Just as a man’s home is really his wife’s castle, Japan’s famed castles are actually symbols of regional history, culture and pride.
Showcasing some the nation’s most traditional architecture, they conjure images of samurai, warring feudal lords or Ryukyu royalty. For many today, they are picturesque backdrops for viewing cherry blossoms and autumn foliage. But perhaps most of all, they are monuments to regional heritage.
Castles exist in virtually every prefecture in Japan, from northern island of Hokkaido to southern island of Okinawa. In all, there have been more than 40,000 castles built here according to historical documents. While most have been destroyed and/or rebuilt repeatedly throughout history, there still are more than 1,000 castles, partial castles or castle ruins today, according to the Japan Castle Foundation’s Seiro Shimazaki.
“A castle is defined as a fortress with a fence (or wall), moat and tower,” Shimazaki said. “So the oldest castle by this definition is the Yoshinogari ruins in Saga Prefecture, which was built about 2,400 years ago.”
Originally, castles were built in strategic locations along trade routes, main roads or rivers. Over time, they developed according to the types of arms used in the battle. Eventually, they evolved into the well-known style of the late 16th to the early centuries with three to five stories, tall towers, large stone walls and moats.
“Castles built between 1600 and 1620 were the largest, most strategically sophisticated and beautiful,” Shimazaki said. “The greatest castles in the history, such as Kumamoto, Himeji, Osaka, Nagoya and Edo (Tokyo) castles were all built during this period.”
While this was also when castles started being used as centers of governance and not just fortresses in mainland Japan, it likely happened sooner in present day Okinawa Prefecture where Sho Hashi consolidated the entire region into the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1429.
Okinawan castles, on the other hand, with curved stone walls and arches that are unique to the region, historically were central to more than war and politics. They have always been considered sacred sites, as well.
“We Okinawans see castles as a symbol of our own region and are very proud of it,” said Mayumi Kuba of Shuri Castle Park’s research and display division.
Prior to the Ryukyu Kingdom, many powerful clans that vied for control over the islands had their own castles. In addition to Shuri Castle, there are more than a hundred castle ruins and partial structures on Okinawa’s islands today, Kuba said.
Okinawan castles usually contain an “utaki,”where priestesses are said to commune with the gods. Shuri Castle has 10 utaki. Only women were allowed use these sacred sites.
“While the king administered politics, his sisters often served the gods at utaki,” Kuba said. “Throughout history, both political and religious authority, kings and Ryukyu royal families, governed Okinawans.”
In modern history, castles, especially large ones such as Shuri, continued to house authority as bases for the Imperial Japanese Army. Hiroshima Castle served as Imperial General Headquarters during the Second Sino-Japanese War. As a result, it was targeted and destroyed in air raids.
Nagoya, Osaka, Okayama and Wakayama castles and others all suffered similar wartime fates. Shuri Castle, then the headquarters of Imperial Japanese Army, was destroyed (for the third time) by naval bombardment during World War II.
Most of these castles have since been rebuilt as regional heritage sites or museums.
“Local government and residents consider local castles to be valuable cultural assets that symbolize the unique aspect of their regions,” Shimazaki said. “They have also restored and maintained them as tourist attractions.”
These days, it is not hard to find a castle or two standing tall near your base. Why not visit to learn more about the region you’re stationed in and the history, culture and pride of its palatial past?
Popular castles near your base
Iwakuni Castle (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Iwakuni Castle was built in the Momoyama Era in 1608. After Tokugawa regime declared Law of One Castle per Province in 1615, the castle was torn down in the same year. The castle was rebuild 1962 as a museum displaying historical items such as samurai sword, firearms and suits of armor.
Because the castle was built on a top of mountain called “Shiroyama,” you can spot it easily from the city. The view from the top floor of the castle is spectacular, from which you can see the entire city of Iwakuni including Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. It takes about 30 minutes to look inside of castle.
After exploring the castle, visitors can walk around the castle to enjoy a nature reserve with more than 200 different trees.
Another major attraction is Kintai Bridge, which spans the Nishiki River at the foot of Iwakuni Castle. It is Iwakuni’s symbolic bridge and one of the most famous bridges in Japan. The five arched wooden bridge has a surface length of 230 yards and total length of 211.5 yards. It is 5.47 yards wide and the piers are 7.22 yards tall.
There is a Ropeway which takes you to the castle entrance. From ropeway’s lower station by the Kintai Bridge to the castle entrance takes about 5 minutes. The cost is 550 yen ($5.50) for a roundtrip ticket.
Built: 1608 (by Hiroie Kikkawa)
Getting there: 3 Yokoyama, Iwakuni city, Yamaguchi. 4.5 miles from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.
Admission: 260 yen ($2.60); 120 yen for children
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (entry until 4:30 p.m.), close: Dec. 16 to 31
Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Prefecture)
Located in central Kumamoto City about 2 ½ hours drive from Sasebo Naval Base, Kumamoto Castle is one of Japan’s three premier, along with Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle. Also known as Ginnan-jo (Ginkgo Castle), it was originally built in 1607 and took more than seven years to construct.
Nicknamed “Yokoyama-jo,” the castle was expertly built using ingenious architecture that helped protect its inner inhabitants from enemies. The non-scalable, J-shaped stone walls are called Musha gaeshi, and are built to repel invading warriors. During Japan’s last civil war in 1877, following an unsuccessful attempt to rise up against the new Meiji government, large parts of the castle were destroyed and taken over by the military.
Most of the castle, including the main towers, was reconstructed in the 1960s, with a few wooden structures having survived the aftermath. Inside the castle, visitors can see various displays to include castle replicates, armor and palanquins that are related to Kumamoto from the Edo to Meiji eras.
On the uppermost floor of the castle, the observation deck is set to provide an amazing view. With more than 800 cherry trees, Kumamoto castle is a popular place for cherry blossom viewing.
Built: 1607 (by Kiyomasa Kato)
Getting there: 1-1 Honmaru, Kumamoto city, Kumamoto. It takes a 15 minute tram ride from JR Kumamoto Station. Get off at Kumamotojo-mae tram stop. You can also walk from Kumamoto Station to the castle in about 30 to 45 minutes. From Sasebo Naval Base, it is about 2 ½ hours drive.
Admission: Adult: 500 yen ($5); 200 yen for children
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. (entry until 5:30 p.m.)
Hirosaki Castle (Aomori Prefecture)
Hirosaki Castle was built by Tsugaru feudal clan in the beginning of 17th century. The clan lived here and governed the Western Aomori district of Tohoku region for 260 years.
Also known as “Takaoka-jo” (Hawk Hill Castle). this castle is relatively small, but it is perfectly proportioned with triple a moat and earthworks. Its three-story tower is the only original tower existing in the Tohoku region. The gate in the outlying grounds are also original.
This castle is famed for being the only castle in the region comprised of stone walls. More than 5,000 cherry trees are planted around the castle and they draws numerous visitors during the cherry blossom season from the end of April until the beginning of May each year.
Built: 1611 (by Nobuhira Tsugaru)
Getting there: 1 Shirogane-cho, Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture (Shiyakusho-mae stop of Konan Bus from JR Hirosaki Station)
Admission: 310 yen; for ages 12 and under, 100 yen
Hours: April 1-Nov. 23, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Edo Castle (Imperial Palace, Tokyo)
Edo Castle was capital of the Shogunate government in Edo (Tokyo) and the home castle of the line of shoguns who ruled Japan for 260 years. The castle was originally built in 1457 by Ota Dokan, a feudal lord.
Since Tokugawa Ieyasu established his Shogunate Government in Edo, the castle became a symbol of the prestige of successive shoguns, and was also the center of political power. Nicknamed “Chiyoda-jo” (thousand age rice field castle), this is Japan’s largest castle, with the inner compound measuring roughly 5 miles in diameter, and the outer compound is around 10 miles long.
Although it is currently used as the imperial palace of the Emperor of Japan, many parts are open for public viewing. You can see original gates, such as Otemon and Shimizumon; turrets; the five-story tower; and bridges, such as Otebashi.
Built: 1457 (by Ota Dokan)
Getting There: Chiyoda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (5-minute walk from Otemachi station of Chiyoda-line)
Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (closed Mondays and Fridays)
Shuri Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)
Shuri Castle was the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom for 450 years. The castle grounds measured roughly 1,350 feet east to west and about 900 feet north to south, and there were eight Chinese-style gates, such as Shureimon, Zuisenmon and Koshinmon.
Originally built in the 14th century, it has been destroyed in war or by fire three times. After being completely destroyed in World War II, it was rebuilt again in 1992. The castle was then designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 along with others in Okinawa, including Nakagusuku and Nakijingusuku castles.
The castle’s Shurei Gate, with its red-colored tiles and double-layered roof set in white lime, retains the unique beauty that once belong to the entire castle. Other attractions include its majestic square called “unaa” which is surrounded by Seiden (State Chamber), Nanden (South Chamber), Hokuden (North Chamber) and Koshinmon Gate, which was used for the enthronement of Ryukyu kings. You can see reenactment of traditional Ryukyu rituals, performances and parades in traditional Ryukyuan attires during Syurijo Matsuri (Castle Festival) Oct. 31 through Nov. 3.
Built: 14th century
Getting there: 3 Shuri Tozo-cho, Naha City, Okinawa (15-minute walk from Shuri station of Yui-rail)
Admission: 820 yen ($8.20); 620 yen for high school students, 310 yen for middle school and younger.
Hours: 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m.