When you think “castle”, the image of Rapunzel-esque European castles might come to mind—with imposing stone ramparts and tall towers at each corner. Japanese castles, on the other hand, stem from a completely different tradition. While they are surrounded by moats and tall stone walls, the main structures have always been constructed from wood. As a result, few structures have survived the great fires that swept cities during the times of the shoguns, the anti-feudal destruction of the late 19th century Meiji period, and the incendiary bombs dropped on Japan during World War II.
What makes a good castle?
A small number of Japanese castles have survived the fires and turmoil and are more or less as they were during the castle building boom of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, most castles you see today are post–World War II reconstructions. Some were thrown up using steel reinforced concrete, while some of the reconstructions, from the 1980s, have been done using traditional construction techniques, faithful to those used in the 1600s. However, you can’t just dismiss the concrete reconstructions completely. Many are important historical reminders and have become icons of the cities in which they are located.
If you must visit one castle in Japan, it should be Himeji Castle. Himeji Castle is huge, imposing, beautiful, and somehow it managed to escape the fiery fate of most of its contemporaries. The six-storied, wedding cake–like main keep rises to a height of 46 meters, with extensive views of the surrounding city and countryside. Himeji Castle is very much on the tourist radar and likely sees the biggest number of tourists of any castle in Japan.
Severely damaged by the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes and still undergoing restoration, Kumamoto Castle is one of Japan’s most famous castles. Many of the large buildings within the complex are originals from the Edo period, although the Tenshu (main keep) was burned to the ground in Japan’s last samurai rebellion—yes, that rebellion, the one that inspired the Tom Cruise film. The current keep is a concrete reconstruction.
Home to the illustrious Maeda clan of Kanazawa, the castle was mostly destroyed in a fire that happened in 1881. Parts of the castle were not reconstructed until 2001. Unlike a lot of earlier reconstructions that used concrete, Kanazawa Castle was reconstructed using traditional construction methods. Inside the castle are displays showing how the whole building is held together without the use of any nails.
Allowances were made for visitors with mobility issues though—there are ramps and elevators for making the castle buildings (mostly) accessible.
Please note – Shuri Castle was destroyed in a devastating fire in October 2019 and will require many years of work before it can be visited again.
Arising from a quite different tradition to the mainland castles, Shuri Castle was the home to the kings of Ryukyu. Blown to bits during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing months of World War II, the castle has been faithfully restored and rebuilt. While it’s technically a castle, it’s more like a fortified palace.
Located in the center of the sprawling park to which it gives its name, Hirosaki is small in size but big in character. When the donjon needed repairs, the whole castle was moved off the platform. When the repairs are finished, it will be moved back.
The castle is particularly picturesque during the cherry blossom festival which happens in April and the snow lantern festival in February.
Burned to the ground many times since its original construction in the late 16th century, the Osaka Castle we see today is a reinforced concrete reproduction complete with elevators to get to the upper levels. Despite this, Osaka Castle makes the list because it is both an iconic landmark for the people of Osaka and because it played such an important role in history. Its destruction by both the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century and by the imperial soldiers during the Meiji Restoration in 1868 both happened at important historical turning points for Japan.
Osaka Castle Park is a popular cherry blossom viewing spot, with the castle appearing in the background of countless pics.
More of a palace than a defensive castle, Nijo Castle was built in the 17th century as the residence of the shogun for when he visited Kyoto. The castle does not have high ramparts or a donjon as seen in other Japanese castles. There were originally two palaces within the grounds—the Honmaru (main) palace and the Ninomaru (secondary) palace. Today, only the Ninomaru Palace survives. The castle is renowned for its beautiful Zen gardens and the “nightingale” floors, designed to alert the occupants to the movements of sneaky assasins at night.
Along with Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle, Matsumoto Castle (or Crow Castle) is cited by the tourism bureaucrats as one of Japan’s top 3 castles (they like to make lists more than we do.) Located in the city of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, the main keep is coloured black, giving it the nickname “Crow Castle”. The main keep has survived in one piece since the late 16th century—even managing to overcome a perilous lean that affected the castle in the late 19th century.
Located in the city of Matsue, Shimane Prefecture in the north of the island of Kyushu, Matsue Castle has an original keep dating from the early 17th century. Aside from the keep, many of the structures are in ruins. Given the (un)popularity of Shimane as a tourist destination, you’re also more likely to get some nice pics without a bus load of fellow tourists in the way.
Built on a “mountain” in the city of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, Matsuyama Castle is visible throughout the city and it affords panoramic views of the city. Mount Katsuyama, on which the castle is built, is 132 meters in height. If that’s a struggle to get up, there is both a ropeway and a chairlift to get you to the top. The main castle keep dates from the mid-19th century—replacing a previous structure which burned down as a result of a lightning strike in 1784.
For more, see the Japanese Castles page of our attractions section.