Japanese City Guides: Osaka Castle
One of Osaka's most uncompromisingly modern districts, the business center of Kyobashi is also home to its most imposing historical monument: Osaka Castle. From the castle, the surrounding modern area looks like a city planner's model landscape of lawns, forest, great bowls, domes, and gleaming, mirror-clad buildings. From the highrises the castle seems an age away, an age out of which the city itself was born.
It all began over half a millennium ago. In 1496 the priest Rennyo of the huge Honganji Temple built monks' quarters where the castle would eventually be established. 37 years later these quarters had become a temple in their own right, and it is in a written history of this Ishiyama Honganji that the name "Osaka" first appears. The temple functioned from the beginning as a fort against the attack of surrounding feudal warlords. A temple town grew around it and, like a medieval city, was governed by its elite alone, over which presided Rennyo himself.
Rennyo was ordered to leave the temple when the feudal warlord Nobunaga defeated him in 1580. Nobunaga, in a triumphant climax, burnt the entire temple to the ground intending to erect a magnificent castle there; but it was the man who considered himself Nobunaga's successor, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who actually built it three years later.
Osaka Castle is one of the largest castles in Japan with huge stone walls
Modeled on Nobunaga's own provincial castle, Osaka Castle actually outdid Nobunaga's in size and opulence. It was gigantic for the time, with all ornaments lavishly gilded and the main rooms piled high with treasures. For the next fifteen years it was constantly added to, making it an architectural spectacle unprecedented in the history of Japan. Where there had been a temple town, there was now a burgeoning castle town, and Osaka became a major center of politics, trade, religion and learning.
However, the castle then weathered two wars in quick succession: a summer war, then a winter one. In 1603 the Tokugawa family eclipsed the Toyotomi family as the nation's rulers, and moved the capital to Edo (Tokyo). Ever suspicious of the Toyotomis, the first Shogun of Japan, Ieyasu Tokugawa, accused Toyotomi of treason and laid siege to his castle in 1615.
Siege of Osaka Castle
The outnumbered Toyotomis nevertheless held out in their citadel for a month, but, deadlocked, sued for peace. To seal the peace the outer moats were filled up, rendering the castle defenseless. However, not long after, the Toyotomis began digging up the filled-in moat, ostensibly to 'restore' their home. The Tokugawas saw this as tantamount to rearmament and were back in Osaka by the summer, only five months after the end of the winter siege.
The defending Toyotomis were waiting in the city itself to strike the invading Tokugawas, but were quickly driven back to their almost useless castle, overrun, and brutally massacred. To erase any trace of the Toyotomis, the badly damaged castle was taken down and completely rebuilt, the project beginning in 1620 under the second Shogun. It was specified that this time the walls had to be "twice as solid", and the moats "twice as deep". The mammoth effort took nine years, and involved the levying of 64 western clans for the digging of the moats and building of the walls.
Each of the clans was allocated a certain length of wall to build, based on how many bushels, or 'koku', of rice the clan produced. They were pitted against each other in order to heighten productivity, the result of which was meticulous and conscientious construction decorated with elaborately carved family crests. The walls were an addition to the original defenses of the castle and were - as they still are - remarkable for their height, their precision, and their sleek, towering profiles.
The massive stones, planed nearly paper-smooth, the largest weighing about 130 tons, were transported from all over Japan, but principallly from the islands of the Inland Sea. The overcoming of the difficulties involved in quarrying, floating and dragging them such distances speaks eloquently of the levels of organization and economic development involved. Construction of the (wooden) castle itself, however, was the preserve of the Shogun.
Osaka Castle seen against a dramatic sunset
In 1662 the Main Tower was struck by lightning, and was razed in the ensuing fire. Although many other buildings dotting the complex were rebuilt, it was not until 1931 that the citizens of Osaka funded the rebuilding of the Main Tower, this time in ferroconcrete. Having survived World War II, it is now what the visitor sees.
Coming out of the JR Osaka Joh Koen Station (joh = castle, koen = park) on the Osaka Loop Line (kanjoh-sen) the castle is not even visible for the trees. Osaka Park is one of the city's largest patches of green: a pleasant, largely forested area, criss-crossed with a maze of paths for strolling, jogging or cycling. The building you'll come across first, Osaka Jo Hall, is the castle's biggest immediate rival in terms of size: a massive modern indoor stadium seating over 16,000 that hosts everything from rock concerts to judo championships.
At the height of springtime Osaka Castle Park is a raucous idyll with family, friends and colleagues drinking in circles under boughs of blossom. At the end of July the Okawa River to the north-west of the castle is the venue for the huge Osaka Tenjin-Matsuri Festival. The climax of the festival is a procession down the river of scores of boats to the thunderous fanfare of a fireworks display.
Compared to the skyscrapers that surround it, the castle, renovated again in 1997, makes up in svelte lavishness for what it lacks in height. The famous tiled roof of the main tower is the first thing visible, the ridges culminating in cornices depicting great leaping golden carps, and the extensive black facings beneath the uppermost roof bear an array of nature-inspired designs done in gold. After a couple more minutes' walk the walls suddenly become visible. They tower over the outer moats, which are full of unkempt green rather than water, and are composed of a variety of masonry styles. Part of the wall overlooking the west outer moat, for example, has its stones laid in subtle oval mosaic patterns not immediately obvious, but which allow for a bit of imaginative eye-play when discovered.
The castle's interior consists of eight floors devoted mainly to exhibits describing Hideyoshi Toyotomi and his era complete with a series of hologram-enhanced peep shows, a folding screen depicting the 1615 Summer War that destroyed Hideyoshi's castle, and culminating in the 8th floor observation deck that offers one of the finest panoramic views of Osaka, enhanced by a wide open green foreground.
Finally, personalized and comprehensive guidance around Osaka Castle Park is available free of charge from the Osaka Volunteer Tour Guides who can be contacted Monday to Friday, 10a.m. to 5p.m., at 06-6635-3018.
Entry to the Main Tower is 600 yen
Recommended Places To Stay Near Osaka Castle
The Osaka Castle Hotel
Located in Umeda, the center of Osaka, and within easy walking distance from JR Osaka Station. Convenient for shopping, business and leisure.
Facilities include a 24-hour front desk; babysitting and child services; bar and two lounges; business center; car rental; CNN and free movies; concierge; currency exchange; doctor on call; drugstore; florist; meeting and banquet facilities; free newspaper; nightly turndown; no smoking rooms and facilities; free parking; five restaurants; room service from 7am to 2am; safe-deposit box; smoke and fire alarm system; souvenir shop; steambath and massage; translation; travel desk; VIP rooms and services; wheelchairs and outdoor swimming pool (1 Jul-31 Aug).
Osaka Castle Access
The nearest station to Osaka Castle is Osakajo-koen on the JR Osaka Loop Line. Other nearby stations to Osaka Castle Park include Morinomiya on the Osaka Loop Line and Chuo and Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi lines of the Osaka Subway, Osaka Business Park on the Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Line, Tanimachi 4-chome Station on the Chuo Line and to the west Temmabashi Station on the Tanimachi Line and Keihan Line, which connects to Kyoto.
Book Hotel Accommodation in Osaka near Osaka Castle