If you’re traveling to Japan, you’d be remiss not to visit and explore the several Castles littered throughout the region. Deep-rooted in history and a testament to its longstanding culture, these castles not only provide today’s visitors with an opportunity to learn, explore, and enjoy but also acts as a reminder to the people of Japan what their ancestors went through and who they are as a people.
In Japan, there are more than a hundred castles that are either surviving or partially existing today; it is thought that there were originally five thousand across Japan. Some castles have been partially or totally restored or rebuilt, while others have been partially or completely destroyed by sieges, fire, earthquake, or other disasters.
The Japanese word for their castle fortresses is “Shiro” and although most are not original structures they all have commonalities.
Castles in Japan today (城, Shiro) are fortifications made largely of stone and topped with clay-tiled roofs called kawara. They developed over millennia, wooden buildings and forts and acquired their current architectural appearance in the fifteenth century.
The following castles were once palaces, places of residence, and ancient military fortresses, previously owned by the greatest samurais, lords, and rulers of early Japan. Today they remain, very few are original and untouched and still standing as they looked hundreds of years ago, others are complete modern reconstructions, but significant nonetheless.
Top 10 castles to see in Japan:
Otherwise known as the White Heron, Himeji Castle is often referred to as Japan’s most preserved of its original castles and is widely considered one of the most spectacular for its daunting size and impeccable, awe-inspiring, and complex architecture.
One of 12 original Japanese castles, Himeji Castle mirrors resilience in the face of Japanese history and culture. Why? Because unlike many of the pre-dated castles in early Japan, Himeji was never destroyed, nor defeated in battle. Instead, it still stands tall to this day.
This beautiful, original castle is home to a shrine, an overlook providing its visitors with a birds-eye view of the city, and of course, a guided tour for all those interested to see what’s inside.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a site to see, so if you’re in the area, be sure to visit and explore all that Himeji Castle and its grounds have to offer.
Himeji Castle facts:
- Akamatsu Norimura (1333 to 1346) constructed the original castle
- Period of use: 1333 to 1868 again in 1945 (as military camp)
- Total estimated weight 6,200 tons (12,400,00 pounds)
- Castle and surrounds grounds are 264.4 acres
- Himeji Castle is a hilltop Japanese castle complex in Himeji in Hygo Prefecture
- Made of wood, stone, plaster and tile
- Total buildings on site: 83
- Preservation efforts began in 1934
Speaking of original castles, Matsuyama Castle isn’t only one of 12 left standing, but it also happens to be the oldest, originally built in the early 1200s (1240 to be exact). In addition, this elder castle also happens to be the only original castle that’s perched upon a mountain top.
For reasons of battle and defense, many castles built in the early years of Japan were constructed atop mountains and made to be very difficult to access. This is largely the reason why Matsuyama was constructed where it sits today.
Because of this, even for modern-day visitors, this castle is somewhat difficult and timely to reach, requiring a minimum of a 20-minute hike towards the entrance. Nevertheless, the hike will be worth it, for you’ll have visited the oldest, rarest, and most sought-after castle in all of Japan to visit.
For obvious reasons, the Matsuyama Castle holds incredible historical significance in Japanese culture.
Matsuyama Castle Facts:
- Built in 1603 on Mount Katsuyama
- Stands at 433 feet
- Destroyed (burned) by lighning in 1784
- Existing castle reconstructed in 1820
- 1 of 12 Japan’s original castles
- Comprised of 21 buildings
- Famous for its Cherry blossom trees
- Can be accessed by chairlife ropeway
Dubbed one of Japan’s largest original towers still standing, the Matsue Castle was constructed in the early 1600s to defend the Matsudaira clan and has withstood military attacks, natural catastrophes, and decay over time. Today, the castle has mostly stood the test of time and accomplished its primary purpose.
After all, it’s only one of 12 original castles still standing and is the only castle left in the Sanin region.
Today, the Matsue Castle provides locals and travelers alike with a museum experience that tells the story of history through time-period artifacts and weaponry, among other on-site artifacts.
Because this monument is surrounded by water, it also provides its guests with the opportunity to enjoy a scenic boat ride around its moat.
Facts About Matsue Castle:
- Completed in 1611
- Contains an interior museum
- Top floor overlooks the city
- Castle moat has boat tours
- Called “Black Castle” for its exterior appearance
- Was never attacked by enemy forces
- Preservations began in the 1950s
One of five National Treasures in the company of Himeji, Matsumoto, Matsue, and Inuyama, and one of the original twelve Japanese castles, Hikone Castle is the most visited in its region, and for obvious reasons.
For impeccable views of the beautiful city of Hikone, climb the stairs inside and enjoy some of the most breathtaking scenery and vistas overlooking the area and out to sea.
As for the journey up to the castle, the scenery is also quite unique. With a winding wooden bridge and spiral entrance, you’ll quickly begin to understand the intention behind its construction.
Like many of the castles of its time, Hikone was designed not only to withstand war and disaster but also to thrive and protect in the case of an attack.
The wooden bridge leading to the castle was intentionally built and designed to be destroyed in case of an impending attack.
The history and education that you receive by simply exploring the Hikone Castle grounds are truly one of a kind.
Facts About Hikone Castle:
- 1 of 5 Castles Listed as a National Treasure
- Located less than a mile from lake Biwa
- Took 20 years to contruct
- Completed in 1622
- Its grounds have 1000 Cherry Trees
- Restored 1957 to 1960
- Museum contains 45,000 items
One of the original twelve castles in Japan, the Inuyama Castle was awarded and deemed a National Treasure. Like many of the original castles, this one stands on top of a hill, constructed with simple wood and rock, truly showing its age; a sign of the times.
For the visitors fortunate enough to explore this national monument, it’s enough to be greeted with panoramic views of the Kiso River atop the fourth floor of the structure.
With signs of surviving natural disasters, wars, and its walls standing the test of time, and with original construction designed for military advantage, the Inuyama Castle is a historic castle site to see in the Aichi Prefecture.
Facts about Inuyama Castle:
- Built in 1537
- Damaged by 1891 Earthquake
- Was the Only privated owned castle in Japan
- Recently sold to the city of Inuyama
- adjacent to the Kiso river
- Seized by Meiji Goverments 1892-95
Another one of the twelve surviving original castles, Maruoka Castle was often categorized as the oldest (1576) in its region, however, this has since turned out to be false. Nevertheless, that doesn’t discount the historical significance and general age of this castle, nor its ability to withstand such turbulent times.
A legend persisted that when enemies would approach the castle in preparation for an attack the castle would suddenly be hidden in a mist or fog.
Many cherry trees (Sakura) are located on the castle grounds along with pine and other deciduous trees and shrubs.
As many of the original castles atop hills offer, Maruoka Castle too offers wondrous panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. You’ll just need to climb to the top to be rewarded with such views.
Fun Fact: If you want to go during an eventful period of its showcasing, think about visiting in April. Not only does the property become flooded with blooming cherry blossom trees, but they also hold a festival in its name where they partake in tree lighting ceremonies and paper lantern traditions.
Facts About Maruoka Castle:
- Surrounded by a pentagon shaped moat
- Legend of Human sacrifice was part of its construction
- Purchased in 1901 by Maruoka City to become a park
- Damaged by a 1948 earthquake
- Restored in 1955
- Some of the gates are privately owned
- Over 400 Cherry trees surround the castle
- The heavy tiled roof weighs 120 tons
Although this original castle built in the 1600s has since been reconstructed, it’s been done with Japanese beauty and charm in mind. Ironically enough, this castle wasn’t destroyed during Japan’s feudal wars. Instead, it was severely damaged due to a modern earthquake in early 2016. Nevertheless, after five years of tedious reconstruction, Kumamoto Castle is back and better than ever.
As one of the more impressive monuments in Japan, this castle is amongst the most visited in its region and becomes an even more visited spot come springtime due to its beautiful surroundings filled with cherry (Sakura) blossom trees.
For visitors, you can enjoy a modern museum depicting the castle’s long history, a palace depicting accurate representations of what once was, and views of the surrounding city.
Facts About Kumamoto Castle:
- Built in 1588
- Burned in 1877 by enemies
- Rebuilt in 1960 of concrete
- Damaged by April 14 2016 Earthquake
- Full restoration target date is 2036
- 800 Cherry trees surround the castle
- One turret today dates to its construction
The restoration of the castle began on June 8, 2016. The main tower’s repair was finished in 2019. In January 2021, the repair of the Nagabei Wall was completed. The comprehensive repair and restoration of the entire castle are expected to be completed in the year 2036.
The newly manufactured shachihoko decoration was put on the top roof of the great tenshu tower on April 7, 2018, and the second one was erected on April 12.
Deep-rooted in the history of Kyoto, the first shogun of its time, Nijo Castle was once a palace for royalty of sorts. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this beautiful monument boasts incredible surrounding landscapes and architecture that provides some of the best, most accurate representations of the once palace.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Tokugawa shogunate’s founder, ordered all feudal lords in western Japan to assist financially in the construction of Nijo Castle, which was finished under Tokugawa Iemitsu’s rule in 1626.
In 1750, lightning hit the center castle, and it burnt to the ground. The Inner building was completely destroyed by a city-wide fire in 1788. The site remained abandoned until 1893 when it was replaced with a prince’s residence moved from Kyoto Imperial Palace.
The palace was donated to the city of Kyoto in 1939, and it was opened to the public the subsequent year.
With three separate areas of the property, Nijo castle can be explored in detail. The reason for this design was for defense during the Feudal era. Think of it as being the first, second, and third line of defense; it’s quite the sight to see.
This wondrous castle features elegant decorative touches, sliding doors, and authentically constructed wooden and stone walls. This rare and authentic experience is worth the fee, however, it’s worth noting that some parts of this property are not viewable to the general public for reasons undisclosed.
Facts about Nijo Castle:
- Completed in 1626
- Destroy by lightning in 1750 (fire)
- A citywide fire in 1788 burned the castle a seond time
- Site was abandoned until 1893 when a royal residence was built
- The castle is surrounded by gardens containing plum and cherry trees
Another treasure to Japan’s historic culture, Matsumoto Castle, or Crow Castle as it’s more commonly referred to, was constructed in the 1800s and is sought after for its grand design and stunning architecture.
All previous feudal castles were ordered to be destroyed by the new Meiji government in 1872. The outside grounds of Matsumoto Castle were auctioned off for development, and the majority of the castle buildings were destroyed.
When word of the tenshu’s impending demise reached Matsumoto, a prominent figure named Ichikawa Ryozo, as well as local citizens, launched a campaign to rescue the structure.
As a result, the local city bought the structure, their efforts were rewarded that it would be preserved for future generations.
The uniqueness of this castle in relation to the several other castles in Japan is that it sits on flat land. This type of castle is otherwise known as a hirajiro. For guests visiting this astonishing monument, you won’t have to worry about long climbs or hikes to the top.
The experience of touring this castle is also unique. Not only does it boast authentic wooden features throughout its interior, but also exudes Japanese culture with its archways, black wainscoting, and stone accents. The best part, however, is the unobstructed views visitors can enjoy atop the observation deck.
Facts About Matsumoto Castle:
- Constructed 1592-1614
- Known as the crow castle because of its black exterior
- Is built on a level plain
- Restored between 1903-13
- Second restoration 1950-55
- Minor damage occured from earthquake in 2011
- Second floor contains a gun museum
As one of the most famous Japanese landmarks in all of Japan, Osaka Castle, once the largest castle of its time. Built in the late 1500s, This former Honganji Temple, intended to be the center of Toyotomi-ruled Japan, has since been destroyed and rebuilt several times and is now undergoing its most modern reconstruction.
During World War II, the castle area became one of the largest military armories, employing 60,000 workers. American bombing raids targeting the arsenal damaged the reconstructed main castle tower and, on August 14, 1945, destroyed 90% of the arsenal and killed 382 people working there.
In 1660, lightning struck the gunpowder storehouse, causing an explosion that set fire to the castle.
The tenshu was hit by lightning and burned destroyed in 1665. The castle received much-needed repairs in 1843, following years of neglect, when the shogunate raised funds from the people of the region to restore a few of the towers.
The city of Osaka approved a renovation project in 1995, with the goal of restoring the main tower to its Edo-era magnificence. The repair was finished in 1997.
The castle is a concrete replica of the original, with the inside designed as a contemporary, functional museum.
As it sits today, the Osaka Castle boasts modern amenities, both inside and out, and is the home of an extensive museum depicting the vast history of one of Japan’s most powerful figures, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Facts about Osaka Castle:
- Observation deck is 164 above ground level
- Construction began in 1583
- Destroyed in 1615 by the summer war of Osaka
- A lightning strike again destroyed the castle
- In 1931 The main tower was rebuilt
- Structures damaged by air raids in WWII (1945)
- 600 Cherry trees surround the castle in its gardens
Fun fact: Osaka Castle actually made an appearance in the 1955 feature film, Godzilla! While it looks a little different today, its origins and importance in Japanese culture remain the same.
With an estimated 5000 castles that once stood tall across Japan and only about 100 that still remain, it would be impossible to discuss all the wonders that Japan Castles has to offer.
Nevertheless, the 10 discussed above are most certainly significant and spectacular each in their own right, many of them part of the original twelve! If you’re ever in Japan, a castle tour is a must.