With over 400 years of history, Matsumoto Castle is one of the 5 castles in Japan designated as ‘National Treasures’ along with Himeji, Hikone, Inuyama and Matsue castles.
It is said that Japan once boasted between twenty and fifty thousand castles. As in Europe, they were first used as fortresses and residences of the daimyo, then as centres and symbols of political power. Almost all of them have been destroyed by order of the central government to put an end to the feudal system during the Meiji era, by natural disaster or by bombs during the Second World War.
Many have since been rebuilt, often in the 1960s and 1970s, as tourist attractions. But only a dozen dungeons have survived in their original form. Of these, the Japanese government has designated five as national treasures.
All were built for defensive purposes during the period of the Sengoku seigniorial wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Bring thick socks or comfortable slippers for your visit. The interior of the buildings has varnished wooden floors that can be slippery. And the floors are separated by fairly steep staircases or ladders.
Why visit the Japanese castles of the feudal lord?
Over the course of its long history, Japan has seen the creation of thousands of castles. During the Edo period, the feudal lords saw their fortresses destroyed in application of a decree limiting the number of castles to one per lord. It wasn’t just the Edo period that caused the disappearance of these architectural marvels. In the late 1860s, the Meiji Restoration took place. With the aim of modernising Japan, many of the old buildings were destroyed. Earthquakes also caused a great deal of damage in the Land of the Rising Sun, not to mention the bombings of the Second World War.
Countless castles may not be your thing, nor their history for that matter. Yet, to allow your mind be seeped with tales of the rise and fall of lords and their samurai. To grasp how castles were structured to best fend off the enemy. To experience the remnants of their evolution from symbolic regional center into ‘castle towns’ and further morphing into a big city like Tokyo. Or to witness their disintegrated but-not-forgotten castle ruins.
Today, a visit to a Japanese castle is a chance to step into the heart of a building listed as a National Treasure and take a leap back in time. The moat and cherry blossom trees enhance the views, promising fascinating discoveries.
Castles in Japan designated as ‘National Treasures’
Hemiji castle – the White Heron
- Map: 68 Honmachi, Himeji, Hyogo 670-0012
- Japanese: 姫路城
- The Shinkansen links Himeji directly to Tokyo in 3 hours.
- Open from 9.00 to 17.00, last admission at 16.00, ¥1,000 for the full fare.
On a hill, a huge white fortress in the shape of a bird overlooks the town of Himeji in Hyōgo prefecture. The first enclosure was built in 1346, with its current form dating from 1618. It was made famous in the cinema as the setting for James Bond in 1967, then for Akira Kurosawa’s historical frescoes Ran and Kagemusha in the 1980s.
It is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and the only one to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The institution describes it as “a masterpiece of wooden construction, combining functionality and aesthetic appeal” and “the finest example of Japanese castle architecture from the early 17th century”.
The first enclosure contains the Koko-en garden and the city’s zoological park, from where you can admire the exterior of the towers in Japanese, the Yaguras, 櫓, 矢倉, and the keep; the tenshu, 天守. After a lengthy renovation the interior has been open to the public again since 2015. Here you can discover the refined style of the woodwork and the various defence systems. The first floor houses the Himeji Weapons Museum.
Matsumoto – the Black Raven
- Map: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto, Nagano
- Japanese: 松本城
Matsumoto is less than 3 hours from Tokyo on the Chuo Line.
- Open from 8.30am to 5.00pm, last admission at 4.30pm, ¥700 full price.
The building gets its nickname from its jet colour. From the outside, the main keep is five storeys high. But a visit inside reveals six. Designed to deceive the enemy, this windowless level was used to hide troops or store weapons and supplies. It is the oldest Japanese castle with this feature.
Unlike the other four, it is a flat castle, 平城 hirajiro, which is not situated on a hill but on the plain. Its construction began in 1509. It was developed by the powerful Takeda clan. The towers, watari and tatsumi, were designed for combat. It was completed in peacetime in 1633 in a very different style. Easily identifiable by its bright red exterior balustrade, the Tsukimi tower was added to contemplate the moon. The building houses a collection of harquebuses and other ancient weapons.
Matsue – the plover
- Map: 1-5 Tonomachi, Matsue, Shimane 690-0887
- Japanese: 松江城
- Matsue is over 6 hours by train from Tokyo, with a change in Yokohama.
- Open from 8.30am to 6.30pm, last admission at 6.00pm for ¥680.
Matsue is the capital of Shimane prefecture in the San’in region, on the southern tip of the island of Honshu. The town and its castle were built between 1607 and 1611. It is a lakeside town between the Sea of Japan and Lake Shinji. It is crossed by two rivers and numerous canals.
The plover is a small bird, but the castle is second only to Himeji in size.
Made of wood and black in colour, the keep appears to be four storeys high when viewed from the outside, whereas in fact it is five storeys high. In the basement, a 24-metre-deep well could support a siege.
The site was included on the list of national treasures in 2015, sixty years after the other four.
Hikone – saved by the Emperor
- Map: 1-1 Konkicho, Hikone, Shiga 522-0061
- Japanese: 彦根城
- Hikone can be reached directly from Tokyo in 2 hours 15 minutes by Shinkansen.
- Open from 8.30am to 5.00pm, last admission at 4.30pm, ¥600 full price.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he ended the Sengoku era and ushered in the Edo period. His general Li Naomasa inherited the title of daimyo and the lands formerly controlled by one of the vanquished.
Li built Hikone Castle on the shores of Lake Biwa. Many of the structures were taken from other castles. For example, the Hikone keep was originally the upper three levels of the Otsu keep on the other side of the lake. Construction was completed in 1622. Built in a spiral shape, with numerous bridges and moats to cross, the citadel was difficult to take.
The Li clan ruled these lands until the end of the feudal system in 1867. Most of the castles were then abandoned and destroyed. However, having visited the Shiga region and Hikone Castle early in his reign, Emperor Meiji asked that it be preserved.
Because of its history, the château is remarkably well preserved. You can visit the stables, for example. The adjoining museum houses the Li family’s collections of weapons and armour, as well as calligraphy and paintings, Noh masks and costumes, Gagaku musical instruments, tea ceremony utensils and furniture.
Inuyama – the Oldest Castle in Japan
- Map: Kitakoken-65-2 Inuyama, Aichi
- Japanese: 犬山城
Inuyama is two and a half hours from Tokyo by train, with a change in Nagoya.
- Open from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, last admission at 4.30 pm, ¥550 full price.
Inuyama Castle was built in 1537 by the Oda clan, who were responsible for the unification of Japan. Located on the Nakasendō road, linking Edo to Kyoto, Inuyama was a strategic economic and commercial hub.
The castle’s rear is defended by an 85-metre-high cliff overlooking the River Kiso. It was nevertheless the object of several battles and captures. In 1871, the Meiji government had its fortifications destroyed, but not the tenshu. For a long time, this keep was thought to be the oldest in Japan. However, recent research has dated it to 1620, almost a century after the castle was built. It has three visible levels and four storeys, plus two basements.
You now have a promising answer to the question “What to do in Japan”. Just a short bus ride from the city centre will take you to the great castles in Japan, here you’re sure to make some treasured memories of your time …Architecture, history and nature are sure to seduce you as you visit.