Many of the great castles in the world at some point in time got destroyed or damaged. Much of what we see now is the result of 20th-century restoration and conservation efforts. Sadly, this is also the case for most Japanese castles. World War II bombing wreaked havoc in many Japanese cities. The bombing also destroyed many of the castles, of which some have been rebuild. These castles still provide interesting insights into building methods and architecture.
To appreciate a Japanese castle, you must leave a European conception of a castle behind. The interior of Japanese homes and even palaces is minimalistic. This minimalistic approach holds even more true for Japanese castles. Most castles are wooden structures. Therefore, so many didn’t survive the fighting of the Meiji restoration and the World War II bombing. The following twelve castles are the only ones still considered to be original because their keep (tenshu) is still original.
- Bitchū Matsuyama Castle (Takahashi)
- Hikone Castle
- Himeji Castle
- Hirosaki Castle
- Inuyama Castle
- Kōchi Castle
- Marugame Castle
- Maruoka Castle (Sakai)
- Matsue Castle
- Matsumoto Castle
- Matsuyama Castle
- Uwajima Castle
That said, even the non-original castles are worth your time, even if it’s just to see the Japanese approach to restoration.
Near the shore of Lake Biwa between Kyoto and Nagoya lies Hikone and its castle. This original castle is also one of only five castles considered to be a Japanese National treasure. Ii Naokatsu built the castle as he served the Tokugawa clan. Construction of the castle was finished in 1622. The castle lies a short walk away from Hikone JR station. So, you can visit it easily, either as a day trip from Kyoto or Nagoya, or as a stop-over on your onward journey.
When you arrive by Shinkansen at Himeji station, you’ll already see the white castle blinking in the sun. Hence its name the White Egret or Heron Castle. It’s a 15-minute walk from the station to the castle grounds. Himeji Castle is the most famous castle in Japan, so expect big crowds. Walking through the outer walls, you get an idea of the scale of the castle complex. Even though many outer defences are lost, it is still possible to appreciate the intricate workings of the moats, trenches, walls, corridors and towers. As you make your way to the main donjon (tenshu), you understand what a disorientated affair an assault would have been.
Inside the castle, the main thing to admire is the woodwork. Thick wooden beams support the massive tower. You have a clear view of them as you go upwards, winding around the outer galleries and up the narrow stairs. From the top floor, there is a clear view of Himeji and the castles different defensive works. As you make your way outside, you exit into the main courtyard. Here, you have a last good overview of the main tower and its massive size before making your way out. Read our full review of Himeji castle to see if it’s worth your time.
Of all the remaining original keeps, the keep of Inuyama is the oldest and another of the five national treasures. The keep was built at the end of the 1580s. In his struggle to unite Japan, Oda Nobunaga overthrew the Imagawawa clan who built this castle. As the Oda clan lost the ensuing struggle with the Tokugawa clan for dominance of Japan, the castle changed hands one last time until the Meji restoration in 1871. Inuyama castle is an hour away from Nagoya, be aware that you have to go to Unuma station on the other side of the Kiso river if you want to use your JR pass.
Of the twelve original castles, four are found on the small mainland island of Shikoku. Kochi Castle is one of them and is the only Japanese castle with all original buildings still standing inside the innermost ring of defence (honmaru). The castle was built at the beginning of the 17th century after the victory of the Tokugawa clan at the battle of Sekigahara. But most of the buildings visible today were built in the early 18th century as a fire destroyed the castle in 1727.
Matsue castle lies on an island in the Kyobashi river on the shores of Lake Shinji. The castle dates to the early 17th century and it is the only remaining castle in the San’in region. Around the castle lie some interesting old buildings and museums to get a better understanding of feudal Japan. You can make great day trips from Matsue, visit the Adachi museum and gardens or Izumo taisha, the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan.
The famous Crow Castle is one of the most iconic castles of Japan. The castle lies at the feet of the Japanese Alps, providing you with some great views on clear days. The castle is hugely popular with tourists, so expect it to be busy most of the time. Be prepared to stand in line for all the different stairs that take you all the way to the top. Also, watch your head because the stairs are low and steep. And for the same reason: pay attention when wearing any short skirts while visiting.
The keep is still original, but the outer castles were demolished following the Meiji restoration. Two gates were restored, Kuromon, the Black Gate in the nineties, and the Drum Gate in 2002. Don’t forget to visit the Matsumoto City Museum of Art while you are here.
In the Northwest corner of Shikoku lies Matsuyama castle high upon a hill overlooking the city and its surroundings. Matsuyama is another early 17th century castle completed after the Battle of Shizugatake. The castle consists of three layers of defense, the main enclosure (honmaru), a second enclosure (ninomaru), and a tertiary enclosure (sannomaru). In the second enclosure was the lord’s private garden which still remains today and which you can visit separately. You can either walk up the hill or take the ropeway to the main castle. Don’t forget to pay a visit to Dogo onsen while you’re there.
To get an idea of the destructive force of an earthquake, a visit to Kumamoto is advised. Here you have a unique opportunity to see the destruction caused by an earthquake and at the same time a chance to support the rebuilding and the revival of the tourist sector on Kyushu island.
Nagoya castle was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. Since then the keep was rebuilt in concrete. More recently the honmaru palace was restored using original building techniques and materials. Plans have been made to demolish the new keep and also restore it using original wooden materials.
As Nakoya castle, Okayama castle is a 1966 reconstruction, rebuild after the Allied bombing burned it to the ground in 1945. The castle only looks good on the outside. Although, the ugly interior is also what makes this castle stand out. It is a good example of the different approaches used in Japan and Europe when it comes to restoring its cultural heritage after the second world war.
This partly stems from the Japanese tradition to rebuilt houses, shrines and temples as the material used for the construction is mostly wood. Due to fires, earthquakes and the weather, most buildings are rebuilt regularly. A visit to Okayama castle allows tourists to see this different approach to restoration in action. Afterwards, cross the river to visit Korakuen, one of the top 3 gardens in Japan.
Osaka castle is another rebuilt castle after being destroyed by Allied bombing during the second world war. This castle complex is huge and can be best seen from the opposite Osaka history museum. Togugawa Ieyasu burned the original castle after the siege of Osaka in 1615. His successor rebuilt the castle and the castle walls seen today are his construction.
Sadly, Shuri Castle has again burned down to the ground, so hopefully, it will be rebuilt again, but it’s an enormous tragedy for Okinawa and its people.
Shuri Castle is another completely rebuilt castle. It served as a Japanese military headquarters during the Battle of Okinawa. U.S. battleships shelled it for three days and burned it to the ground. What you see today is the result of the 1992 decision to start reconstructing the castle.
A couple of things make this an interesting site worth visiting. Firstly, the style of the building. This castle served as the centre of power for the Ryukyu Kingdom over several centuries. It played a pivotal role in Japanese-Chinese political and cultural contacts. The castle’s design portrays this as it is a unique mixture of Japanese, Okinawan and Chinese styles.
The second reason to visit is the historical role this castle played. On display are impressions of what Chinese diplomatic visits would have looked like. And more on the history of the Okinawa islands, their culture, and the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Thirdly, the castle is a stark reminder of the destructive impact war has on people’s lives and cultural heritage. Although it’s great to explore this site again in its former glory, it’s also important to remember what was lost. The last reason to visit is that it gives you a good excuse to go and visit Okinawa and its own unique culture.
Read our article on Okinawa for more tips about the island.
Just one example of the fate that was in store for most castles after the Meji restoration. They would be completely demolished.