10 best castles you should visit in Japan

During my stay in Japan, I had the privilege of travelling to all the 47 prefectures. I explored many popular, as well as less travelled destinations. Among the many places of interest in Japan, castles hold a special place. Be it the huge white castle of Himeji or the small castle tower at Hirosaki castle grounds, Japanese castles are spectacularly beautiful.

It is said that there are around 25,000 castle sites in Japan. Strategically built for the purpose of military defense, Japanese castles flourished during the Sengoku period (1467-1603). These fortresses enjoyed political patronage until their influence on the government started to diminish. Many castles were destroyed in civil wars and some were also lost in World War II. Today, there stands only twelve original castle towers in Japan. Most of the castles have been reconstructed, but many castle grounds still exhibit structural ruins.

Japanese castles can be  categorized into three types – Yamajiro (mountain top castles), Hirayamajiro (flatland mountain castles) and Hirajiro (flatland castles). As the name suggests, yamajiro were built on mountain summits and reaching the castle tower could be quite a deal. That’s why many yamajiro offer ropeway and chairlift services . Hirayamajiro were built on low hills and Hirajiro were built in plain lands.

Japanese castles are worth visiting during spring festivals. Many castle parks offer vast picnic spaces and not to mention the view of castle building along with sakura flowers has become an iconic image of Japan.

I have visited many castles in Japan. Each of them offered me something unique as a token of remembrance. Among all the Japanese castles that I have visited, I wish to share a list of 10 best castles that are a must see.

 

Hirosaki Castle

hirosakicastle

Hirosaki castle is best known for its sakura flowers that accentuate the beauty of this place every year during spring. I wanted to see the much-treasured castle at its iconic location. But on reaching the castle ground, I found out that the castle tower was literally lifted up from its original location and relocated to an adjacent site for repairs. It will remain there until 2021. Hirosaki castle looks equally beautiful at its new location, with Mount Iwaki in the background.

Castle Type: Hirayamajiro

Condition: Original

Location: Hirosaki city, Aomori prefecture

How to get there:

From JR Hirosaki Station —–> take a Konan Bus dote-machi loop line (100 yen) —–> get off at shiyakusho mae (city hall) stop —–> walk for 5 minutes to reach Hirosaki park.

 

Matsumoto Castle

matsumotocastle

The absolutely stunning Matsumoto castle is Japan’s symbol of elegance. Its magnificent exterior reflects excellent craftsmanship. This flatland castle was built during the Sengoku period and it has maintained its original wooden keeps ever since. Being one of the oldest original castles, it is designated as one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’. Matsumoto castle is also known as ‘karasujo’ or the crow castle, because of its colour.

Castle Type: Hirajiro

Condition: Original

Location: Matsumoto city, Nagano prefecture

How to get there:

It is a 15 minutes walk from Matsumoto station.

OR

From Matsumoto station —–> take a ‘town sneaker’ bus bound for northern course —–> get off at Matsumotojo Shiyakusho mae stop.

 

Nagoya Castle

nagoyacastle

Nagoya castle was strategical built on Tokaido road to avert enemy attacks from Osaka. The smoothly curved fan-shaped castle walls known as the ‘wall of swords’ left me awestruck. The Honmaru palace and cormorant’s neck moat are two popular attractions of this place. I was impressed by the elaborate exhibitions of cultural artefacts and mural paintings at the castle museum. Nagoya castle is also known for shachihoko (golden carp) decorations on the two edges of its rooftop.

Castle Type: Hirajiro

Condition: Reconstructed

Location: Nagoya city, Aichi prefecture

How to get there:

From Nagoya station —–> take sakuradori and then meijo subway lines and get down at Shiyakusho (city hall).

 

Iga Ueno Castle

IgaUenoCastle

This white phoenix castle is located in the heart of the ninja town of Iga Uen0. The castle museum exhibits many heritage artefacts including samurai armours and helmets. Furthermore, the castle ground houses the ninja museum of Igaryu (a schoolof ninjutsu). Its a very informative place, with displays of ninja weapons, gears, techniques and history. Live shows are conducted where ninja tricks are demonstrated to the public. The castle grounds also include a memorial hall of Matsuo Basho, who was born in Iga province. [More on Iga Ueno Castle]

Castle Type: Hirayamajiro

Condition: Reconstructed

Location: Iga city, Mie prefecture

How to get there:

[From Osaka] Take the Kintetsu line train from Namba station —–> transfer to a local train at Iga Kambe station —–>get down at Uenoshi station —–> walk for 5 minutes.

 

Hikone Castle

hikone_castle

It was raining sakura flowers on the day I visited Hikone castle. It is one of the 12 remaining original castles and a ‘National Treasure’ of Japan. The castle park looked fabulous with full bloomed cherry blossoms. There are many tourist attractions around the castle grounds. The long moat encompassing the castle looks enthralling during hanami. You can also take a romantic boat ride in it.

Castle Type: Hirayamajiro

Condition: Original

Location: Hikone city, Shiga prefecture

How to get there:

Walk for 10 minutes from Hikone station to reach the castle grounds.

 

Osaka Castle

osakacastle

Located in the busy city of Osaka, this sparkling castle is everyone’s favourite recreational spot. Osaka castle is an important historic landmark of Japan. The main tower was reconstructed in 1931. The lavishly designed exterior leaves an everlasting impression on visitors’ mind. I visited Osaka castle several times during my stay in Japan. Entertaining performances, food stalls and scenic parks – this place never ceases to amaze me.

Castle Type: Hirajiro

Condition: Reconstructed

Location: Osaka city, Osaka prefecture

How to get there:

From Osaka station —–> take the Osaka loop line towards Tennoji —–> get down at Osakajokoen station.

 

Himeji Castle

himejicastle

This dazzling white fortress is the most visited castle in Japan. Himeji castle is Japan’s pride. The appearance of this castle is often compared to a ‘white heron spreading its wings’. Every year, a grand hanami festival is held at Himeji’s huge castle grounds, which attracts not only Japanese but also many foreign tourists.  It is designated as a ‘National Treasure’ as well as a ‘World Culture Heritage Site’.

Castle Type: Hirayamajiro

Condition: Original

Location: Himeji city, Hyogo prefecture

How to get there:

You can hop on a loop line bus departing from Himeji station or walk for 15 minutes from the station to reach the Otemon (castle gate).

 

Matsuyama Castle

View from Matsuyama castle tower

View from Matsuyama castle tower

One of the few remaining original castles of Japan, Matsuyama castle is built on top of mount Katsuyama in the capital city of Ehime. It took me around 25 minutes to climb up to the castle. The view of Matsuyama city and Seto Inland sea from the castle tower was breathtaking. In case it is confused with Bitchu Matsuyama castle in Okayama, this castle is referred to as Iyo Matsuyama castle.

Castle Type: Hirayamajiro

Condition: Original

Location: Matsuyama city, Ehime prefecture

How to get there

[To reach the ropeway entrance] From Matsuyamaekimae station —–> take a street car for Dogo-onsen —–> get off at Keisatsucho mae.

 

Kochi Castle

kochicastle

The spectacular Kochi castle is worth a visit. Built on a hilltop overlooking the city, Kochi castle has retained its original wooden donjon (dungeons). This cultural asset is one of the prime attractions of Kochi. As I was climbing up the stone steps leading to Kochi castle, voices of semi (cricket) kept getting louder and louder. Their trill sounded pleasant and made my visit to Kochi even more memorable.

Castle Type: Hirayamajiro

Condition: Original

Location: Kochi city, Kochi prefecture

How to get there:

The castle can be reached in 30 minutes on foot from Kochi station.

OR

Take a street car from Kochi station —–> transfer to the east-west line at hariyama-bashi —–> get off at Kochijo mae.

 

Shuri Castle

shuricastle

The blazing red dragon of Okinawa, Shuri castle is one of a kind. Built in the capital city of Naha, this castle showcases the history and culture of the Ryukyu kingdom that once existed on the islands of Okinawa. Built in the 14th century, its design has a touch of Chinese style architecture. It is known as a Ryukuyan gusuku – a fortress with long stone walls. One should not miss this ‘World Heritage Site’ while in Naha.

Castle Type: Hirayamajiro

Condition: Reconstructed

Location: Naha city, Okinawa prefecture

How to get there:

From Naha Airport station —–> take the Yui rail —–> get off at Shuri station —–> walk for 15 minutes.

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