By Will Kalif
When we think of Medieval castles we seldom think about Japan. But Japan went through a very long period of feudal warfare and as a result hundreds of fortress like castles were built. They look significantly different than their European counterparts but functionally they are much they same. They were meant to protect the people inside from all sorts of dangers. This article reviews some of the medieval castles in Japan and talks about their tricks and techniques for fortification.
There are some interesting aspects that you will notice among most of the castles in Japan. Most of them have a shrine at the very top of the hold. And all of them use stealth as another tool in their arsenal of protection. A good example of this is the trick of making the castle look like it has five floors while in reality it has six floors. This missing floor was a perfect place to hide materials and troops from the enemy.
As in any culture that has a long history you can visit many of the sites that pepper the whole of Japan and you can see castles in various stages ranging from pristine and still in the condition they were built, to rebuilt, to just remnants and walls.
There are three major castles in Japan that are considered to be the best examples of castle building throughout the centuries. They are Himeji Castle, Matsumoto Castle, and Kumamoto Castle. If you are visiting Japan and want to experience the best castles you should visit at least one of these three.
This is the number one castle in Japan and a must see even if you are not a castle enthusiast. It sits perched upon a hill and because of its dramatic look and white color it is often referred to as the White Heron Castle. It has a very long history and the first fort was built on the site in 1333. The structure, as it currently stands was completed in 1618.
There are a number of unique things about this castle including a complex series of gates and mazes which made it very difficult for attackers to gain entrance to the main fortress. There are also several ghost stories that have grown up around it; the most famous of which is the story of the serving girl named Okiku who was betrayed, tortured, and thrown into the castles well.
Himeji is open to the public and people are given the freedom to roam the grounds both inside and out as they wish. There are also a limited number of English speaking tour guides available. This is a wonderful experience of Japan and about an hour by train from Kyoto.
This castle is located a short distance from Tokyo so it is a good place to visit if you are not going to be spending a lot of time in the country or if you have budgeted your time very tightly. The keep of this castle was completed in 1504 so it has a very long history. It also is quite dramatic in appearance because it is a flatland castle that is perched right alongside the water, and even juts out into the water. Matsumoto is a great example of stealth in castle building because it is one of the castles that looks like it has five floors but really has a sixth floor that is a secret.
This is a castle that has a remarkable history. It was originally built in 1607 and in 1877 it was the site for the last remnants of the Samurai revolt and civil war in Japan. Much of the structure was destroyed by fire during the revolt. It spent almost a hundred years in ruins but has recently been rebuilt to its original beauty and opened to the public. The interior of the castle towers is now a museum and it is filled with many of the splendors of architecture and design of the period it was built in. Kumamoto was also used by the famous director Akira Kurosawa in his 1985 film “Ran”.
The whole of Japan is peppered with many castles and you don’t have to stay on the mainland to see them. If you take a trip to the island of Okinawa you can visit some fine examples that are a bit different than those on the mainland.
This is a fine example of the development of a structure over centuries. Shuri was the capital of the island of Okinawa and the castle was the seat of government. So it retains not only its massive fortifications but it also has a certain opulence and beauty that one would expect of the home of a ruler of a kingdom. It was almost completely destroyed during World War 2 but since has been totally reconstructed and sites in the middle of a complex site called Shuri Castle Park. If you are traveling to the island of Okinawa this is the one castle you should visit.
Don’t overlook the many Ruins
One of the most interesting things about the castles of Japan is the plethora of ruins that are still in reasonably good shape.
This is a world heritage site on the island of Okinawa that is well preserved. It is approximately 400 years old and while it is in ruins much of the stone structures are still intact and the layout of the castle is clearly seen, particularly in the concentric walls that defended the hold. It sits on the top of a hill and it has a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. This ruin is well worth a visit. And nearby is an authentic Japanese home that is now kept as a museum. It is called the Nakamura house. If you visit Nakagusuku it is well worth it to also visit the Nakamura house which is only five minutes away. It was the home of several generations and is a good example of how the Japanese lived centuries ago.
There are literally hundreds of castles in Japan built over the course of several centuries and in various states of repair. You can visit any part of the country and find a castle or a ruin not too far away. These structures are a remarkable testament to the history of the country. And while they look quite different than their European counterparts they still did the same job in the same ways.
For lots more Medieval Castle information, articles, pictures and videos visit the authors website at: The Medieval Castles