On a trip to Japan, you may be expecting many things such as bright lights, big cities, cherry blossoms, and hot springs. You would be forgiven however for not immediately thinking of Japan as a country with an abundance of castles, but actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The country is dotted with these majestic buildings although you should note that some of these are reconstructions as the originals were lost. Still, Japan’s castles, restored or not, can be the highlight of a trip to this amazing country, so make sure not to miss at least some of these off your itinerary if you are in the area.
Here are the top 10 castles to visit in Japan.
1) Osaka Castle
This is arguably one of the most famous castles in all of Japan and towers eight floors high. It is also, in keeping with many of the castles in Japan, encircled by a scenic moat. The castle dates from the 16th century although it was razed by a fire and had to be reconstructed. If you are in Osaka then this is a must-visit attraction. The grounds of the castle are also scattered with cherry blossom trees which are stunning when they are in full bloom during April and May.
2) Okayama Castle
Okayama Prefecture has a number of famous castles such as Okayama Castle which was constructed in 1597. It was destroyed at the end of World War II but reconstructed in 1966. Visitors will be struck by its black color, which is why it is often called ‘Crow Castle’ in Japanese. Something to look out for here are the signature "shibi" gable-end roof ornaments in the shape of a golden carp with a tiger's head which are reproductions of the originals. This is also one of the more accessible castles in Okayama as it has exhibits that tell the story of the evolution of the castle over the years.
3) Nijo Castle
Dating from 1603, Nijo Castle in Kyoto is a relic of the Edo Period and was the residence of the Tokugawa shoguns. It is a fine example of a flatland castle with two concentric rings of moat and wall fortifications and several gardens planted with cherry and plum trees. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the best features of this castle is that it is one of the few in Japan to remain much as it would have in ancient times and this is a great spot to enjoy the traditional architecture that was used in the feudal period of Japan’s history.
4) Inuyama Castle
Sitting in pretty Aichi Prefecture, Inuyama Castle dates back to 1537. It is one of the oldest castles in Japan and is one of the 12 "original" castles that have not been reconstructed. The "donjon" (castle keep) is wood on stone foundations and is one of only five in the country designated a National Treasure. It offers exquisite views across the mighty Kiso River from the top of the keep tower. You will also find a museum here that tells the story of the historical and cultural relevance of this castle.
5) Nagoya Castle
Located in Nagoya in central Japan sits Nagoya Castle which is another castle from the Edo period. The castle has gone through several stages and would have been built in the 1520s before being added to and renovated in the 17th century. During the Second World War, the castle changed yet again and became an important military base as well as an internment camp for prisoners of war.
6) Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle is probably one of the least visited castles in Japan, simply because it is located in Okinawa which many travelers fail to reach on a trip here. Okinawa is known for having a completely different feel to much of Japan and this is easily reflected in Shuri Castle which architecturally looks more like a grand temple than a traditional castle. It would have been the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom although it was pretty much razed to the ground in 1945 and then reconstructed in 1992. However, on the morning of 31st October 2019, a huge fire broke out and destroyed the main buildings including the main hall, north hall, and south hall.
7) Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle
Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle in Fukushima Prefecture is also referred to as Tsuruga Castle. Dating from 1384, it was destroyed in 1868 and reconstructed in concrete in 1965. The castle is of great historical significance in Japan as it was captured by imperial army forces during the Boshin War which saw the end of the feudal period in Japan and the establishment of the Meiji government. At the time, the castle was defended by samurai loyal to the Tokugawa Shogun during a month-long siege before they finally surrendered.
8) Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle is situated in Hyogo Prefecture and is widely said to be one of the best examples of castle architecture in Japan. The castle complex is made up of an impressive 83 different buildings and it also managed to escape being bombed during the Second World War, meaning that it stands much as it would have done years ago. It originally dates from 1333 and is a proud UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan.
9) Matsuyama Castle
Constructed in 1603, Matsuyama Castle is one of the most prestigious castles on the island of Shikoku and is another of Japan's 12 "original" castles with buildings pre-dating the Edo period. The current castle was built in 1820 after a lightning strike in 1784 destroyed the original structure. Restoration is ongoing on parts of the castle that were bombed by American forces during the second world war. Standing atop a 132 meter-high hill, the view from the top of the castle is absolutely stunning.
10) Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle is one of the most famous castles in all of Japan and is listed as one of its national treasures. It is located in Nagano Prefecture so you can easily visit it from neighboring Tokyo. The area around the castle is as pretty as the building proper and you will find rivers and rolling hills all over the area. The castle dates from the 16th century although it has been lovingly reconstructed since then and is known for its elegant moats and intricate inner wall design.