When most Westerners think of castles, they naturally think of places like England and France; however, Japan, too, was a nation of castle-builders. In its feudal days, you could find castles in nearly every prefecture.
Castles in Japan were built to guard important or strategic sites, such as ports, river crossings, or crossroads, and almost always incorporated the landscape into their defenses.
It is estimated that once there were 5,00 castles in Japan. Today there are more than 100 castles remaining, or partially extant, but most are modern reconstructions. Because of bombings in World War II, fires, edicts to tear down castles, etc., only 12 of Japan’s castles are considered to be originals. These have donjons (天守閣 tenshukaku) that date back to the days when they were still used. Four of them are on the island of Shikoku, two just north in the Chugoku region, two in Kansai, three in the Chubu region, and one in the northern Tohoku region. There are no original castles in Kyushu, Kanto, Hokkaido, or Okinawa.
The original castles are:
- 1 Uwajima Castle
— a small and modest castle, comparative to others; its Ōte Gate was burnt to the ground by American bombing during World War II
- 1 Matsuyama Castle
— this sprawling fortress is one of three multi-wing, flat hilltop castles remaining; it was constructed by the feudal lord Katō Yoshiaki from 1602 to 1627; four of its eight strategic gates are designated national cultural treasures
- 1 Kochi Castle
— one of the few original white castles in Japan, with spectacular views from the castle; it is the only castle in Japan to retain both its original tenshukaku (keep), and its goten (palace); it is also the only castle to have all the original buildings in the innermost ring of defense still standing
- 1 Marugame Castle
— it stands on a man-made hill which is over 50 m high, making it the largest castle mount in Japan; most of what stands is the result of a reconstruction completed in 1644
- 1 Matsue Castle
— nicknamed the “black castle” or “plover castle”; it stands on the shores of Shinji Lake, and is one of Japan’s “Three Great Lake Castles”; completed in 1611
- 1 Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
— the only original mountain castle in the nation, built atop Mount Gagyu, it has the highest elevation at 430 m above sea level; it has gained fame as a “Castle in the Sky” when viewed from afar surrounded by clouds but it is one of the least visited of the original castles
- 1 Himeji Castle
— called the “White Egret Castle” because of its bright white exterior and its supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight, it is generally considered the most beautiful of Japan’s castles; it is virtually the last castle in Japan that still manages to tower over the surrounding skyscrapers and office buildings; a network of 83 rooms with advanced defensive systems from the feudal period.
- 1 Hikone Castle
— tracing its origin to 1603, the castle tower is an official National Treasure and a number of the turrets have been classified as Important Cultural Properties; even the sound of the bell every three hours is preserved as a nationally important soundscape
- 1 Inuyama Castle
— the only privately owned castle in Japan and one of the nicest original examples of feudal Japanese fortifications; it is often claimed as the oldest castle in Japan as its original construction was completed in 1440, although the towers were completed in 1537
- 1 Maruoka Castle
— the oldest castle keep (donjon) in Japan; built in 1576, it also claims to be the oldest in the country; it is called the “Mist Castle” because of the legend that whenever an enemy approaches the castle, a thick mist appears and hides it
- 1 Matsumoto Castle
— also known as the “Crow Castle” because its black walls and roofs looked like spreading wings.; it was the seat of the Matsumoto domain; it is a flatland castle because it is not built on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain; much of the castle was completed by 1593–94
- 1 Hirosaki Castle
— completed in 1611 for the Tsugaru Clan; 49-hectare grounds include three concentric moats and earthen fortifications that surround the remains of the inner castle area: five castle gates, three corner keeps and a castle tower; the surrounding Hirosaki Park is one of Japan’s most famous cherry blossom spots, with 2600 trees