[2018 Edition] The Top 20 Castles to Experience Japan’s History
Castles, together with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, are popular tourist destinations in Japan. Yet, there are many people who aren't quite sure what to look for in a castle when they visit. So this time, we will introduce the top 20 castles in Japan (source: TripAdvisor "The Best Castles in Japan 2018 chosen by travelers") and discuss what makes each of them special and appealing.
What are Japanese Castles Like?
Castles in Japan are military facilities that were built throughout history, from ancient times to early modern times, to protect against enemy attack. They sometimes doubled as the lord's residence and the center of government. They began as simple buildings with moats and fences, but over the years a variety of different types of castle architecture were developed. Starting from about the 16th century, multi-story buildings with a Tenshu (or Tenshukaku) tower were built across the country. Today, there are only 12 castles with their original Tenshu towers that remain from before 1867. They are referred to as "Genzon Tenshu" and are considered to be important cultural assets. There are also many popular castles with reconstructed Tenshu towers.
The Top 20 Castles
No. 20 Gujo Hachiman Castle (Gifu)
Gujo Hachiman Castle is a castle with a history of more than 450 years. The existing Tenshu tower was reconstructed in 1933, making it Japan's oldest Tenshu tower to have been reconstructed in wood. Although it is small, it is considered to be the most beautiful mountain castle in Japan. The recommended time to visit is between early and mid-November when the approximately 100 momiji (Japanese maple) trees around it turn a bright red color. During this time of the year, the castle is lit up in the evenings.
Entrance fee: 310 JPY/adult (high school age and older), 150 JPY/elementary and junior high school age
No. 19 Kasturen-Jo Site (Okinawa)
Okinawa is an area that was once called Ryukyu. It has a unique culture distinct from Japan, and its castles are built in a unique way called called "gusuku." One such castle, Katsuren-jo, was built between the 12th and 13th centuries and is designated as a World Heritage Site. It sits atop a 100m-high hill and has a unique structure with four areas divided by stone walls that are positioned like stairs. The castle site is popular as a viewpoint from which to see the azure sky and ocean. The information boards on the site have QR codes to scan on smart devices to get audio guides in English, Chinese, and Korean.
No. 18 Takeda Castle Ruins (Hyogo)
Takeda Castle was built between 1441 and 1444 on the summit of the 354m-high Mt. Kojo. The castle spans approximately 100m east to west and 400m north to south and is a valuable ruin with the stone walls still intact. It is famous as a place where a sea of clouds can appear, so lucky visitors can see a fantastic view of the castle that seems to float in the sky early in the morning between late September and early April. The best view of the castle is from Ritsuunkyo on Mt. Asago.
Entrance fee: 500 JPY/adult (high school age and older), free for children junior high school age and younger
No. 17 Site of Hizen Nagoya Castle (Saga)
Hizen Nagoya Castle is a castle that was built in 1591 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 - 1598), a warrior lord who unified the country. With a site covering 170,000 sq.m., it was the second largest castle in Japan at the time. The area around the castle was the center of Japan's government, economy, and culture when Hideyoshi was in power. The buildings on the site were all moved to other parts of the country after Hideyoshi died and today, the vast site has been taken over by greenery with just the stone walls and the site of the Tenshu tower remaining to give us a sense of the huge castle that once existed there.
No. 16 Nagoya Castle (Aichi)
Nagoya Castle is one of Japan's three great castles. It was built around 1609 at the decree of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 - 1616), a feudal lord that unified the country after Hideyoshi died. The current Tenshu tower was reconstructed in 1959 and is known around the country for the golden Shachihoko (an imaginary creature with a head like a dragon or tiger and a body like a fish). The interior of the tower is currently closed for renovations (until 2022) but there is much to see, such as the Hommaru Palace, which is considered a masterwork of early modern castle palace architecture.
Entrance fee: 500 JPY/adult, free for children junior high school age and younger
No. 15 Yamanaka Castle Ruins (Shizuoka)
Yamanaka Castle was built between 1558 and 1570 by the Later Hojo Clan, a powerful clan in the Kanto Region. It was a large castle that spanned 1.7km east to west and 2.6km north to south, but fell to attacks by Hideyoshi's army in 1590. It is now a beautiful park full of flowers such as azalea, hydrangea, and daffodils. It is popular as a scenic spot with a view of Mt. Fuji far away. The thought that the warriors of the Later Hojo Clan must have seen this same view will make you feel a connection with history.
No. 14 Hikone Castle (Shiga)
Hikone Castle was built over a period of nearly 20 years starting from 1604. The Tenshu tower, which is a National Treasure, is an example of a valuable original tower that remains today. It is distinguished by the design that combines several different types of gables so that it presents a different beauty depending on the direction from which it is seen. It is popular for seeing the cherry blossoms between around April 1 and 20 every year, and to see the colorful foliage from late November to early December. There are guided tours by volunteers available in English, French, and Chinese with advance reservations (a 1,000 JPY transportation fee is required for each guide).
Entrance fee: 800 JPY/adult, 200 JPY/elementary and junior high school age
No. 13 Imperial Palace East Gardens (Site of Former Edo Castle) (Tokyo)
The Tokugawa Family was a warrior clan that was founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu and ruled Japan for 265 years. Their residence, Edo Castle, was a huge castle with a total area of about 960,000 sq.m. The site of Edo Castle is now the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor lives, but a part of it is open to the public as the Imperial Palace East Gardens. The gardens have a peaceful atmosphere with plants for each season, and ruins of past structures in various places. The stone walls that were the foundation of the Tenshu tower gives us an idea of the Tenshu tower that was the tallest in Japan. There are English-language guided tours by volunteers at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm every Wednesday and Saturday.
No. 12 Kochi Castle (Kochi)
Kochi Castle is the only castle in Japan with the entire Hommaru (the main area of the castle), including the Tenshu tower, remaining. There is much to see there, with 15 structures that are designated as Important Cultural Properties of Japan. The most popular photo shot of the castle is of the Tenshu tower taken from in front of the Otemon gate. There is also a fantastic view from the Kochi Castle Outlook Lobby in the Kochi Castle Museum of History, which opened in 2017.
Admission (Tenshu, Kaitokukan, Higashitamon, and Rokamon): 420 JPY/age 18 and over, free for anyone under 18
No. 11 Nakijin-jo Site (Okinawa)
Nakijin Castle was a gusuku that was the residence of Hokuzan, the king that ruled the area in the 14th century. It is one of the largest gusuku in Okinawa and is registered as a World Heritage Site. It is distinguished by the beautifully curved stone castle walls. It is located on a hilltop that is 100m high, so there is a fantastic view of the cobalt blue ocean. The castle ruins are also famous as a place to see Taiwan cherry trees that blossom in January, ahead of the cherry blossom season in Japan.
Entrance fee: 400 JPY/adult, 300 JPY/elementary, junior high and high school students, free for children under elementary school age
No. 10 Iwamura Castle Ruins (Gifu)
Iwamura Castle, built in 1185, is a castle at a height of 717m, which is one of the highest in Japan. It was an impregnable castle that took advantage of the natural landscape with a height difference of 180m, and its majestic stone walls that are 1.7km long still remain today. It is often surrounded by fog that creates a mystical scenery, giving it the nickname "the Machu Picchu of Japan." It is also popular as the site of the story of Otsuya, a female castle lord who lived through a period of rampant warfare.
No. 9 Matsue Castle (Shimane)
Matsue Castle is a castle that was completed around 1611. It is popular for the Genzon Tenshu tower, which is designated as a National Treasure. It is a solid structure in tones of black and is the 2nd largest castle in terms of square footage and the 3rd tallest castle in Japan. It has majestic gables that look like a bird spreading its wings and decorations such as 2m-high Shachihoko that combine to create a beautiful facade. The top floor is a wonderful viewpoint with a 360° view of the city of Matsue and Lake Shinji. There are free guided tours in English and other languages by volunteers during the weekend.
Tower entrance fee: 670 JPY/adult, 280 JPY/elementary and junior high school student, 330 JPY/visitor from abroad
No. 8 Bitchu Matsuyama Castle (Okayama)
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is located on the 480m-high Mt. Gagyu, and the area surrounding it was once an important strategic location. The entire mountain was gradually built into a fortress from around 1240, and became an impregnable castle. Today, it is famous as the only mountain castle with a Genzon Tenshu. It is also known for the sea of clouds and the beautiful scenery of the fortress seeming to float in the sky. The sea of clouds tend to appear from sunrise to about 8:00 am between late September and early April. The best place to see it is from the Bitchu Matsuyama Castle Observatory
Entrance fee: 300 JPY/adult, 150 JPY/elementary school and junior high school age
No. 7 Inuyama Castle (Aichi)
Inuyama Castle is a castle that was built in 1537 on a defensive position along Kiso River protected to the rear by sheer cliffs. The highlight of this castle is the Genzon Tenshu (a National Treasure) that is said to be the oldest in Japan. The Tenshu is a majestic wooden structure with an interior that has wonderful design with much of the old wood from the time of construction remaining. There is a fantastic view of the surrounding areas from the top floor. During the fireworks festival held on Kiso River every year, the castle is lit up beautifully by the fireworks.
Entrance fee: 550 JPY/adult, 110 JPY/elementary and junior high school age
No. 6 Nakagusuku Castle Ruins (Okinawa)
Nakagusuku Castle Ruins, which is a World Heritage Site, is the gusuku with the most structures that retain their original forms. The ruins sit on a scenic hill with views of the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea. The highlight is the castle walls that surround it. The walls are made of stone called Ryukyu Limestone that is stacked to create beautiful curves by deftly utilizing the natural landscape. Every November, a projection mapping event is held with traditional Okinawan performances enhanced by mystical light and sound.
Entrance fee: 400 JPY/adult, 300 JPY/junior high and high school age, 200 JPY/elementary school age
No. 5 Oka Castle Ruins (Oita)
Oka Castle Ruins are the ruins of a castle with a total area of 1 million sq.m. on a hilltop surrounded by sheer cliffs. The castle was built in 1185 and was known as an impregnable castle. From around 1594, it was built up into the form of a modern castle but all the buildings were demolished in 1874, and today, only the stone walls remain. There are now 1,000 cherry trees on the premises that bloom beautifully in late March every year. The sight of the petals falling, combined with a knowledge of the vicissitudes of fortune of the place, gives one the sense of the romance of history.
Entrance fee: 300 JPY/high school age and older, 150 JPY/elementary and junior high school age
No. 4 Matsumoto Castle (Nagano)
Matsumoto Castle is a castle that was built in 1504. It has a Genzon Tenshu constructed between 1593 and 1594 that is designated as a National Treasure. It has a complex structure with five buildings, including a large Tenshu and watchtowers, that are connected, and the exterior has a rustic feel without any showy decorations. The contrast of its black and white colors looks splendid with the majestic mountains in the background. There is much more to see on the castle grounds, such as the dignified Kuromon gate. It is popular to take photographs with the Omotenashi-tai staff at the castle dressed in samurai and ninja costumes.
Entrance fee: 610 JPY/adult, 300 JPY/elementary and junior high school age, free for children under elementary school age
No. 3 Matsuyama Castle (Ehime)
Matsuyama Castle is a castle that was constructed over a period of 4.5 centuries starting in 1602. It is located on Mt. Katsu, at an altitude of 132m in the center of Matsuyama and can be accessed by ropeway or lift. The highlight of this castle is the Genzon Tenshu that was reconstructed in 1854. It is a highly finished castle that is the last complete castle to be constructed in Japan. There are experiences offered inside, such as to try on samurai armor and handle swords. From the top floor, there is a view of the city that spreads out below and the islands far away on the Seto Inland Sea.
Matsuyama Castle Tenshu entrance fee: 510 JPY/adult, 150 JPY/elementary school student
Round trip ticket on ropeway lift: 510 JPY/adult, 260 JPY/elementary school age
*Up to two children under elementary school age can ride free with each adult
No. 2 Nijo Castle (Kyoto)
The World Heritage Site, Nijo Castle, was the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Family. It is a castle of high standing that was once an imperial villa. The highlight is the National Treasure, Ninomaru Palace, a group of six structures that represent the epitome of culture and art of the time. The brilliant decorations that seem as if they were conspicuous displays of the Tokugawa Family's power are not to be missed. There are more than 3,000 murals inside, out of which 1,016 are designated as Important Cultural Properties.
Entrance fee: 600 JPY/general, 350 JPY/junior high and high school age, 200 JPY/elementary school age, free for children under elementary school age
No. 1 Himeji Castle (Hyogo)
The No. 1 spot goes to the World Heritage Site, Himeji Castle—a castle that is representative of Japan both in name and substance. The highlight is the Genzon Tenshu, which is designated as a National Treasure. With a large Tenshu and three smaller Tenshu connected by watari-yagura (roofed passages), it is the largest Tenshu in Japan. The walls are all in white and shimmer gloriously on a fine day. The castle is often compared to a white heron in flight, and is referred to as the White Heron Castle. It is one of the finest aesthetic examples of wooden architecture in Japan. Watchtowers, gates and stone walls are also preserved in good condition so that the castle as a whole provides a great example of Japan's unique castle structure. There are free guided tours in various languages by volunteers.
Entrance fee: 1,000 JPY/adult (18 and older), 300 JPY/elementary, junior high and high school age, free for children under elementary school age
In addition to these, there are many more wonderful castles in Japan, such as the iconic Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto and the Goryokaku in Hakodate, Hokkaido. When in Japan, be sure to go visit the castles!
*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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