Japanese Castles: Hitoyoshi Castle, Kumamoto Prefecture
Hitoyoshi Castle 人吉城
Hitoyoshi Castle, one of the top 100 castles in Japan, overlooking the Kuma River in the mountains of southern Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu, is unusual among Japanese castles in that it was occupied continuously by the same clan, the Sagara, for almost 700 years. Hitoyoshi Castle is now known for the beauty of its autumn leaves.
In fact, many castles only date back about 500 years to when the Tokugawa gained control of the whole country and instigated a "One Castle, One Domain" policy which is when many of the castle towns began life.
Even then, falling out of favor with the Shogunate led to many clans losing their rights to their domain and castle and being replaced. For those castles that existed before the Tokugawa Period, during the preceding centuries of civil war and warlord rivalries, castles changed hands, sometimes often. So, it was quite an achievement for the Sagara to hold on to their castle for such a long period of time.
History of Hitoyoshi Castle
There was a castle just behind the current site in the 12th century held by vassals of the Taira, the Yase clan, and in 1198 Sagara Nagayori defeated the Yase and so became the first of 35 generations to hold the castle.
The 12th Lord, Tametsugu, enlarged and improved the castle around 1470, and in 1589 further renovations and construction began using stonemasons imported from Bungo. Around this time the town grew up around the castle. By the middle of the 17th century all the construction was completed, but in 1802 and again in 1862 major fires destroyed all the main buildings and they were rebuilt. Hitoyoshi Castle was decommissioned and dismantled in 1871. In 1993 the two turrets standing today were built.
There are several features of interest to note. The castle used the Kuma and Mune Rivers as moats, and there are some impressive walls along the river frontage. There are also several wharves which indicate how important the Kumagawa River was for communication and transportation. Also, in the reconstructions following the 1862 fire some of the walls were built with hanedashi, an overhanging top to the wall that was modelled on European castle construction and very rare in Japan.
At the base of the castle hill is a small shrine that was constructed on the site of the lord's palace and the remains of the palace garden still exist. Further out in the flat area below the castle where various administrative buildings and stables once stood is now the Hitoyoshi Castle History Museum with a decent collection of artifacts and artworks as well as access to an underground well.
At the end of April or beginning of May, depending on the year, the Hitoyoshi Castle Festival is held with various activities including yabusame, horseback archery, yabusane, archery from a moving boat, and an outdoor tea ceremony. The festival begins with a parade of 200 men and boys dressed as warriors.
Hitoyoshi Castle Access
Entry to the castle ruins is free. The museum is 200 yen for adults, free for children.
Fumotomachi, Hitoyoshi-shi, Kumamoto 868-0051
Tel: 0966 22 2324
Hitoyoshi is an hour and a half from Kumamoto Station by express train on the Hisatsu Line.
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