Things to Know Before Visiting Japanese Castles

Castles are major tourist destinations in Japan, and there are many famous ones across the country. This article provides information on Japanese castles that will come in handy for when you actually visit them.

What is a shiro (castle)?

Shiro, the Japanese term for castle, refers to protective structures built to prevent enemy attacks. It technically includes simple structures with motes and fences. The castle grounds usually have a variety of structures, such as yagura (watchtowers where you can observe and shoot at enemies), but the tenshukaku (tenshu) is the most prominent. It is a tall structure that is symbolic of the castle and plays an important role as the place from which the lord gives orders. It also acts as a lookout and storage space.

What types of castles are there in Japan?

Japanese castles can generally be categorized into three types based on the landscape they are built on. One of them is the "yamajiro", which are built on mountains. These castles provide superior protection using the natural environment and many were built from ancient times through to the middle ages. Another is the "hirajiro", which are built on flat land. These castles started to be built around the end of the 16th century, when Japan was gradually becoming more peaceful. They have protective and political functions. Castle towns were built around them and flourished as centers of commerce. The third type are called "hirayamajiro", which combine elements of yamajiro and hirajiro. They are built on hills with unobstructed views. Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture is an example of a hirayamajiro.

*This is an image of Gifu Castle, which is an example of a yamajiro.

*This image is of Hiroshima Castle, which is an example of a hirajiro.

How many castles are there in Japan?

It is said that if you include simple structures with moats, there are between 30,000 – 50,000 castles in Japan. The buildings that generally conjure the image of a castle in Japan today were built between the latter half of the 15th century and the latter half of the 16th century. There were around 3,000 of them in varying sizes. This number has decreased over the years, and today, there are only 12 that still have their original tenshu from over 400 years ago. However, there are castles across the country with reconstructed tenshu, such as Nagoya Castle and Osaka Castle.

*This image is of Hikone Castle, which is one of the castles that still has their original tenshu.

Major must-see castles!

Himeji Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)

This castle is designated as a World Heritage Site. It still has its original tenshu, which is a pure white wooden structure. It is praised for being the most beautiful out of all the castles in Japan. Its watchtowers, gates, and walls have been preserved well, so it is a great example of Japan's unique castle architecture.

Entrance fee: 1,000 JPY/adult (18 and older), 300 JPY/child (elementary, junior high, and high school age)

Himeji Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)

68 Hon-machi, Himeji-shi, Hyogo

Matsumoto Castle (Nagano Prefecture)

This hirajiro has the majestic Northern Alps as its backdrop. Its original tenshu, which was built between 1593 – 1594, stands surrounded by three rings of moats and is designated as a national treasure. The walls, which have contrasting colors with white plaster on top and dark plaster on the bottom, create a fantastic balance with the surrounding scenery.

Entrance fee (combined with Matsumoto City Museum): 610 JPY/adult, 300 JPY/elementary and junior high school age, free/children under school age

Matsumoto Castle (Nagano Prefecture)

4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano

Kanazawa Castle (Ishikawa Prefecture)

This is a hirayamajiro in Kanazawa City that is now open to the public as a park. Structures such as the Ishikawa Gate – an Important Cultural Property of Japan, the reconstructed Gojukken Nagaya, and Hashizume-mon can be visited. The variegated details of the stone walls are worth noting.

Entrance Fee (Hishi Yagura, Gojukken Nagaya, Hashizume-mon): 310 JPY/adult (18 and older); 100 JPY/child (6 - 17)

Kanazawa Castle (Ishikawa Prefecture)

1-1 Marunouchi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa

Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Prefecture)

This is a huge hirayamajiro on a 242-acre site with a 5.3km perimeter. It is famous as a castle that was impregnable to large military attacks. The two tenshu, one large and one small, were reconstructed in 1960. The castle is built on stone walls with unique formations and has an imposing air to it. Part of the castle is closed to the public due to the effects of the 2016 earthquake, but the tenshukaku can be seen from Nimomaru Park and other parts of the castle grounds.

Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Prefecture)

1-1 Honmaru, Chuo-ku, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto

There are many more castles in Japan, each with unique regional characteristics. Be sure to visit them!

*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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