On any Japan tour, visiting Japanese castles is essential to learn about the history of Japan, and it is easy to appreciate the originality and complexity of each castle. A Japanese castle is and was not a place of residence unlike many castles in Europe but rather a fortification to defend strategic or important points.
Japanese Castle Evolution
The history of the Japanese castle dates back to the Yayoi period (10th century BC). To protect the settlement from wild animals, the Japanese began to dig moats. When there were internal wars, fences were added to it. It is possible to see a reconstitution of colonies with moats at Yoshinogari Iseki, in Saga prefecture.
Period of ancient castles
In 663, following the defeat against the Tang Dynasty (Chinese 618-907), castles were built in the mountains. From the 12th century, the lords and vassals of the shogunate began to build their dwellings with moats. In the Sengoku period (late 15th to 16th century) when military conflicts were permanent, shogun vassals or lords lived in their houses at the foot of the mountain in times of peace, and in times of war, they often locked themselves in their castles on the top of the mountain. The Jokamachi (城下町, literally city at the foot of the castle) were then built to supply the castles.
Period of modern castles
Firearms were introduced to Japan in 1543 and the methods of warfare changed considerably. In 1576, Lord Oda Nobunaga had Azuchi-jo Castle built, which is considered the first modern castle. This is when the new construction technique developed. Castles were no longer built in the mountains, but they still keep all their defensive features. Modern castles were synonymous with the power of the lord, which is characterized by the Tenshu tower and the stone walls. The castles then not only became the residence of the lord, but also the center of economic and political activities.
After the unification of Japan by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at the beginning of the 17th century, he ordered the lords to build modern castles all over Japan and there were 25,000 of them at that time. Then in 1615, the 2nd shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty ordered to reduce the number to only one castle per state to control the lords’ wealth.
In 1873, after the Meiji Restoration (i.e. the transfer of power from the shogun to the emperor), the emperor, wishing to modernize the country, ordered to destroy all the castles in an effort to break with the past.
After the imperial edict on castles, many were abandoned and when Japan entered WW2, those that managed to survive were occupied by the Japanese army in order to stockpile weapons and thus prepare for land warfare. Because of this sad fate, Japanese castles were the target of American bombings, and castles near the big cities were destroyed.
Many castles were then rebuilt after WW2, but with modern materials such as concrete this time. Nowadays, there are only 12 castles with a donjon:
-Bitchu Matsuyama Castle in Okayama Prefecture
-Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture (National Treasure)
-Himeji Castle, in Hyogo Prefecture (National Treasure)
-Hirosaki Castle, without Aomori Prefecture (Important Cultural Property)
-Inuyama Castle, Aichi Prefecture (National Treasure)
-Kochi Castle, Kochi Prefecture (Important Cultural Property)
-Marugame Castle in Kagawa Prefecture
-Maruoka Castle, Fukui Prefecture (Important Cultural Property)
-Matsue Castle, in the Shimane Prefecture (National Treasure)
-Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture (National Treasure)
-Matsuyama Castle in Ehime Prefecture (Important Cultural Property)
-Uwajia Castle, in Ehime Prefecture (Important Cultural Property)
Japanese Castle Structure
Tenshu: this is the central tower or the main keep that serves as a watchtower and it is also the symbol of a castle. We can distinguish 2 different Tenshu: for the ancient castles (built before the Edo period), the Tenshu has a kind of terrace on the top floor which was put there after the construction of the main building (Bourou type) and for modern castles, the Tenshu is a single building from the first to the top floor (Soutou type).
Shachihoko: this is a divine fire-protecting fish placed on the roof; it has the head of a dragon and the body of a fish.
Ishi-Otoshi (literally falling stones): this is protective equipment. The floors of castles have been arranged in such a way that stones can be thrown towards enemies trying to climb the walls.
Must-see Japanese Castles
The original fortress of Himeji Castle was built in 1346 by the lord of the Akamatsu Sadanori region. The castle was entrusted to Lord Ikeda Terumasa (son-in-law of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu) who contributed to the victory of the battle of Sekigahara and the castle took its present form in 1609. The most distinctive feature of this castle is its white color, hence its nickname of White Heron. It was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993
It is a beautiful castle with some extraordinary defensive art: fan-shaped curved ramparts, labyrinth construction, embrasures for the cannons, etc… It’s up to you to discover it!
Surrounded by the Japanese Alps, Matsumoto Castle stands like a black guardian god, hence its nickname of Crow Castle. The first construction dates back to 1504 by the lord of the Ogasawara region. The castle took its present form from 1590 thanks to Lord Ishikawa, appointed owner by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. From 1615, the castle lost its defensive function and became a town hall. The contrast between the black color of the castle and the green and white colors of the alps is splendid.
This castle is located in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, and it is the only still existing castle in the Southwestern region of Japan. It is one of the very few among the twelve whose date of construction is known with certainty from the prayer plaques found in the basement: it was built in 1611 by the lord of the Horio region. It is the only castle in which there is a well inside the building.
There are about 200 castles that can be visited, but we advise you to start with the 12 with a donjon.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including Japanese castles. Our guides are all knowledgeable about Japanese history and can tell you all about their intriguing histories. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!