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Five of the Best: must-see castles of Japan

September 14, 2020

Japan’s feudal castles are unmissable for any history or architecture buff

While Japanese fortresses and defensive buildings have been around for centuries, the 16th and 17th centuries were a banner time for feudal-era castles, which formed the defensive heart of many towns (including Tokyo). Many of the remaining castles in Japan have been classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The hundred-odd that stand today are enduring examples of the classic Japanese castle shape; one unique factor in constructing these huge complexes is achieving a sense of balance with the surrounding landscape. As a result, there is an air of elegance to Japanese castles that is best exemplified in old yamajiro or mountain castles, which were built into the mountains themselves.

Tourists walking around the Osaka Castle on a beautiful day in Osaka, Japan.
Tourists walking around the Osaka Castle on a beautiful day in Osaka, Japan.

While Japanese castle foundations were usually made with sturdy stone, wooden roof structures and other less-resilient structural details were heavily damaged in subsequent wars, bombings, and natural disasters (including a disturbing number of lightning strikes), which has resulted in intensive modern-day restoration efforts. Castle visiting in Japan usually involves a lot of walking, stair-climbing, and may include some shoes-off experiences, so be prepared.

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Here, some of the finest castles in Japan to visit.

Himeji Castle

Arguably Japan’s biggest and most famous castle, Himeji – or White Heron Castle – is a striking symbol of beauty in Hyogo prefecture. It no longer resembles its humble origins as a hilltop fort – after years of reconstruction efforts, it achieved its ultimate form in the 1600s, where it has sat untouched by World War II bombings and earthquakes. Five of its structures are considered national treasures of Japan.

The spring scene of the majestic Himeji Castle in Hyogo, Japan.
The spring scene of the majestic Himeji Castle in Hyogo, Japan.

Osaka Castle

Originally built in 1583, Osaka Castle was an ambitious project for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a daimyo (feudal lord) who wished to outdo his rival, Oda Nobunaga. Perched atop a stone-fortified landfill, the castle’s location originally housed a temple, and endured many interior conflicts, civil wars, and natural disasters. Today, the castle has been beautifully reconstructed and includes some of Japan’s most beautiful parks and gardens, such as the sakura-filled Nishinomaru Garden.

Boat ride around the Osaka Castle in Osaka, Japan.
Boat ride around the Osaka Castle in Osaka, Japan.

Nijo Castle

Located in Kyoto, Nijo is a Tokugawa-era castle that is comprised of traditional architectural elements and two palaces: Ninomaru and Honmaru. Ninomaru is still standing, and features some fascinating design elements, such as squeaky, 'chirping' uguisubari floors (nightingale floors) to prevent assassins and spies from sneaking around.

The picturesque Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan.
The picturesque Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan.

Matsuyama Castle

Named after a hot spring in Ehime prefecture, Matsuyama Castle has exhibits of feudal-era history, along with samurai-era armour and other relics. It is one of the most intact historic castles of Japan that largely escaped major damage. There’s even a gondola (Matsuyamajo Ropeway) to get to the castle, as it’s located on a painfully steep hill – on the upside, it has some incredible views of the Seto Inland Sea.

Matsuyama Castle is one of Japans twelve original castles in Matsuyama, Japan.
Matsuyama Castle is one of Japans twelve original castles in Matsuyama, Japan.

Matsumoto Castle

Along with Himeji, this is one of Japan’s three iconic 'premier castles' and its main keep or donjon is a national treasure. Built in the 1500s, this impressive black structure is also called the 'Crow Castle' (karasu-jo) for its black roof 'wings' and walls. Like many other Japanese castles, Matsumoto is a popular spot during cherry blossom season in April.

Matsumoto Castle is one of the most complete and beautiful among Japans original castles in Matsumoto, Japan.
Matsumoto Castle is one of the most complete and beautiful among Japans original castles in Matsumoto, Japan.

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