Japanese Castle Guides 城
Japan has hundreds of castles scattered throughout the country from Goryo-kaku in Hakodate, Hokkaido to Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa. Many Japanese castles have been restored after damage in World War II, some as recently as only 20 years ago, others are the original, historic buildings.
Japan's dozen original castles include Hirosaki Castle, Himeji Castle, Matsumoto Castle, Inuyama Castle in Aichi, Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle, Hikone Castle, Matsuyama Castle, Uwajima Castle, Matsue Castle in Shimane, Maruoka Castle, Kochi Castle and Marugame Castle in Shikoku.
Much of Japan's medieval history took place behind the heavily fortified stone walls and wide moats of Japan's castles, which governed and protected the surrounding countryside and housed the dominant samurai class.
Many of Japan's castles were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the country seemed constantly in a state of vicious warfare. Warlords such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Ieyasu Tokugawa are associated with many of the castles built in Japan in the medieval period known as the Sengoku Jidai or "Warring States Period of around 1467-1615.
Japanese castle architecture developed at a pace during this era in response to new techniques in warfare and evolving technology - especially the arrival of firearms and cannon from Europe, which prompted the necessity of thick stone walls.
The towns which grew up around the fortresses in the Tokugawa period where peopled with merchants, artisans and entertainers, who serviced the feudal lord and his samurai community living behind the strong defenses of the castle walls.
Built at strategic points to protect the main highways connecting Japan's major cities (such as the Tokaido and Nakasendo), the cities themselves and the coastline, many old castle towns have developed into thriving, modern towns - others have stagnated and remain backwaters.
Visiting any Japanese castle should transport the visitor back, however fleetingly to a pre-modern Japan of arms and armor, samurai and artisans.
Osaka Castle, Nagoya Castle, Himeji Castle, Kumamoto Castle, Gifu Castle, Inuyama Castle, Matsue Castle, Okazaki Castle
Statue of master Japanese castle architect Kato Kiyomasa who worked on both Kumamoto and Nagoya castles
Japanese castles have many similar forms but layouts differ between individual castles. Shared architectural features may include a defensive moat stocked with lazy, over-fed carp; thick stone walls seen at their massive best at Osaka Castle and Nagoya Castle; shooting holes for arrows and guns; stone-dropping windows; and a complex inner layout to confuse intruders.
Apart from the stone walls, Japanese castle buildings were built of wood making them particularly prone to fire. White plaster-covered mud walls were the preferred method of protection from fire.
Japanese castles were laid out in compounds or circles (maru in Japanese). The inner circle was called the hon-maru and the second the ni-no-maru and so on. The common Japanese place name Maru-no-uchi refers to an area within the castle walls.
The tenshu was the name for the central building in the castle and was the command post in the time of war. This part of the castle was multi-storied often with curved, tiled roofs and sumptous decoration.
Early Japanese castles such as Kumamoto Castle and Okayama Castle tended to have lacquered, black wooden walls, whereas later castles such as Hikone Castle and Himeji Castle reinforced their outer walls with white plaster coverings to protect from fire. Another theory is that black castles were built by followers of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, whereas white was predominant among the supporters of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Many Japanese castles use both colors as part of their general design for purely aesthetic reasons.
Osaka Castle seen against a dramatic sunset
A view of the walls, moats and castle buildings of Imabari Castle, Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku
Tenshu or tenshu kaku - this is the central tower, keep or donjon and was the most protected part of the castle. Arms and armor were stored here and there were often more floors inside than were visible from the outside to fool attackers.
Walls - thick sloping stone walls are a feature of many Japnese castles often surrounded by a wide moat.
Yagura - are watch towers set in the walls at strategic corners and were protected by mud walls at the top to protect the defenders.
Mon - castle gates were the weakest parts of the castle and were protected by a courtyard style barbican. Otemon is the front gate and karametemon is back gate.
Kura - storehouses for food, water and other provisions protected from fire with mud and plaster walls.
Shiro - is the name for castle in Japanese though the other reading of the kanji character is -jo, which is used as a suffix, hence Nagoya Castle is Nagoya-jo and Himeji Castle becomes Himeji-jo. Many castles were also given nicknames that represent their appearance, thus Himeji Castle was the "White Heron" Castle or Hakuro-jo and Matsumoto the "Crow" Castle or Karasu-jo.
Hirajo refers to a fortress built on a plain, fujo is a lakeside castle and yamashiro is a castle on top of a hill or mountain. The latter is a common Japanese family name.
Shachi are the mythical dolphin-like creatures on a castle's roof (often made in gold)- and believed to protect it from fire.
Jokamachi are Japanese castle towns many of which are major towns and cities to this day.
Hikone, Matsumoto, Nagahama, Nijo, Kanazawa, Kiyosu, Ueno, Marugame castles
View Japanese Castles Map in a larger map
Kochi, Matsuyama, Takamatsu, Wakayama, Matsuzaka, Fushimi, Edo, Shiroishi, Kakegawa, Kofu, Kokura, Toyama, Hirado, Karatsu, Okayama, Shimabara castles
Recommended books on Japanese castles are the beautifully illustrated hardcover Castles of the Samurai by Jennifer Mitchelhill and the knowledgeable paperback Japanese Castles 1540-1640 by Stephen Turnbull. Stephen Turnbull is also the author of Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-1598, which concentrates on the castles built in Korea by Hideyoshi Toyotomi's invading army of the late 16th century.
Bitchu-Matsuyama, Hagi, Hiroshima, Tottori, Azuchi, Gujo, Hamada castles
Japanese Castles Today
There is renewed interest in Japanese castles and a number of expensive restoration projects are ongoing such as at Nagoya Castle and Kumamoto Castle. A number of replica castles have also been built in Japan since the 1960s such as Onomichi Castle in Hiroshima Prefecture.
Japanese castles were the very symbol of a town's identity in the Edo period and local authorities are realizing their potential as draws for tourists. Frequently Japanese castles will feature song and dance routines by participants in period costume in an attempt to attract the tourist yen.
Ako, Fukuchiyama, Fukuyama, Hirosaki, Imabari, Kitsuki, Nakatsu, Onomichi castles
Related Japan Castles Resources
Japan Castle Videos: Nagoya Castle
Book Hotel Accommodation in Japan Near Japanese Castles