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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.