About 25,000 castles were constructed in Japan over the centuries. During war time they were areas of self-defense, and during peacetime they were symbols of politics and developers of culture. Here are 7 of these historical castles that are popular sightseeing areas as well.
1. Nijo Castle (Kyoto)
The World Heritage site Motorikyuu Nijo Castle was built 400 years ago as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a statesman of the time. In recent eras it was used as an imperial villa by the royal family, which is why it has the name "motorikyuu" ("former imperial villa") attached to it. This castle was the scene of turning points in Japanese history like the restoration of imperial rule during the Edo period, when the Tokugawa shogunate restored power to the emperor after generations of rule.
Nijo Castle has Honmaru Castle, which has been designated as an important cultural property, and the Ninomaru Castle, which has been established as a national treasure. Honmaru Castle is the castle's center, while Ninomaru is the 2nd most important building on the grounds. Ninomaru Castle was built using the samurai-style shoinzukuri style of architecture, and it's definitely worth a look thanks to its gorgeous and luxurious displays of Edo period cultural artifacts, including shouhekiga (sliding doors and walls with paintings on them), wood carvings on thresholds, metal fixtures used as decorations and more. The shouhekiga paintings were painted over a period of 400 years between the 15th and 19th centuries by artists of the famous Kano school of painting. This castle is also famous for its "uguisubari no rouka," a hallway that makes noise as you walk in order to for the residents to listen for intruders. Definitely make sure to listen when you walk through! While the gardens are beautiful all year round, it's especially recommended to go in the spring to see the 200 cherry blossom trees lit up. The enchanting sight is popular with travelers. If you get the chance, please make sure to stop by.
2. Inuyama Castle (Aichi)
Inuyama Castle was built on a cliff overlooking the Kiso River in 1537 by Oda Nobuyasu, a military commander during the Warring States period. This castle was an important player in trade, politics, and economics. During the Warring States period, many wars were fought in order to establish borders, and Inuyama Castle was involved with many of them. Even though it was often damaged by these battles and natural disasters after the wars ended, it was usually repaired. Currently only the castle tower, now a national treasure, remains, and Inuyama Castle is famous for being only one of the 12 castles that has the original castle tower from the Edo period or before still intact. If you visit the castle, go out on the highest point of the castle tower and enjoy the scenery of the river and the town as a lord would have! The town of Inuyama surrounds the castle, and since it still has a nostalgic feeling of being a castle town, it's recommended to stroll through before heading to the castle.
3. Matsumoto Castle (Nagano)
Matsumoto Castle, like Inuyama Castle, is one of the 12 castles with their original castle towers still intact, and is also designated as a national treasure. The contrast of the black and white building materials is very beautiful, and the jet-black appearance has led to it being bestowed the name of "Ujou," meaning "crow castle." It's become known as one of the symbols of the city of Matsumoto. It was built around the year 1500, originally as a support castle originally named Fukashi Castle for Ogasawarashi, a samurai family. A support castle was built not only as defense to protect the main castle, but it was also usually built in a strategic position to protect borders and more. Afterwards, Ishikawa Kazumasa (a military commander during the Warring States period) took control of the castle and maintained it to its current visage. Its five-storied castle tower is the oldest still in existence in Japan, and the inside is basically about the same as when it was originally constructed. Its complex construction includes two towers of different sizes, Daitenshu and Inuikotenshu, as well as three turrets, Watariyagura, Tatsumitsukeyagura, and Tsukimiyagura, for a total of five buildings protecting the main castle. Some must-sees are the "ishi-otoshi" used to protect the castle from enemies scaling the stone wall and the collection of guns on exhibit. It's often very crowded so please make sure to visit when you have time.
4. Hirosaki Castle (Aomori)
Currently, the remains of Hirosaki Castle in what has become Hirosaki Park have been designated as an important cultural property. The remains of the castle, originally built in the Edo period, are the castle tower, turret, gate, and more. It's famous for the 2600 cherry blossom trees that bloom beautifully in the spring. Tsugaru, a famous military commander that unified the western side of Aomori, built the castle tower in 1611, and after that it was the castle belonging to the Tsugaru clan for 260 years. It was the place where the Tsugaru-han (the government structure) conducted their politics. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), the entire area was renovated and reopened as Hirosaki Park. The castle tower burned down thanks to a lightning strike in 1627, but was rebuilt in 1810. That tower has become the Hirosaki Castle Archives, and it's a recommended stop because you can see how they lived at the time thanks to their historical documents on the Tsugaru-han as well as their battle tools including armor and swords. The three-story Hirosaki Castle (tower) is currently 14.4 meters tall and weighs 400 tons and is being moved. If you move to look directly below the tower towards the east side of the inner citadel, you'll see that part of the rock wall is undergoing major renovations. They estimate the renovations will take ten years. The tower isn't open to the public until the end of March, 2016, but from April 1st, the relocation will finally be finished, so make sure to come see it!
5. Himeji Castle (Hyogo)
The UNESCO World Heritage site, Himeji Castle, is a representative of Japanese castles. The sight of its beautiful white plaster has given it the nicknames "Hakurojo" ("white egret castle") or "Shirazakijou" ("white heron castle"). It has a long history, starting from when the Akamatsu samurai clan built it around 600 years ago as a fortress. Afterwards, Ikeda Terumasa (a military commander during the Warring States period) had huge renovations done to it from 1601-1610 in order to get it to its current state. After its fortification, it was never destroyed by war as many other castles have been, so most of the current building is as it was when it was first constructed. This castle tower is included in the 12 towers that still remain, and some of the characteristics of Himeji Castle's architecture are the 5-tiered 7 story Daitenshu (large castle tower) and 3 smaller castle towers being connected to the watariyagura turret. 74 buildings including turrets and gates are all designated as important cultural properties. If you download and use a free AR application on your smartphone or tablet, you can see the interior and equipment of the castle as it was when it was in use along with explanations. It's a popular app, so please try it!
6. Matsuyama Castle (Ehime)
Matsuyama Castle is a famous Japanese castle built by Kato Yoshiaki, a military commander during the Warring States period, that began construction in 1602 and took 26 years to build. The parts that have remained since it was constructed have been designated as important cultural properties. The castle tower, connected to smaller castle towers and turrets, is another one of the 12 castle towers that remain. The castle tower and many of the buildings were lost to natural disasters, but in 1854 it was rebuilt and it is famous for being the last fortress constructed in Japan. Outside of the castle tower there are many impressive things to see, including the folding-style rock wall in the main citadel that's over 14 meters tall and has graffiti from the Edo period still on it. The biggest recommendation though is the 360 degree panoramic view of the Seto Inland Sea from the top story of the castle tower. Please enjoy it freely!
7. Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto)
Kumamoto Castle, one of Japan's three major castles, is a castle that was built 400 years ago making the best use of the military experience of Kato Kiyomasa, a military commander of the Warring States period. Between the castle walls lies a huge area of about 98ha. This castle was used by the Hosokawa clan during the Edo period, and it was the battleground for the Satsuma Rebellion, the final battle in the Meiji Period. During the Satsuma Rebellion, a mysterious fire burned down the majority of the buildings, including the castle towers and the inner citadel, but it was rebuilt in 1960. The turret Udoro that has remained intact since its original construction is designated as an important cultural property. When talking about Kumamoto Castle, one of its most famous properties is its "mushagaeshi" stone wall: this wall was built at a slope so that while the bottom is gentle it gets extremely steep as you go up so intruders can't enter. It's called the impregnable castle, and it's full of traps in order to stop enemy intruders from entering. The sight of the huge living area rising above the stacked stone wall is definitely photogenic! The views from the castle tower and the gorgeous inner citadel are must-sees. Please visit this castle with time so you can take in every bit of it.
Japanese castles are popular sightseeing spots, but they're not just castles - they're often exhibits on historical documents and parks overflowing with nature to enjoy the seasons too! Check the details beforehand and please enjoy going from castle to castle as much as possible!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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