a side note, the Hirosaki castle was made using money given by Toyotomi Hideyoshi for Oura’s successful participation in the Battle in of Odawara during the late 1500’s. It is sometimes referred to as one of Japan’s most famous castles, among seven others. Maruoka Castle, erected 1576, is one of the lesser known castles compared to the rest of the 12. In terms of size, it’s a little smaller, as it humbly sits on the hill around the northern area of Fukui City. Here’s a fun fact! “Mist castle” is what some locals refer to Marouka castle as, because legend has it that it’s built in such a way that a thick mist sometimes engulfs it, conveniently making it hard for enemies to penetrate as it clouds their vision. Dark and dramatic with its black exterior lies the Matsutomo castle, which you can get a clear view of as it was erected on a plain, but surrounded by moats. This is special for a castle that was finished in 1504, during the Sengoku period. If you find yourself in Tokyo, you’ll notice it’s relatively easier to travel to this area by train than it is to other castles. Kōchi Castle was built by Yamanouchi Kazutoyo after he’d won the Battle of Sekigahara as a means of defense over regions such as Otakasa. Finished by 1611, the only materials used to make this castles were stone, wood, and earth. It’s also considered another national treasure! A classic display of Sengoku defense, the simple yet regal Bitchū Matsuyama Castle is found high up in the mountains, above the town center of Takahashi. It’s a steep climb if you want to the visit this castle, as it’s known as being one of the highest built castles standing in Japan today – a whopping 430 meters above sea level. It’s also one of the oldest, as it was built around 1240. Built during the Edo period, this castle is listed as a Japanese national treasure! Hikone Castle took quite a bit to finish this building; approximately from years 1603-1622. The son of a feudal lord, li Naokatsu, is the one who ordered the creation of this castle. It’s a perfect example of what a feudal castle looks like, as it has been unscathed by war and time. Erected pre-Edo period, the Inuyama Castle is one of the most well-documented Japanese castles to date. It is also one of the most well-preserved. Sitting right beside Kiso River, it has lived to see the seats of many prominent Japanese clan leaders. In fact, clans have been occupying it since it was made (1440) all the way up to 2004, mostly by the Naruse clan. Naruse Masatoshi was its last inhabitant. Matsue Castle is alike the Matsutomo castle in terms of design; sporting a cool, dark exterior and neat architecture. It somehow was able to nab the endeared title of “black castle” though! This castle was constructed during the feudal battle (thereabouts of 1611), so you’re correct if you guessed that it was built on top of a hill! Here’s an extra incentive to visit: tourists of this castle are given the option to ride a little boat around the moats of the castle! Lastly, the tiny Uwajima Castle (sometimes otherwise named Tsurushima-jō) was built by Toyotomi Hidenaga in 1586. It could possibly be the only castle among the 12 mentioned here that was slightly affected during world war II (it lost the Ote Gate in a fire) but still was able to retain much of its keep’s originality and form.

The Best Castles To Visit In Japan

Opinions insist some castles are better than others, but subjectively, there is truly no such thing as the “best” castle to visit in Japan. There are so many other beautiful castles to choose from than just the 12 mentioned, but those 12 are recommended because of their rare attribute of having their keeps (mostly) survive the test of time, natural disasters, and war without as much renovation as the other castles have had. If you were to trust the vote of many tourists, in terms of beauty, Himeji Castle seems to hit number one in many lists as the crowd’s ultimate favorite, Matsumoto Castle coming in second place.

The Influence Of The Edo Period

After the turbulent Sengoku period came the peaceful Edo period. Because it was such a peaceful period, the castles did not prioritize making defense a point in their architecture as much as it did during the latter years. The daimyo (Feudal lords) mainly built castles for them to live luxurious lives, as well as keep them from possible retribution from the poorer townsfolk and/or rebels who wanted to start revolutions or uprisings. They used it as a symbol of their status, wealth, and power to show off and intimidate another daimyo. The exteriors of the towers may be seen as simple and cleanly constructed, but the furniture adorning the interiors were nothing short of extravagant. Because there was a limit placed to how many castles could be built per han, clans of samurais were found to be concentrated in the city areas rather than the outskirts of Japan, which had a big political and social effect on the areas. This also affected the choice of where the castles were built and their number.

Japan Castle: How Was It Built?

Initially, Japanese castles were made of out mostly wood – but others incorporated more amounts of rocks, earth, and stone. If the castle was renovated during modern times, the castle becomes no longer similar to its true form because of the incorporation of concrete and/or cement. Construction workers started with stockades and built upon that. Although you may think that because the materials used are simple, their fortresses are weak, you are wrong. The Japanese are so dedicated to good craftsmanship and stable architecture, that chikujo-jutsu is Japanese term for the science of fortifying, building over, and enhancing castles! While castles were strategically placed depending on the need of the reigning daimyo or defense of the region, they all had their own special designs. Most of them were designed to be elevated to purposely look prominent. Some were perched atop triangular, solid slabs of rocks, others on flat plains with large stone walls, others in the middle of flowing moats and beautiful gardens.

European Castle versus Japan Castle

The difference between European castles and Japanese castles is that creators of Europeans castles were a lot more fearful of being invaded than the creators of Japanese castles were. You’ll notice this in the towering height of the European castle’s stone walls, as compared to the semi-penetrable walls that the Japanese lined some of their castles with. The roofs of Japanese were many, triangular, and almost wave-like. They’re also nearly impossible to walk on. All the while European castles’ roofs were for standing on to keep guard against possible infiltrators. Japanese roofs also get smaller the higher they get, while European castles stay consistent with their structures no matter how tall. They also have many similarities. They both use moats, have fancy gardens, and have layered protection. There were portholes where you could shoot arrows from in both castles. And although they may not be in the same area, both castles still had watchtowers. Lastly, they both have gates as entrances!