November 06, 2015

15 Outstanding Japanese Castles

One of the things I like most about Japan is its old towns and castle towns with Edo period houses. Perhaps it is due to NHK Taiga dramas, or perhaps it was the enjoyable experience of roaming the streets of Hida-Takayama during my first trip to Japan. Really like the relaxed vibe of such towns. It's like I can sit on the porch all day, sipping green tea while listening to the water flow in the canal outside and enjoying the scent of wood.

So during my stay in Japan, old/castle town was always one of my main reasons for picking a certain region/place to visit. Before I realized it, I have been to 36 castles/castle ruins, inclusive of the 12 original castles dating back to the Edo period. Though there are still many more that I have not been to yet.

Among those I have visited, below are 15 outstanding ones that left me with deep impression. (Disclaimer: I am no expert in castles. I just enjoy visiting them.)

1. Matsumoto Castle(松本城), Nagano prefecture(長野県)

To be exact, it's my number 1, because of the grandeur that can be felt from across the bridge. It is 1 of the 12 original castles and 1 of the 4 national heritage castles. What is unique about it is that it has a secondary keep and a turret connected to the main keep. Heard its night illumination is magnificent too!

2. Himeji Castle(姫路城), Hyogo prefecture(兵庫県)

Also 1 of the 12 original castles and 1 of the 4 national heritage castles, Himeji Castle is known for its elegance and complexity. It underwent renovation in recent years and finally re-opened in March 2015. (Photo was taken in 2014.) It is a great place for Hanami because of its spacious grounds with lots of cherry trees.

3. Matsuyama Castle(松山城), Ehime prefecture(愛媛県)

1 of the 12 original castles, Matsuyama Castle left me with a strong impression because going up to this hilltop castle by chair lift is an experience itself. It is also a complex castle with multiple wings and a secondary keep.

4. Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle(備中松山城), Okayama prefecture(岡山県)

Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle also left me with one of the strongest impressions, partly because of its inaccessibility :P It is the only mountaintop castle out of the 12 original castles, and also the oldest among them. I had to take a taxi to the nearest parking lot and hike up approximately 20 minutes. Due to its elevation, it is possible to view it in a sea of clouds on some days of the year.

5. Takeda Castle Ruins(竹田城址), Hyogo prefecture(兵庫県)

When talking about castle and sea of clouds, Takeda Castle Ruins, also known as the Machu Picchu of Japan, comes to mind. The famous view can be seen from the adjacent hill called Ritsuunkyo(立雲峡), but it is not easy to see. There are many weather conditions to be met, such as huge weather difference between night and day, good weather etc. Was successful on my 2nd attempt in November 2013. Lots of planning was involved in order to reach the peak by 8 am.

6. Nijo Castle(二条城), Kyoto prefecture(京都府)

This UNESCO world heritage site no longer has a castle keep, but its Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense) Palace is really outstanding, with beautiful sliding doors and ceiling. In spring, it is also one of the must-visit places in Kyoto for night Hanami.

7. Karatsu Castle(唐津城), Saga prefecture(佐賀県)

This rebuilt castle is kind of low profile, but I was truly impressed by the view from the top of the keep. It actually offers panoramic view of the ocean which acts as a natural moat!

8. Shuri Castle(首里城), Okinawa prefecture(沖縄県)

This castle is atypical of Japanese castles, from its color to its design. It is a UNESCO world heritage site under the collective title of Ryukyu Kingdom related properties.

9. Kumamoto Castle(熊本城), Kumamoto prefecture(熊本県)

Probably the most outstanding and famous castle in Kyushu, Kumamoto Castle is a grand castle with 2 towers in its castle keep. Its Honmaru Goten Palace building with beautiful sliding doors is also impressive.

10. Hirosaki Castle(弘前城), Aomori prefecture(青森県)

Out of the 12 original castles, Hirosaki Castle is the only one in the Tohoku Region. It is 1 of Japan's best Hanami spots, with the many weeping cherry trees planted within the grounds, somei yoshino around the moat, and petal-filled moat when the season comes to an end. It is currently undergoing renovation works.

11. Osaka Castle(大阪城), Osaka prefecture(大阪府)

Although Osaka Castle is a rebuilt castle, it is the castle for Toyotomi Hideyoshi's rule, 1 of the 3 great unifiers in Japan's history. The inside is like a museum with many Toyotomi-related exhibits. It is also a good place for Hanami, thanks to the numerous somei yoshino trees.

12. Nagoya Castle(名古屋城), Aichi prefecture(愛知県)

Just like Osaka Castle, Nagoya Castle is also a rebuilt castle but of great historical importance and extensive exhibits. It was constructed by the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, another great unifier in Japan's history. There is also a Tokugawa Art Museum with many precious artifacts just beside, so visitors can enjoy a comprehensive walk through Edo period history when visiting the area.

13. Aizu Wakamatsu Castle(会津若松城), Fukushima prefecture(福島県)

Also known as Tsuruga Castle, this relatively low profile castle actually has many exhibits comparable to that of Osaka or Nagoya. The roof tiles are red, unique compared to other Japanese castles. This castle became more famous in recent years due to NHK Taiga drama Yae no Sakura(八重の桜). Actors' costumes are displayed there too.

14. Matsue Castle(松江城), Shimane prefecture(島根県)

1 of the 12 original castles, Matsue Castle is the 3rd largest castle in Japan. It looks like it has 5 storeys, but actually 6! It is a very well-maintained castle with exhibits inside. And Matsue is a really nice historical city surrounded by lakes.

15. Kochi Castle(高知城), Kochi prefecture(高知県)

Also 1 of the 12 original castles, Kochi Castle is one of the few castles that was not only used for military purposes, but also as residence. It is the only castle that has all buildings in the Honmaru (main circle of defense) intact since the Edo period.


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