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Home - Travel - Sightseeing Guide
Castles

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Himeji Castle

History of Castles

Fortresses have been built in Japan since early times. A particular need for castles arouse in the 15th century after the central government's authority had weakened and Japan had fallen into the chaotic era of warring states (sengoku jidai). During that era, Japan consisted of dozens of small independent states which fought each other and built small castles on top of mountains for defense purposes.

When Oda Nobunaga reestablished a central authority over Japan in the second half of the 16th century, and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed the reunification of Japan, many larger castles were built across the country. Unlike the earlier castles, they were built in the plains or on small hills in the plains, where they served as a region's administrative and military headquarters and a symbol of authority. They became the centers of "castle towns".

After the end of the feudal age (1868), many castles were destroyed as unwelcome relics of the past, and even more were lost in World War II. Only about a dozen original castles, i.e. castles that date from the feudal era (before 1868), survive today. Furthermore, several dozen castles were reconstructed over the past decades - mostly using concrete instead of traditional building materials.

Castle Structures and Castle Towns

The typical castle consisted of multiple rings of defense, with the so called honmaru ("main circle") in the center followed by the ninomaru ("second circle") and sannomaru ("third circle"). The castle tower stood in the honmaru, while the lords usually lived at a more comfortable residence in the ninomaru.

In the town around the castle, the samurai were residing. The higher their rank, the closer they lived to the castle. Merchants and artisans lived in specially designated areas, while temple and entertainment districts were usually located in the outskirts of the city or just outside of it. Tokyo and Kanazawa are two good examples among many Japanese cities which evolved as castle towns.

The main construction material for castle buildings used to be wood, as can be witnessed when visiting the interior of one of the surviving original castles. Most newer reconstructions, however, were made of concrete, and their interiors are modern. Many castles now house a museum.

The following are some typical castle structures:

Castle Tower (Tenshukaku)
Also known as donjon or castle keep, this is the innermost, best defended and most prominent structure of a castle. Most castle towers have between two to five stories, and there are often more floors inside than there are stories on the outside.
Example: castle tower of Kumamoto Castle

Walls and Moats
Several rings of walls and moats serve as the main defense measure of castles. Osaka Castle and the former Edo Castle (now Tokyo's Imperial Palace) offer the most impressive examples.
Example: Castle walls and moat of Osaka Castle

Guard Towers (Yagura)
Also known as turrets, these are watch towers and storage rooms along the castle walls, often placed at the corners. Castles usually have multiple guard towers. They are much smaller in size than the main castle tower and are usually made up of two floors.
Example: a guard tower of Hiroshima Castle

Gates
Castles have a number of well defended entrance gates. The typical castle gate consists of two gates which are placed at a 90 degree angle to each other, creating a small inner yard which is heavily defended from all sides.
Example: Sakurada Gate of the former Edo Castle

Palace (Goten)
The palace houses the lord's residence and offices. Most castles have lost their palace over time. A rare surviving example is the Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle. Among the few castles with reconstructed palaces are Kumamoto Castle, Hikone Castle and Nagoya Castle.
Example: partially reconstructed palace of Kumamoto Castle

Any Questions? Ask them in our question forum.

List of Japanese Castles
Original Castles
 1  Himeji Castle
Japan's best preserved feudal castle.
User rating: 93/100 (1017 votes)
Visited by: 1763 users
 2  Matsumoto Castle
Original and relatively complete castle.
User rating: 88/100 (372 votes)
Visited by: 666 users
 3  Matsuyama Castle
Japan's only original mountaintop castle.
User rating: 89/100 (26 votes)
Visited by: 41 users
 4  Matsue Castle
One of Japan's largest, original castle towers.
User rating: 85/100 (110 votes)
Visited by: 224 users
 5  Hikone Castle
A designated national treasures.
User rating: 83/100 (192 votes)
Visited by: 373 users
 6  Matsuyama Castle
Relatively complete, original castle.
User rating: 82/100 (162 votes)
Visited by: 317 users
 7  Hirosaki Castle
Most famous cherry blossom spot in Tohoku.
User rating: 82/100 (109 votes)
Visited by: 210 users
 8  Inuyama Castle
Claimed to be Japan's oldest surviving castle.
User rating: 80/100 (151 votes)
Visited by: 320 users
 9  Kochi Castle
One of Japan's few surviving original castles.
User rating: 78/100 (120 votes)
Visited by: 254 users
 10  Marugame Castle
Smallest keep among the original castles.
User rating: 79/100 (14 votes)
Visited by: 32 users
 11  Uwajima Castle
Original hilltop castle with a small keep.
User rating: insufficient data
Visited by: 9 users
 
Reconstructions
 1  Shuri Castle
Reconstructed former Ryukyu royal palace.
User rating: 86/100 (309 votes)
Visited by: 631 users
 2  Kumamoto Castle
Beautiful reconstruction of the original castle.
User rating: 85/100 (334 votes)
Visited by: 675 users
 3  Osaka Castle
Reconstruction of the large castle.
User rating: 81/100 (1439 votes)
Visited by: 2713 users
 4  Tsuruga Castle
Modern reconstruction of the original castle.
User rating: 78/100 (85 votes)
Visited by: 223 users
 5  Nagoya Castle
Reconstruction of the original castle.
User rating: 78/100 (620 votes)
Visited by: 1273 users
 6  Ueno Castle
Beautifully reconstructed feudal castle.
User rating: 74/100 (128 votes)
Visited by: 247 users
 7  Shimabara Castle
Reconstructed castle with nearby samurai district.
User rating: 75/100 (20 votes)
Visited by: 36 users
 8  Hiroshima Castle
Reconstruction of the former castle.
User rating: 74/100 (602 votes)
Visited by: 1245 users
 9  Iwakuni Castle
Reconstructed mountain top castle.
User rating: 74/100 (81 votes)
Visited by: 169 users
 10  Okayama Castle
Reconstruction of the former castle.
User rating: 71/100 (240 votes)
Visited by: 497 users
 11  Hachiman Castle
Mountaintop castle overlooking the town.
User rating: 69/100 (27 votes)
Visited by: 58 users
 12  Ozu Castle
Recently reconstructed, pretty hilltop castle.
User rating: insufficient data
Visited by: 4 users
Palace Style Castles and Ruins
 1  Nijo Castle
Former Kyoto residence of the shogun.
User rating: 86/100 (1251 votes)
Visited by: 2329 users
 2  Imperial East Gardens
Park on the former grounds of Edo Castle.
User rating: 82/100 (1190 votes)
Visited by: 2213 users
 3  Nakagusuku Castle
Beautiful ruins of a former Ryukyu castle.
User rating: 80/100 (88 votes)
Visited by: 175 users
 4  Nakijin Castle
Ruins of another former Ryukyu castle.
User rating: 78/100 (75 votes)
Visited by: 157 users
 5  Tottori Castle Ruins
Ruins of the former feudal castle.
User rating: 75/100 (16 votes)
Visited by: 32 users
 6  Kanazawa Castle
Slowly being reconstructed.
User rating: 72/100 (316 votes)
Visited by: 622 users
 7  Aoba Castle
Ruins of the former castle of the Date clan.
User rating: 72/100 (147 votes)
Visited by: 328 users
 8  Sumpu Castle
Ruins of Tokugawa Ieyasu's former castle.
User rating: 71/100 (20 votes)
Visited by: 54 users
 9  Hagi Castle
Ruins of the former Hagi Castle.
User rating: 70/100 (54 votes)
Visited by: 130 users
 10  Fukuoka Castle Ruins
Ruins of the city's former castle.
User rating: 69/100 (205 votes)
Visited by: 432 users
 11  Honmaru Goten
Kawagoe Castle's only remaining building.
User rating: 68/100 (58 votes)
Visited by: 138 users
 12  Takamatsu Castle
Ruins of one of Japan's few seaside castles.
User rating: 61/100 (78 votes)
Visited by: 171 users
 13  Tsuwano Castle Ruins
Located two hundred meters above the town.
User rating: insufficient data
Visited by: 9 users
  

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