Japanese castles became prevalent during the Sengoku Period which began roughly in the middle of the 15th century and lasted through the beginning of the 17th century. During this time, the central government’s authority had weakened and Japan had fallen into the chaotic era of warring states. Japan was comprised of dozens of small independent states which battled one another. These small early fortresses constructed primarily of wood and stone were originally placed in strategic locations, along trade routes, roads and rivers with the purpose of providing military defense.
Prior to the Sengoku period, most castles were called yamajiros or ‘mountain castles’. Although a majority of the later castles were constructed atop mountains or hills, the yamajiros were actually built from the mountains. Trees and other foliage were cleared, and the stones and dirt of the mountains themselves were carved into rough fortifications. Ditches were dug to present obstacles to attackers and moats were created by diverting mountain streams.
When Japan was reunified under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the second half of the 16th century, a significant number of larger castles began to crop up across the country. Unlike the earlier castles, these were built in the plains or on small hills overlooking the plains and served as a region’s administrative and military headquarters. Castle towns rose up around these bigger and more beautiful structures.
While they were built to last and used more stones in their construction than most Japanese buildings, castles were still constructed primarily of wood, and many were destroyed either during the many sieges or after the end of the feudal age when castles were considered unwelcome relics of the past. With the advent of World War II even more castles were ruined. It is estimated that there were once five thousand castles in existence throughout Japan. Today there are a little over one hundred surviving castles with only about a dozen dating back to the feudal era (before 1868). Furthermore, several dozen castles were reconstructed over the past decades mostly using concrete instead of traditional building materials.
But one can’t argue that even after several centuries, Japan’s castles still mesmerize tourists with their unique architecture and feudal charm.
The typical castle consisted of multiple rings of defense, with the main circle in the center followed by the second circle and the third circle. The castle tower stood within the main circle and the second circle provided comfortable living quarters and offices for the lords.
The samurai lived in the town surrounding the castle. The higher their rank, the closer their residence was to the castle. Merchants and artisans had homes in specially designated areas while the temple and the entertainment districts were located in the outskirts.
The twelve “original” castles today consist of: Matsuyama Castle, Hakone Castle, Himeji Castle, Hirosaki Castle, Inuyama Castle, Kochi Castle, Marugame Castle, Maruoka Castle, Matsue Castle, Matsumoto Castle, Matsuyama Castle, and Uwajima Castle. Among these twelve the following seven have been declared Japan’s most beautiful:
During our many travels to Japan, we had the pleasure of touring Matsumoto Castle located in Nagano, Japan. Matsumoto Castle also known as Crow Castle because of its black walls is one of four castles designated as a National Treasure. It was completed in 1593-94 by Norimasa Ishikawa and his son Yasunaga. Originally, a fortress built by Shimadachi Sadanaga in 1504 called Fukashi Castle stood in its place. That castle was attacked and captured by Takeda Shingen in 1550. When Ishikawa took charge of the fortress he added the tower and other parts of the castle, including the three towers, the residence, the drum gate, the black gate, the Tsukimi Yagura (the moon viewing pavilion), the moat, and the sub-floors in the castle, much as they are today. The father and son were also instrumental in laying out the castle town and its infrastructure.
After its completion, Matsumoto Castle was ruled for 280 years by 23 lords representing six different families.
Today, visitors will find steep stairs and low ceilings leading past displays of armor and weapons from the Sengoku period inside of the castle. The narrow wooden windows, once used by archers and gunmen, provide amazing views of the Japanese Alps, Matsumoto City and the koi and swans circling in the moat below.
Also located in Nagano, Japan is Ueda Castle, the original home of the Sanada clan constructed in 1583 by Masayuki Sanada. A flatland castle like Matsumoto Castle, it made good use of the rivers and landscape for its defense. Following the Battle of Sekigahara, the castle was destroyed by Nobuyuki Sanada upon orders from the Tokugawa. Rebuilding of the castle was undertaken by Tadamasa Sengoku in 1622 but he passed away before the work was finished. The structures you see today date back to this time period.
After destroying Ueda Castle, Nobuyuki Sanada moved to Matsushiro Castle located in northern Shinano, Nagano. Constructed by Takeda Shingen circa 1560 the castle was formerly known as Kaizu Castle. After Shingen’s death, lordship of the castle changed hands several times until Sanada took over in 1622. The name of the castle was changed to Matsushiro by the third generation of Sanada lords, Yukimichi Sanada. The castle buildings were dismantled during the Meiji Period so there are no original structures left. The gates and walls you see today have been reconstructed faithfully using techniques and styles appropriate for the time and location.
Bridge to Matsushiro Castle
Tsuruga Castle also known as Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle is a concrete replica of a traditional Japanese castle located in northern Japan in the Fukushima Prefecture. The castle was constructed by Naomori Ashina in 1384, and was originally named Kurokawa Castle. It was the military and administrative center of the Aizu region until 1868.
The castle was besieged during the Battle of Aizu by the forces of the newly formed Imperial army in 1868. The castle buildings, pockmarked by artillery fire during the siege and declared structurally unstable, were demolished by the new government in 1874. The tenshu, the largest tower of the castle, was reconstructed in 1965 in concrete. Currently the castle serves as a museum and an observation gallery offering panoramic views of the city.
Founded in 1583 by the Maeda family, Kanazawa Castle is located in the Ishikawa Prefecture. It is situated adjacent to the renown Kenroku-en Garden, which once formed the castle’s private outer garden. The castle was so large that during the 18th century it was referred to as “the palace of 1,000 tatami.” Kanazawa Castle was subsequently reconstructed after several fires and an earthquake. What remains is now considered part of Kanazawa Castle Park.
The Hishi Yagura turret, Gojikken Nagaya warehouse, and Hashizume-mon Tsuzuki Yagura turret were faithfully restored in 2001 to their 1809 form, using traditional construction methods. The castle’s distinctive roof tiles are made of lead. The reason for that is not only that they are fireproof, but according to legend, in times of siege, the tiles could be melted down and cast into bullets.
Zakimi Castle and Nakijin Castle are located in the Okinawa Prefecture. Both castles are in ruins but the walls and foundations of Zakimi Castle have been restored.
Zakimi Castle ruins
Built between 1416 and 1422 by the renowned Ryukyuan militarist Gosamaru, Zakimi Castle oversaw the northern portion of the Okinawan mainland. The fortress has two inner courts, each with an arched gate.
Before and during World War II, the castle was used as a gun emplacement by the Japanese, and after the war it was used as a radar station by the US forces. Zakimi Castle and Okinawa’s other castles were named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in November 2000.
In the late 14th century, the Ryukyus (Okinawa) was divided into three principalities: Nanzan to the south, Chuzan in the central area, and Hokuzan in the north. Nakijin Castle was the fortress of Hokuzan. The fortress includes several sacred Utaki groves, reflecting the castle’s role as a center of religious activity. It is famous for the Hikan cherries which bloom in northern Okinawa between mid-January and early February.
Nakijin Castle ruins