On a trip to Japan you may be expecting many things such as bright lights and 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 famous castles in all of Japan and towers for eight floors. 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. Cherry trees dominate the castle grounds and the blossoms are stunning when they are in full bloom in late April and early 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 has 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 central Japan, Nagoya Castle is another Edo period structure. An earlier castle was built on the site in the 1520s before being abandoned, only for the Tokugawa shogun to start construction of a new castle in 1610. The keep has the largest floorspace of any in Japan and its roof is topped with golden tiger-carp roof gable ornaments. During the Second World War the castle changed yet again and served as the regional army headquarters as well as the administrative offices of a prisoner-of-war camp. It was badly damaged by American air raids. Reconstruction work has continued for the last seven decades.
6) Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle is probably one of the least visited castles in the country, simply because it is located in Okinawa which many foreign tourists do not include on a trip to Japan due to the distance and cost. Okinawa has completely different feel to the rest of Japan due to its history as the Ryukyu Kingdom and its close cultural links to China. This is clearly reflected in Shuri Castle which, in architectural terms, is more like a grand temple or Chinese palace than a traditional castle. Built in the early 15th century, it was the royal residence and seat of power of the Ryukyu Kingdom although it was razed to the ground by American forces in 1945 and then reconstructed in 1992.
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 was designate a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the finest example of 17th century castle architecture in Japan. The castle complex is made up of an impressive 83 different buildings and was spared being bombed during the Second World War, meaning that it stands much as it would have done years ago. Known as the White Heron Castle and dating from 1333, it is the largest and most visited castle in Japan with almost 3 million visitors a year, and was used as a location for the movie The Last Samurai.
9) Matsuyama Castle
Constructed in 1603, Matsuyama Castle is one of the most prestigious castles in 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 with the oldest surviving donjon in the country. It is one of Japan's three premier castles along with those in Himeji and Kumamoto. The castle is located in Nagano Prefecture so you can easily visit it from Tokyo. The area around the castle is as pretty as the building itself with the backdrop of the Japan Alps. The castle dates from the 16th century although it has undergone numerous renovations and restorations since then. It is known for its elegant moats filled with koi carp, connected towers and intricate inner wall design.