Castles were built, bolstered, and fortified all over the Japanese archipelago during the Sengoku “Warring States” era, which lasted from 1467 to 1615. There were about 5,000 castles in total.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate ordered many of them to be destroyed. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the emperor was given power again, there are more than a hundred of them left in Japan today.
This is a list of some of the best castles in Japan that you can still go to.
Castle of Hirosaki
Hirosaki Castle is on top of a hill in Aomori prefecture, which is in the heart of Japan’s deep north. The castle is surrounded by yaruga (turrets) and fortified moats, and it has a tiered keep.
The castle was built in 1611, when Japan was in a long period of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate. As a result, it never had to deal with a siege or an invasion.
The original five-story tenshu (main keep) was destroyed, however, when it was hit by lightning in 1627. In the early 19th century, the three-story structure that stands today was built in its place.
When the cherry blossoms bloom in spring, Hirosaki Castle is a big hit with tourists. In the castle gardens, there are more than 2,600 sakura trees. Each spring, they drop their petals on the lawns and moats next to them.
The Shuri-jo Castle
Shuri Castle, which was on the UNESCO list, was destroyed by a fire in 2019 Restoration work has begun.
Alamy: Okinawa’s Shuri-jo Castle rises above the city of Naha and is surrounded by dark, fortified walls. It is a symbol of the gusuku castle style of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, which used this type of castle (the former name of Okinawa).
It’s built in a way that defies the typical Japanese castle design, with a royal wooden citadel covered in dragons and Chinese symbols. This shows that Okinawa was a pre-nation state before it became a country.
It was the Ryukyu Kingdom’s seat of power until Japan took over the Okinawa islands in 1879. Shuri-jo was built in the 14th century and was used until then. Before it was neglected by the empire, it was the centre of the kingdom’s diplomacy, governance, and spirituality for centuries, but now it isn’t as important as it was before.
When Shuri Castle was rebuilt and made a UNESCO World Heritage site, it was very sad to see it burn down in 2019. Reconstruction is going on now, with the goal of restoring the main buildings to their original state by 2026.
Edo Castle, which used to be called Tokyo, has one of the longest lines of any of Japan’s castles. First, a fortified palace was built on the site during the Heian era (794-1185). The samurai Ota Dokan then built a fortress to replace the palace in 1457. In the late 16th century, the powerful daimyo (feudal lord) Tokugawa Ieyasu took over.
This led to major changes in architecture and a huge expansion of the city, turning Edo from a small, fortified village into the de facto capital of the country, which was represented by the grand castle at its centre.
People who lived there in the past thought Edo Castle was big. It was surrounded by a 15-mile moat with over 30 gates and bridges.
As you walk around Tokyo, you’ll see traces of the original structures. The Imperial Palace, where the current emperor lives, is the best place to get a sense of how the city looked in its heyday, tho. In some places, you can’t go outside. The Imperial Palace East Garden is open to everyone.
The Matsumoto Castle
It was built in the 16th century by Japan’s “Great Unifier,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The black walls of the Matusmoto Castle contrast with the snow-capped Northern Alps that surround Matsumoto City.
The Crow Castle, also known as Karasu-jo (the Crow Castle), was mostly untouched by the war. It still has one of the country’s oldest surviving keepers.
For example, the castle has steep wooden stairs, hidden inner levels, and archer’s perches. It also has a moon-viewing room added in 1630, which allows you to see the brocaded carps and ducks that live in the castle moat.
On winter nights, the castle lights up and throws its reflection across the surface of the moat.
The Nagoya Castle
In Aichi’s bustling capital city, Nagoya, you’ll find the Nagoya Castle, which has regal towers that look out over the gardens and moats below.
Nagoya Castle was built as a government centre in the early Edo period, after more than 150 years of interstate war. The castle would be in trouble later, when it was bombed during World War II. There has been a lot of work to make it look like it did in the Middle Ages again.
In the past, Nagoya Castle was known as Kin-jo, or “Golden Castle,” because of the magnificent golden shachihoko (tiger-like fish) protruding from its top. Its sloped mint green roofs are also well-known.
It isn’t currently possible to get into the main keep because it doesn’t meet modern earthquake-resistance standards. Over the next few years, renovations are planned to make it safe enough to use by 2028, but it won’t be ready until then.
Osaka Castle is one of Japan’s most well-known landmarks, and it played a big role in the end of the Sengoku era. Hideyoshi looked to expand his fortress in Osaka after Japan was unified. This was because he wanted to beat his old lord, Oda Nobunaga.
When the castle was taken over by the Tokugawa Clan in 1615, his efforts to build an impenetrable defence were cut short.
It’s a five-story replica of the original keep, which was destroyed on several occasions. It’s built on solid cyclopean foundations, with mint green roof tiles and golden accouterments that look a lot like Nagoya Castle.
Inside, you’ll find a museum that walks you thru the history of the area and the different samurai who called it home. The show ends with a 360-degree view from the top floor.
One of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites is Nijo Castle, which is one of the most important places in the city.
Nijo Castle was the official home of the Shogun during the Edo period. The military rulers would spend most of their time in power in Edo, but Nijo Castle was the official home of the Shogun (now Tokyo).
Following the Meiji Restoration, the castle became an imperial palace before it was opened to the public as a historic site for the public to visit and enjoy.
There is a wide moat around the castles, an imposing karamon (entry gate), concentric sections that are separated by reinforced stone walls, and “nightingale” floorboards that squeak to let you know if there are intruders.
It’s possible to walk around most of the castle grounds today, and audio guides in a number of languages can be found at the entrance.
Castle of Inuyama
If you want to visit Aichi prefecture, Inuyama Castle is one of the best places to start. National Treasure status is only given to five castle keepers in Japan, and Inuyama Castle is one of them. It has the oldest tenshu (fortified tower) in Japan, dating back to 1580, and it is one of only five castles kept to get this honor.
It was also the first fortress owned by the tyrant who tried to unify Japan, Oda Nobunaga.
Inuyama Castle was built on top of a hill, which gave its samurai sweeping views of the plains around them and the raging Kiso River at their feet. Today, visitors to the site can enjoy a breathtaking view that looks out over the towns and forests around them.
In spite of the fact that Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture looks like a small house, it’s important because its main keep, which has been designated a national treasure, and many of the surrounding buildings are still standing.
This is partly because it was finished in 1622, after the Tokugawa Shogunate had made Japan peaceful. It was also built in a place that was not very well-known in western Japan.
Views of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest inland body of water, can be seen from the hilltop castle. The lake covers the center of the prefecture. There is also a Hikone Castle Museum at the bottom of the hill, which shows artifacts and historical documents from the Ii Clan, which built the fortress about 400 years ago.
Bicchu Matsuyama Castle
The 13th-century Bicchu Matsuyama Castle, which is perched on top of Takahashi City in Okayama Prefecture, is thought to be Japan’s first yamajiro castle, or castle of the woods (mountain castle). At 430 meters (1,400 feet) above sea level, the highest point of any castle in Japan, would-be invaders had to slog thru dense shrubbery and a volley of projectiles just to reach the castle gates.
If you’re a little fit, you can do this hike today because it’s less dangerous than it was in the Middle Ages and there aren’t as many arrows coming at you. I think it’s worth getting up early in the morning to see the Okayama countryside from the castle ramparts or to see unkai (seas of clouds) floating above the valley on spring and fall mornings when the weather is good.
Himeji Castle is the setting for one of Japan’s most infamous horror movies. You can see why Himeji Castle is called “Castles with a White Heron.” The multi-tiered, pearly white structure rises high above the low-lying city.
It was built in the early 1300s, and then it was bought and changed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and other daimyo, among other things. It has also stayed mostly the same over the course of its 700-year history, surviving everything from aerial bombs in the 1940s to the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
There were a lot of things that made Himeji Castle the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan.
Furthermore, the castle is where Okiku’s Well is, where the ghost of the servant is said to live. The folktale Bancho Sarayashiki, which later inspired horror films Ringu (1998) and The Ring (1999), made the well famous. The well’s name comes from the story (2002).
Japan’s central western coast is home to only one castle that still stands. Matsue Castle was built in the early 1600s near Lake Shinji, and it is one of the few that still stands.
Its original goal was to help the new shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, consolidate his power in a mostly rural area. Today, its black walls and gray, tiered roofs stand guard over a bottle-green moat in the heart of Matsue’s old quarter.
The Lafacadio Hearn Museum and the house where he lived are across the street from the castles. Matsue is very proud of its most important cultural asset: the museum. Hearn, a 19th-century author of Irish and Greek heritage, rose to the top of the Japanese literary pantheon as a cultural essayist and a skilled retelling of local folk stories.
Kumamoto Castle was built by Kato Kiyomasa in the early 1600s, and it is still one of the best examples of pre-modern architecture on Kyushu, the island of Japan (tho most of its structures are now ferro-concrete rebuilds).
In a rare move for Japanese castles, its battle history stretches back more than the Edo period and into the Meiji Restoration period, when local samurai rebelled against the new government. This led to a two-month siege in 1877.
People could go inside Kumamoto Castles main keep again in 2021 after it was rebuilt after a big earthquake in 2016. There are 800 cherry trees in the castle’s gardens that turn its walls pink each spring. The castles outer walls are made of hard, rocky igneous rock, and the keep is made of black walls.