A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. His visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Few other architectural styles are as instantly recognizable as that of Japanese castles.
As much as Mount Fuji itself, these magnificent citadels symbolize the exoticism of the Land of the Rising Sun, particularly its war-torn medieval era. With many original or reconstructed castles still found across Japan no visitor should forgo the chance to experience at least one when touring the country.
1. Osaka Castle (大阪城)
Easily the most famous Japanese castle, and previously the ostentatious stronghold of Japanese medieval warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Osaka Castle is today, the beloved symbol of Japan’s third largest city. A spectacular edifice widely considered by many travelers to be one of the must-see attractions of the country.
What stands before travelers today is actually a concrete reconstruction as the original castle burned down in the 17th century, while the second version was destroyed by lightning a few decades later. The third version survived WWII air raids relatively unscathed, and over time, became one of the most visited travel destinations in Japan. If visiting in February and March, do not miss the popular plum and cherry blossom displays in surrounding gardens. These blossoms are especially enchanting, even magical, during evening light-ups.
2. Himeji Castle (姫路城)
Nicknamed the “white egret” castle, elegant Himeji Castle is considered the finest example of classical Japanese castle construction. A massive structure, it is also the largest castle in Japan, as well as one of the country’s earliest UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Between 2010 and 2015, the castle underwent extensive restoration, and when reopened to the public on March 27, 2015, it was widely agreed that the façade of the keep was more stunning than ever. With Himeji just a short train ride from the major cities of Osaka and Kobe, this is one historical attraction no visitor to the Kansai region should miss. In fact, Himeji Castle could even be considered the one Japanese castle no visitor to Japan should skip.
3. Kumamoto Castle (熊本城)
In its heyday, Kumamoto Castle was heavily fought for, eventually resulting in its destruction in 1877. Re-built in 1960, the reconstructed keep is now considered standard itinerary for visitors to Japan’s south, particularly during cherry blossom viewing weeks.
As one of Japan’s three premier castles, the other two being Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle, Kumamoto Castle is also famous for its austere black façade, and the full reconstruction of a daimyo’s palace building on its grounds. In short, many visitors visit Kumamoto City simply to experience this majestic, stately structure. When in Kyushu, you must do so too.
Update: June 2020
Tragically, Kumamoto City was hit hard by the double shocks of the April 14, 2016 Kyushu Earthquake. The castle keep did not collapse but the roof was badly damaged, with many shingles dislodged. Parts of the historical ramparts also crumbled.
As of June 2020, the castle remains closed for restoration. (Projected to last till spring 2021) The grounds and ramparts, on the other hand, might also take as long as 20 years to be fully restored. Meanwhile, visitors can still view the massive structure from outside the castle grounds.
4. Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
Serene Matsumoto Castle is famous for many things. It is one of Japan’s three premier castles. It also stands within a moat instead of on a hill, and is a wooden original, not a reconstruction.
In addition, the wooden keep is one of the oldest in Japan too, built well over four centuries ago. On this, do be mindful of steep steps when visiting the interior of the castle. While it is a tourist hot spot nowadays, Matsumoto Castle was once a defense construction. Steep and narrow staircases were part and parcel of medieval defense strategies against bloodthirsty enemies.
5. Matsue Castle (松江城)
Like Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle, Matsue Castle is one of a dozen of original and spectacular “top” Japanese castles that have survived numerous natural calamities and man-made catastrophes. Occasionally referred to as the “black castle” because of its dark and austere exterior, the castle was originally built to withstand sieges, although it never saw action because it was completed after Japan’s Warring States Era.
For modern-day visitors, Matsue Castle is conveniently surrounded by other major attractions of Matsue City, for example, the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. Lastly, the moat surrounding the castle is famous for boat cruises. A ride on these vessels during cherry blossom or autumn leaves season is considered one of the best way to experience Matsue City.
6. Okayama Castle (岡山城)
Nicknamed the “Castle of the Black Bird” because of its dark exterior, Okayama Castle was completed in 1597, destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt in its modern form in 1966. Nowadays one of the two tourism symbols of Okayama City, the castle is often visited together with neighboring Kōraku-en Garden. Many spots of the famous garden presents fantastic views of the castle’s solemn keep.
Within the reconstructed keep, there is also a small museum detailing the history of the castle, as well as a pottery studio where visitors can try their hand at making Bizen-Yaki pottery. Last but not least, the top floor offers a sweeping view of Okayama City and the lush oasis that is Kōraku-en. Under the right weather, the panorama is alike an impressionist painting.
7. Hiroshima Castle (広島城)
Hiroshima Castle seldom appears on lists about top Japanese castles. Firstly, it is overshadowed by more famous castles in the Chugoku and Kansai regions. Secondly, most visitors to Hiroshima City flock to the Peace Memorial Park. Those on a tight schedule then leave the city to visit nearby Miyajima Island.
Which is a great pity. Although Hiroshima Castle lacks the grandeur of Himeji Castle, or the majesty of Osaka Castle, its partially wooden exterior affords it a rustic ambience that is especially pleasing during spring and autumn. Walking to the entrance during Sakura season is akin to discovering a beautiful hut in the springtime countryside, one that just happens to be several floors tall.
For visitors keen on modern history, the view from the topmost floor is also one of the most chilling in the region. From there, the Atomic Dome is clearly visible. It thus doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture the devastation surging towards the original castle on that morning in 1945. In the midst of beauty and serenity is a poignant history lesson no one should forget.
Appendix A: Visiting Japanese Castles With the Japan Rail Pass
If you have limited days in Japan, but will be traveling with a Japan Rail Pass, it is easy to visit at least three of the above-mentioned castles. Here are two suggested itineraries. Both begin in Osaka.
Japan Rail Pass Itinerary for Castle Aficionados 1: The Western Route
With some planning, both options of this route can be completed in five days, with the final day reserved for returning to Osaka. There should also be enough time for you to check out other attractions along the way such as Okayama’s Kōraku-en and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
- Begin with Osaka Castle.
- Take the Sanyo Shinkansen (Hikari Service) to Himeji for the White Egret i.e. Himeji Castle. It’s a short ride.
- Take the Sanyo Shinkansen again for Okayama City. Visit Okayama Castle.
- From Okayama City, you have two options.
Option A: Take the Yakumo Limited Express service (Three hours one way) to Matsue City.
Option B: Continue using the Sanyo Shinkansen service to reach Hiroshima. After Hiroshima Castle, ride the Shinkansen service again to reach Kumamoto. For the latter part, you might need to switch trains at Hakata Station.
The benefit of Option B is that along the way, you can hop off at Fukuyama. While Fukuyama Castle isn’t as impressive as other Japanese castles, it’s just one minute by foot from Fukuyama Station.
Japan Rail Pass Itinerary for Castle Aficionados 2: The Eastern Route
- Begin with Osaka Castle
- Take the Tokaido Shinkansen to Nagoya. Along the way, you can hop off at Kyoto for Nijo Castle. Alternatively, from Kyoto, you can take a local train to nearby Hikone for its original castle.
- At Nagoya, you have the option to visit Nagoya Castle and nearby Gifu Castle. Of note, the keep of Nagoya Castle is permanently closed for reconstruction as of late 2018. However, it’s still going to be there for a while i.e. open for external viewing.
- From Nagoya Station, a limited express train ride will bring you right to Matsumoto for the superb Matsumoto Castle.
- With some planning, and inclusive of all options, this route can be completed in five days. Inclusive of returning to Osaka from Matsumoto.
- Naturally, by forgoing Kyoto, Hikone, and Nagoya, you can use those days to pop by Himeji and Okayama City, both of which are easily reached within an hour from Osaka.
Appendix B: Tips for Visiting Japanese Castles
- Be ready for a substantial walk to the keep. All famous Japanese castles are surrounded by expansive gardens and grounds, that is, areas not open to any motorized traffic. 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.
- Few Japanese castles are equipped with elevators. This means steps, sometimes very steep steps. Typically, it is also 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.
- There will be lots of free photo ops. Many castle parks have staff members walking around in Samurai armor. Unless they are stationed at a booth, there is no fee for a photograph with them.
- They close early. Like most historical attractions of Japan, castles close at sunset.
- You may be required to remove your shoes. 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 usually required to carry their shoes with them in flimsy plastic bags. Do be prepared.
- The castles will likely be empty. Unless there's a museum, there's usually very little on display within the keep. Smaller museums would also not have English displays, or would require you to have extensive knowledge of Japanese history/culture in order to appreciate the exhibits. For these reasons, visiting the interior of the keep is mostly for the panoramic view from the topmost floor. If that's not for you, you can safely skip this part of the visit.
© 2016 Scribbling Geek
Cheeky Kid from Milky Way on March 28, 2016:
Beautiful! I want to visit these castles one day.