Castles of the Samurai
The timeless image of samurai suited in armor and helmets, attacking enemies with swords and spears. Recorded history of the “bushi” (samurai) dates back to the 8th century, initially as defenders of domains, then becoming a distinct social class, and eventually wielding political power. The late 15th century to the end of the 16th century was rife with samurai battles (the “Warring States Period”).
Castles served as the main stronghold for samurai, with large and small structures numbering more than 25,000 at their peak. However, countless wooden castles were damaged and fell into disrepair over the decades, disappearing from the landscape.
Five Incredible Castle Keeps that are National Treasures
At present, there are only 12 castles in Japan that feature main keeps, or “tenshu”, that have remained intact since their original construction. “Tenshu” refers to the highest tower, or “yagura”, in the castle keep, functioning as a lookout or arrow storehouse (the literal meaning of “yagura”).
Among the 12 castles with original keeps, five have been designated as national treasures: Matsumoto Castle (1500), Inuyama Castle (1537), Hikone Castle (1604), Himeji Castle (1619),and Matsue Castle (1607). Despite numerous wars and natural disasters over the centuries, these castles have survived, standing today in their original glory.
Take a Castle Tour
Located approximately 50 minutes by train from Kyoto in neighboring Shiga Prefecture, construction of Hikone Castle began in 1604, with the main keep finished in 1606. The castle grounds, as well as the surrounding residences and merchant buildings, were completed in 1622. Functioning as a military stronghold and seen as a symbol of power, Japanese castles are designed with invasions in mind, and feature several layers of defense, including moats and castle gates.
During the 17th to 19th centuries of the Edo period, Hikone Castle utilized the waterways of the adjacent Matsubara moat lake and nearby Lake Biwa to transport a variety of goods. Today, visitors to Hikone Castle can take a pleasure cruise on a replica of the castle lord’s boat. Enjoy year-round views of Hikone Castle’s stone walls and water locks against a backdrop of spring cherry blossoms or vivid autumn colors.
[Getting There] A 15-minute walk from JR Hikone station.
A short 25-minute train ride from Nagoya takes you to Inuyama City, where Inuyama Castle is located. Constructed in 1537, Inuyama Castle boasts the oldest main keep in the country. This unique tenshu has three tiers with four interior floors and two basement level. There is also a balcony around the circumference of the top of the keep, offering a panoramic view including the beautiful Kiso River, Mount Ontake, Nagoya station building, and even another castle – Gifu Castle.
As with all of Japan’s oldest castles, Inuyama Castle’s had many lords throughout its history. In the latter half of the 19th century, the castle became the property of Aichi Prefecture, reverting once again to the Naruse clan at the end of the 1800s.
Much of the original lumber used to construct Inuyama Castle has survived centuries of history, imbued with deep tones of over 400 years.
[Getting There] A 15-minute walk from station from Inuyama-Yuen station on the Meitetsu Inuyama Line.
The main keep of Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, is a majestic sight to behold. The five-tiered design in fact houses six floors inside. The exterior of Matsumoto Castle is adorned in black lacquered siding, giving it the nickname “The Crow Castle”. The main keep’s “moon viewing room”, with its red-painted railings, is itself a national treasure,
Of the five castles written about here, Matsumoto Castle is the only building to be constructed on flat land. The exterior’s black and white coloring in contrast with the a clear blue sky creates a stunning tri-color view. Combined with the backdrop of the Japanese Alps and the reflected image of the castle in the surrounding moat, and you have the perfect travel photo.
The adjacent Matsumoto City Museum exhibits priceless items from the castle dating back to the Edo period, including suits of armor worn by the final owners of the castle – the Toda clan. There are also seasonal events held in the Honmaru gardens, such as cherry blossom night viewing, the autumn moon viewing festival, and Noh plays performed on an open-air stage.
[Getting There] A 15-minute walk from JR Matsumoto station
A 30-minute bullet train ride from Shin-Osaka station takes you to Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, where you’ll find Himeji Castle. In 1993, Himeji Castle became Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, along with Horyu-ji Temple in Nara. Since its construction in 1609, the castle has not been damaged by fire a single time. The main keep, towers, gates and other artifacts have been preserved astoundingly well. Among 74 structures on the castle grounds designated as important cultural properties, the seven main buildings are national treasures.
Considered one of the most beautiful castles in the world, Himeji Castle’s form recalls a large white bird taking flight, hence the nickname “White Heron Castle”. Along the route from Himeji station, Otemae-dori avenue and Sannomaru Square are among several excellent viewing spots.
Himeji Castle is illuminated every day from sunset to midnight, offering a different atmosphere than daytime. Night viewing during sakura season is a particular highlight.
There is also an AR (Augmented Reality) app you can use when you visit Himeji to explore historical features of the castle and life within its walls.
The app is free to download fro the App Store (iPhone) and Google Play (Android). *Japanese only.
[Getting There] A 20-minute walk from either JR Himeji station or Sanyo-Himeji station on the Sanyo Main line.
Located in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, Matsue Castle is perched on a small hill overlooking the shores of Lake Shinji. Unique to the main keep is the observation deck on the top level, which once doubled as a control tower and lookout. The triangular, winged gables on the third level of the facade are an orthodox design element unique to Matsue Castle among all extant castles in Japan. The shape recalls a plover spreading its wings, giving the castle the nickname of “The Plover Castle”.
The arching figures of two killer whale-like, mythical sea creatures on the uppermost roof are the largest such ornaments among the 12 castle keeps of Japan. On closer inspection, the face somewhat resembles a tiger, and there are sharp spikes protruding from both sides of the body. These twin beasts guard Matsue Castle from on high.
Matsue Castle offers English-speaking volunteer guides (Matsue City Tourism Goodwill Guides) free of charge on Saturdays and Sundays from March to September, 9:00 a.m. to 4 p.m., and October to November, 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Guides are stationed at the castle, with no reservation required. For visitors who require a guide on a weekday, reservations can be made one week in advance by calling +81-852-21-4034 (English available) at a cost of ¥1,000 (entrance fees extra).
[Getting There] A 10-minute bus ride from JR Matsue station, or a 20-minute walk from Ichibata Railways Matsue Shinjiko-Onsen station.
*A 500-yen bus is available from Hiroshima City (travel time, three hours).
Five Japanese castles. All national treasures. Each with a incredibly unique appearance. Why not take a tour of these monuments to history?