The Medieval Castles of Japan

A PIcture of Himeji Castle

Japan has been a land that has been torn by war and warlords for many centuries. Because of this there have been very many hundreds of castles and fortresses built over the centuries. Many of these castles still remain to this day and many of them have been rebuilt and restored to their original shape and condition. And, there are still many remains of castles that can be found.

The Japanese Medieval Castle like the one shown in the picture at the left, looks to be quite different than your typical European Medieval Castle, particularly in the roof design. And while it is true that the look of the castles is quite different they actually are quite similar to European castles in many respects. Here is an overview of some of these similarities.

How Japanese Castles are similar to European Castles

  • They had large and tall walls for protection
  • They often had moats around them to discourage the digging of tunnels
  • They had narrow and steep stairways to make assault difficult
  • They had portholes for guns and for arrows
  • They often had a main gate area that could be used as a trap
  • They almost always had concentric rings of walls to give them multiple layers of protection
  • They capitalized on terrain features - often the best placement was at the top of a hill or small mountain. This gave a very advantageous position and view

 

Want to Visit some medieval Castles in Japan? Here is a list of some of the more popular and unusual ones:

 

When It comes to Medieval Castles in Japan there are three that are considered to be "The Big Three"

1. Himeji Castle - This is the one castle you have to see if you visit just one castle. It is a world heritage site and it is totally open to the public. You can walk the ground uninhibited and you can walk all the way through the castle all the way up to the top, at your own pace. Taking pictures is allowed and they have a limited number of volunteer english tour guides which is a big plus. I have visited this castle and I have a whole section devoted to it where you can see pictures and videos both inside and outside the castle. This castle has also been the setting for some movies including a James Bond Movie and Tom Cruises movie "The Last Samurai". I have a page with lots of pictures and a good look at Himeji Castle

2. Matsumoto Castle -

(Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

2. Matsumoto Castle - This is a beautiful castle that is not that far from Tokyo. The keep of the castle was completed in the late 16th century(1504) and the castle is quite unique because of its location on flat land. The castle has been well preserved and much of it is still as it was. This includes the moat, the gates, the various baileys and the sub floors in the castle.

An interesting design of this castle: From the outside it looks like it has five floors but it actually has six! The third floor of the tower has no windows and was designed to be a whole floor that was kept as a secret from its enemies!

It also has a wing turret that was built specifically for viewing the moon.

Kumamoto Castle 3.Kumamoto Castle - It was originally built in 1607. This is the third largest castle in Japan. And it is considered to be a tour-de-force in the world of castle building. The walls both inner and outer are exceptionally thick and many pains were taken to make the castle safe from siege. Over 100 well were dug to supply its inhabitants with water and canphor and gingko trees were planted to supply edible nuts and firewood in times of siege. The Castle was mostly destroyed (the wooden parts) by a fire in 1877 and the castle has undergone an extensive reconstruction that was started in 1960 and complete in 2007 in time for its 400th anniversary.

Interesting facts

  • The famous Japanese Film director Akira Kurosawa was given permission to use this castle in his 1985 movie "Ran".
  • The burning of the castle in 1877 happened during the last civil war of Japan when an army of Samurai rose up against the Meiji Government. This is the story behind the movie "The Last Samurai".

More Castles off the Mainland

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.

Shuri Castle

Me at Shuri Castle in JapanThis 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.

Nakagusuku Ruins

A View of the Ocean from Nakagusuku ruinsThis 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.

Want to learn more or make one of these castles?

Book cover: Castles of the Samurai

 

Castles of the Samurai: Power and Beauty

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japanese Castles 1540-1640 (Fortress)

 

 

 

 

 

Himeji Castle: Japan's Samurai Past (Castles, Palaces & Tombs)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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