A photo tour of Japanese castles

Japanese castles don’t really conform to the the Europeans understanding of what a castle should be. Built at a time of relative stability, most of the castles were constructed as a show of wealth and power rather than as a fortification. The consequence of this is a series of buildings dotted around Japan that are rich in exterior design if rather simple (even bare) on the inside.

Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle, rebuilt in the 1950s after being destroyed in the Atomic Bomb attack on the city

Visit most historic buildings in Japan and you’re more than likely to read about an original construction that was destroyed by fire. The habit of building everything from wood was the downfall of many castles, palaces and temples, with both deliberate and accidental fires meaning that only a minority of the original major buildings have survived to the present day. Of those that survived the fires, few were lucky to escape the attentions of American bombers in the war.

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle

A lucky few have successfully dodged the bullets of fire and war and these are now held up as national treasures. One such example is Kochi Castle in the south of Shikoku. While the first version burnt down true to form in 1727, it was immediately rebuilt and it is the 18th century version that you can still walk around today.

Kochi Castle

Kochi Castle

Visiting many of the the castles as a non-Japanese speaker can leave you confused, with many signs having no English translation and audio-visual displays having no sub-titles. The displays inside Kochi Castle were particularly impressive for this reason. Several large model depictions of life in the castle needed no interpretation, with skilfully made figures giving a captivating view of the many characters who would have lived and worked in the shadow of the castle.

Models inside Kochi Castle

Models inside Kochi Castle

Most other castles, such as Kumamoto Castle which is often described as one of three finest castles in Japan, have been completely rebuilt in recent years. Most of the structures at Kumamoto Castle date from the 17th century and were destroyed by fire in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion. The castle was fully rebuilt in 1960 and most recently the Lord’s Inner Palace was renovated, allowing visitors a rare glimpse of a castle interior as it may have looked in its heyday.

Kumamoto Castle

Kumamoto Castle

Inside Kumamoto Castle

Inside Kumamoto Castle - one of the few interiors open to the public

While the entrance fees are relatively modest to most of the castles (around 500 yen on average) if you visit enough of them you may choose not to enter every single castle you see. We walked through the extensive grounds of Matsuyama Castle in the early morning before the staff arrived and enjoyed the site with only the occasional company of a keen runner out on their morning jog.

Matsuyama Castle

Matsuyama Castle

I had read in a guidebook that Nijo castle in Kyoto was not really worth a visit, but we decided to go in any case. We were glad we ignored the guidebook as this was probably one of our favourite sites. Being in the old capital Kyoto, Nijo has perhaps the richest history of all of the Japanese castles and visitors can walk through the corridors and stare into the rooms where the Shoguns once held court with the great and good of feudal Japan.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto

Nijo Castle in Kyoto

Nijo Castle and Gardens, Kyoto

Nijo Castle and Gardens, Kyoto

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Freelance travel writer

9 Responses to “A photo tour of Japanese castles”

  1. Monica #

    What gorgeous photos. I love that there are different types of castles around the world.

    October 11, 2011 at 12:19 am
  2. Great post and insight into Japanese Castles. One of my favourites is Inuyama-jo in Aichi Prefecture which is Japan’s oldest castle and still preserved in its original state. I also love Matsumoto-jo in Nagano prefecture.

    October 16, 2011 at 1:55 am
  3. Thanks for the comments. Would have loved to make it to more of the castles but sadly ran out of time – maybe on the next visit :)

    October 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm
  4. bkblake #

    leaving for Kyoto in 2 weeks. Nijo was low on list, heard someone say it is like a large gravel parking lot…

    compared to all the other gardens and buildings, would you rank Nijo with Imperial Palace or Ginkakuji or Toji or ?

    October 25, 2011 at 9:44 pm
    • Hard to rank Nijo alongside the other palaces and gardens of Kyoto. Each has its own charms and of course each of us have our own tastes and preferences. I enjoyed it for the gardens and the chance to wander along the corridors but I should disclose that we viewed Nijo in bright sunshine on our final day while the rest of our time in Kyoto was very wet. Whatever you choose you’re bound to have a good time.

      October 25, 2011 at 10:55 pm
  5. michele #

    The castles are beautiful just to look at from the outside. Gorgeous.

    October 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm
  6. Peter #

    Superb photographs. Models inside Coachi Castle, Nijo Castle and Gardens, Kyoto and all are so beautiful. Really gorgeous place.

    October 29, 2011 at 8:00 am
  7. Domo arigato gozaimasu.
    We´ve visited some of these castles and I would remark Nijo Castle on North Kyoto. It´s amazing how they could know if someone came in the palace by the slight sound of the wood floor.
    Regards

    December 8, 2011 at 1:45 pm
  8. Excellent idea for a post. I was in Japan for bit back in ’03/’04 and visited Himeji castle (stunning). As I lived in Okayama, I jogged past Okayama Jo about three times a week. Every time I glanced up and took in the gorgeous, fairy tale scenery while thinking: What a dream jogging trail this is. . :-)

    June 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm