Introduction to Castles in Japan: Designated National Treasures

WeXpats
2022/09/16

Many people are interested in Japanese castles - from people interested in Japanese history of course, to people who want to see beautiful Japanese scenery. In this article, we introduce Japan’s most famous and iconic castles, so please check it out and plan a trip to see them if you’re interested!


Table of Contents

  1. Things to Know About Japanese Castles
    1. The Famous Keeps of Japanese Castles
    2. Castles in the Sengoku Period
    3. Castle Classification Based on Topography
  2. Japan Castle Tour ①: 5 Castles Designated National Treasures
  3. Japan Castle Tour ➁: Great Castles to Drop By During a Trip
  4. Summary

Things to Know About Japanese Castles

Castles are called 「城 shiro」or 「お城 oshiro」in Japanese, and when you are saying the name of a castle, it’s pronounced “-jo”.

For example, Himeji Castle is「姫路城 Himeji-jo」in Japanese.

The Famous Keeps of Japanese Castles

When looking at a Japanese castle, the first thing your eyes are drawn to is the castle keep or the highest tower, called「天守 tenshu」or 「天守閣 tenshukaku」. 

During Japan’s medieval period (13th-16th century CE), the castles had a tall tower called 「櫓 yagura」. The tenshu is a yagura built in an important part of the castle. It was built for the purpose of defense and command, but there was a risk of being easily destroyed during war. Even so, immense wealth and manpower were used to build them because it physically represented the castle owner’s power. 12 of these tenshu remain today, 5 of them designated as national treasures (introduced below). 

While admiring the tenshu, take in the「石垣 ishigakicastle walls that were carefully constructed by stacking stones. It serves as the foundation of building a strong castle, and is quite beautifully constructed as well. 

Japanese Castles in the Sengoku Period

During the Sengoku or Warring States period, when castles were built in various parts of the country and fierce battles were waged to occupy them, there were many「籠城戦 koujousen」or sieges, fought with the castle gates firmly closed. As there was nowhere to retreat during a siege, the castle’s ability to defend itself was incredibly important. There were cases where ownership of the castle was forced to be handed over, or the castle was burned while the occupants fled. But if the castle was a feudal lord’s main residence, they would not easily budge or hand it over, so they would often confine themselves within the castle as part of the defensive battle.

Castles were both a home and headquarters for feudal lords. And they would set up the「城下町 jokamachi」or “castle town” nearby which is the area where loyal vassals, samurai and merchants resided. They are also often equipped with defenses against enemy attacks, so it’s a good idea to take a look around the castle as well. 

Japanese Castle Classification Based on Topography

Japanese castles were built in the mountains, by the sea, on hilly terrain and on plains, and there’s various names to categorize them accordingly. 

  • 山城 Yamajiro」- A castle built in the mountains, using the topography of the mountain ridge or peak

  • 平山城 Hirayamajiro / Hirayamajo」- A castle built on a flat part of the mountain or on a hilly terrain

  • 平城 Hirajiro / Hirajo」- A castle built on a plain

  • 海城 Umijiro」- A castle built by the sea

Okinawan Castles

Castles built in the Okinawa region are called「グスク gusuku」or「スク suku」. They are equivalent to 「お城 oshiro」and 「城 shiro」respectively. The word “gusuku” also means “sacred place”.

Japan Castle Tour ①: 5 Castles Designated National Treasures

Now let’s take a look at some of Japan’s most famous and iconic castles. First, there are the five castles in Japan that have been designated as national treasures. 

Himeji Castle

Located in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture. Built in the early 17th century, during the Edo Period, Himeji Castle was designated as a National Treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. It is painted with white plaster without any added pigment, so it is also called 「白鷺城 Shirosagijo」or "White Egret/Heron Castle". It is the largest among the remaining castle towers, with a height of 31.5 meters and the ishigaki wall supporting the castle tower with a height of 14.85 meters. Himeyama or Mount Hime where Himeji Castle is located has an elevation of 49.6 meters, so the total height is 92 meters above sea level. The「大天守 dai-tenshu」or main tenshu is a six-story structure with five visible levels (the 6th is the basement).

Read more about it here

※Himeji Castle Office Site, “姫路城の規模

Matsumoto Castle

Located in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture. A different taste than the pure white Himeji Castle, the black and white contrast of Matsumoto Castle is remarkable. Among the 12 remaining castle towers, this castle, like Himeji Castle, has 5 visible floors with a hidden 6th. Unlike other castles mostly built in the mountains or hilly terrains, it was built on a plain and is surrounded by 3 moats called「水堀 mizubori」. You can see the Northern Japanese Alps stretched out behind it, boasting a wonderful view with the castle reflected on the water’s surface.

Read more here at Visit One of the Sacred Landmarks in Japan, Matsumoto Castle.

※ Matsumoto Castle Official Website, “松本城の特徴

Hikone Castle

Located in Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture. The three-story tenshu has a beautiful exterior. It is lit up at night and is loved by locals as a landmark in Hikone City. The castle town of Hikone Castle is also famous for its transformation from a former wetland area through large-scale civil engineering work. 

Read more at Hikone Castle: A Unique Japanese Castle in Shiga Prefecture.

Inuyama Castle

Located in Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture. It is the oldest among the 12 existing castles. It is composed of 4 stories with 3 visible levels. The back of the castle is a cliff that faces the Kiso River, so it is structured to be difficult to attack as it’s difficult for the enemy to cross the river and climb the castle walls. It is the castle that Oda Nobunaga’s uncle built and resided in, and it’s said that Oda Nobunaga was impressed when seeing the view from the castle tower. 

Matsue Castle

Located in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture. It is the second largest in total area after Himeji Castle among the 12 existing castle towers, and the third largest in height after Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle. It was designated a national treasure in 2015. It is a 5-story structure with 4 visible levels. 

The Other 7 Remaining Castle Towers

In addition to the 5 mentioned above, the following 7 castles also still have their tenshu (castle tower) intact. 

  • Hirosaki Castle in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture. It is also famous for its beautiful cherry blossoms.

  • Maruoka Castle in Sakai City, Fukui Prefecture

  • Bitchu Matsuyama Castle in Takahashi City, Okayama Prefecture 

  • Kochi Castle in Kochi City, Kochi Prefecture

  • Matsuyama Castle in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture - It is sometimes called “Iyo Matsuyama Castle” to distinguish it from other Matsuyama Castle. "Iyo" is the old name of Ehime Prefecture.

  • Uwajima Castle in Uwajima City, Ehime Prefecture

  • Marugame Castle in Marugame City, Kagawa Prefecture

Japan Castle Tour ➁: Great Castles to Drop By During a Trip

Kumamoto Castle

Kumamoto Castle was built by Kato Kiyomasa, a renowned castle architect who was also involved in the construction of Nagoya Castle in Saga, Edo Castle, and Nagoya Castle in Nagoya. He also became lord of this castle. It has many attractive qualities, including the curved Ishigaki castle walls, a signature point of Kumamoto Castle. In 2016, it suffered great damage from the Kumamoto earthquake. Restoration work requiring a long time and enormous cost began, and the restoration of the castle tower was completed in 2021. The castle tower makes up about 20% of the total restoration required, and it is expected that all restoration will be completed by 2037. Certain areas of the castle are available for special public viewing.

Kumamoto Castle Official Website

Osaka Castle

In 1583, Toyotomi Hideyoshi who had been living at Himeji Castle (which he had repaired himself) moved to Osaka and spent the next 15 years building Osaka Castle. The original Osaka Castle tower was 4~5 times bigger than the current one and golden in color, but it was burned down in 1615 with the fall of the Toyotomi clan. The Tokugawa Shogunate spent 10 years rebuilding it, but it was also burned down. Although it disappeared completely once,  Osaka Castle was rebuilt in its present form. 

※Special Historic Site Osaka Castle, “大阪城の歴史

Nijo Castle

Located in Nakakyo Ward, Kyoto City. This castle was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun in the Edo Period, to use when visiting Kyoto. The entire castle is designated as a National Historic Site, and the Ninomaru-goten is designated as a National Treasure. It is famous for having been designed so that the floor creaks like a 'bird chirping' to prevent assassins from breaking in.

Read more at Nijo Castle, Former Shogun Residence and Imperial Villa.

Ako Castle

Ako Castle is located in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, which is known as the hometown of the “47 Ronin”, known and popular abroad through movies, etc. A favorite of many history fans, it has been designated as a National Historic Site. 

Edo Castle

Edo Castle, designated as a National Important Cultural Property and a Special Historic Site, is located in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. The current Imperial Palace 「皇居 kokyo」is located here.  

“Shita-machi” and “Yamanote” are widely used as regional divisions in Tokyo, centered around the Edo Castle. The officials of the shogun, merchants and tradesmen lived close to the castle, developing its surrounding areas. 

Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle is located in Naha City, Okinawa, representing the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom that existed for 450 years from 1429 to 1879. It was also the center of politics, diplomacy, and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which actively interacted with China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. In 2000, it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as "Gusuku and Related Heritage Groups of the Ryukyu Kingdom".

In October 2019, a fire burned down nine facilities, including the main palace. Construction of the main body of the palace is to begin in 2022, and restoration is planned for completion in 2026.  

Shuri Castle Park

Takeda Castle Ruins

The castles that remain and their castle towers are beautiful, but there are many castle ruins in Japan that boast beautiful scenery. One of them is the ruins of Takeda Castle in Asago City, Hyogo Prefecture, which is a fortress built on the top of a mountain at an altitude of 353.7 meters. The Ishigaki fortress wall that remains fully intact is one of the most impressive in the entire country.

It is beautiful all year round, but in autumn, a sea of clouds spread out under the castle, and you can enjoy the scenery befitting the nickname “Castle in the Sky”. 

Takeda Castle Ruins

Summary

You can see Japanese castles all over the country. There are castles that remain in the form they were built at the time they were built, but there are many castles that have disappeared in history and have changed their shape as they are rebuilt. Even if you are not familiar with Japanese history, you can enjoy the various castles with this basic knowledge about them!

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