The magnificence of the Edo period

Dotted around Japan are many magnificent castles – relics of times when every regional lord built a stronghold. Their architecture is impressive, combining military and defensive features with elegant variations on the traditional castle design.

In some examples, the structure is original inside and out; in other cases massive restoration or reconstruction work has been carried out. But in all cases the impressive exterior of the castle dominates the surrounding landscape, and evokes Japan’s proud history of Shoguns and the Samurai.

There are so many castles worth visiting… just the major ones are shown on the map and listed below.
To see the locations in more detail, you can go to our dedicated Google map.

Hirosaki

Near Aomori in the far north of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
The current tenshu (donjon) of the castle was completed in 1811. It is a three-storey building with three roofs, and a height of 14.4 metres. The design is smaller than early Edo-period examples; it was built on a corner of the inner bailey on the site of a yagura (tower), rather than the stone base of the original six-storey donjon which was destroyed by lightning and fire in 1627. The small size was partly due to lack of money, but also in order not to alarm the Tokugawa shogunate should a larger structure be built.

The donjon is surrounded by three yagura from the Edo period, and five gates in the walls of its second and third baileys. All of these structures, including the donjon itself, are National Important Cultural Properties.

The surrounding Hirosaki Park around the castle grounds is one of Japan’s most famous cherry blossom spots. Over a million people enjoy the park’s 2,600 trees when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, which is usually during the Golden Week holidays at the end of April and beginning of May.

In 2006, Hirosaki Castle was listed as one of the 100 Fine Castles of Japan by the Japan Castle Foundation.

Unfortunately the stone wall on which the donjon stands is bulging outwards. As this could collapse in the case of earthquake, major restoration work began in October 2014, involving draining and filling the moat, and moving the whole donjon from its present position to the middle of the park! This will take several years.
Details (Japanese) www.hirosakipark.jp

Date: 1611
Condition: Original (rebuilt 1810)
Access: Hirosaki Station, then Dotemachi loop bus or free bicycle hire
Admission: ¥310 (castle only)

 on our Google map

Aizu Wakamatsu

Near Sendai.
The castle was originally built in 1384, as Kurokawa Castle. It was the military and administrative centre of the Aizu region until 1868. It also has the name “Tsuruga Castle”.

In 1592 a new lord, Gamō Ujisato, redesigned the castle and gave it the name Tsuruga Castle, although the local people also called it Aizu Castle or Wakamatsu Castle.

During the Edo period, it was the seat of the daimyo of the Aizu Han.
The castle was besieged in the Battle of Aizu by the Imperial army in 1868. When surrendered, the castle buildings were pockmarked by artillery during the siege and structurally unstable: the castle was demolished by the new government in 1874.

The tenshu, the largest tower of the castle, was reconstructed in 1965 in concrete. There is now a museum inside, and an observation gallery with panoramic views of the city.

Date: 1384
Condition: Concrete Reconstruction
Access: Wakamatsu Station, then Aizu loop bus
Admission: ¥ 410

 on our Google map

Edo (Tokyo)

In 1590, after Toyotomi Hideoshi completed the unification of Japan he granted lordship over the greater Tokyo region to his lieutenant Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa could have ruled from the well-established castle town of Odawara (80km west of Tokyo); instead, he built a new city from the underdeveloped village of Edo.

When Tokugawa became Shogun in 1603, Edo effectively became the capital of Japan. Workers came from all over the country to build the huge stone walls, watchtowers, and palaces of the castle. The castle was the heart of Tokugawa’s city and the largest castle in the world.

The 15km outer moat and the 5km inner moat connect to the Sumida River and roughly spiral around the inner compound of the castle. These Inner and Outer moats were crossed by 36 gates, many of which have left well-known place names in Tokyo: Hanzomon, Toranomon, Akasaka Mitsuke (-mon & -mitsuke are gates); Hitotsubashi, Kandabashi, Suidobashi, and Iidabashi (-bashi means bridge) are all former fortified bridges.

You can still find remnants of the original castle scattered around Tokyo. There are around 20 original buildings (3 of the gates are registered as Important Cultural Properties) and sections of the stonework fortifications can be seen throughout the city.

The six main compounds surrounded by the inner moat remain almost as they were at the end of the Edo Period. The Western and Fukiage Compounds are now known as the Imperial Palace, and the First, Second and Third Compounds are called the Imperial Palace East Gardens. You can walk in the gardens, but the public is only allowed into the Imperial Palace grounds on special occasions.

Closed: Mondays, Fridays, New Year period (28Dec – 03Jan) and some special occasions. If Monday or Friday is a national holiday, the gardens are closed on the following day instead.

Date: 1456-1636
Condition: Mostly Ruined
Access: Tokyo Station, walk 10 min
Admission: free (Imperial East Garden)

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Odawara

The history of Odawara Castle began in the 15th century with a stronghold built by the Omori Clan. After Hojo Soun conquered the area in 1495, he and his Hojo clan successors gradually expanded the castle.
The castle was besieged 3 times: the last siege by Toyotomi Hideoshi in 1590 was the end of the Hojo clan’s supremacy and the castle was turned over to Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Once Tokugawa Ieyasu took control of the castle, he installed Okubo Tadayo as castle lord. Okubo reduced the size of the castle, as it represented a threat to the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (Tokyo). The Okubo family ruled over Odawara for the entire Edo Period except for a brief period in the 1700’s. The castle was dismantled in 1870.

Odawara Castle is probably the best castle to visit in the immediate area of Tokyo. It is an example of a hirayama (hilltop) castle. The museum in the main keep has a good collection of artefacts, armour and weapons. In 1950, repairs were made to the stone base of the former donjon, which had been in ruins since the Great Kantō Earthquake, and the area was made into the Odawara Castle Park, which includes an art museum, local history museum, city library, amusement park and zoo. The three-tiered, five-storied donjon was rebuilt in 1960 out of reinforced concrete: it is not historically accurate, as an observation deck is incorporated in it.

Date: 1477, rebuilt 1633
Condition: Concrete Reconstruction
Access: Odawara Station (Tokaido line), walk 10 min.
Admission: ¥ 400 (castle grounds)

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Matsumoto

The castle’s origins go back to the Sengoku period, about 100 years before the Edo period: Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan built a fort on this site in Matsumoto in 1504, originally called Fukashi Castle. In 1550 it came under the rule of the Takeda clan and then Tokugawa Ieyasu.

In 1590 a building plan began, and most of the features still seen today were constructed: the tower and other parts of the castle, including the three towers, the keep and the small tower in the northwest, and the Watari Tower; the residence; the drum gate; the black gate, the Tsukimi Yagura, the moat, the innermost bailey, the second bailey, the third bailey, and the sub-floors in the castle.

During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate established the Matsumoto Domain. For the next 280 years until the Meiji Restoration, the castle was ruled by the 23 lords of Matsumoto representing six different daimyo families. In this period the stronghold was also known as Crow Castle because its black walls and roofs looked like spreading wings.

In 1872, following the Meiji Restoration, the site was sold, but residents campaigned to save the keep from demolition. Their efforts were rewarded when the tower was acquired by the city government.

In the late Meiji period the keep started to lean to one side. The castle underwent major restoration between 1903-1913, and again during 1950-1955. In 1990, the Kuromon-Ninomon (second gate of the Black Gate) and sodebei (side wall) were reconstructed. The square drum gate was reconstructed in 2002.

Matsumoto Castle was damaged in a 5.4 magnitude earthquake on June 30, 2011. The quake caused several cracks in the inner wall of the main tower.

The second floor of the main keep houses a gun museum, Teppo Gura, with a collection of guns, armour and other weapons.

After Himeji Castle, Matsumoto Castle is the best original castle main keep in Japan. Matsumoto-jo is designated a National Treasure.

Date: 1504
Condition: Original
Access: Matsumoto Station, walk 15 min.
Admission: ¥610

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Inuyama

The original construction of Inuyama Castle was completed in 1440, so it sometimes claimed as the oldest castle in Japan. The structure has been heavily augmented over time, and the current towers were completed in 1537: construction on the main tenshu (donjon) began in 1601, completed in 1620.

The castle was the centre of power for the Naruse clan, retainers of the Matsudaira clan and rulers of the Inuyama Domain. Inuyama Castle was unique in Japan in that it was privately owned. It was seized by the Japanese government as part of the Meiji Restoration, but it was returned to the Naruse family in 1895, on the condition that they repair and maintain it. In 2004, ownership of the castle was turned over to a foundation set up by the Aichi Prefecture’s Board of Education. The tenshu has been designated as a national treasure.

Date: 1537
Condition: Original
Access: Inuyama Yuen Station (Meitetsu line), walk 15 min.
Admission: ¥500

 on our Google map

Takamatsu

Ikoma Chikamasa was stationed in Takamatsu and started building the castle in 1588, completing it in 1590.

In the Edo Period, Takamatsu Castle had a 3-level, 5-storey main keep and about 20 yagura. It is located on the waterfront, and sea water is used for the moat – a unique feature. It is considered one of the three great water or waterfront castles. The castle was decommissioned in 1869 and the main keep was torn down in 1884.

Images and information about the original structure of the keep are hard to find, but reconstruction is under way. The best time to visit would be between 12th and 14th August when the festival is under way, with dancers and fireworks.

Date: 1588
Condition: reconstruction still ongoing
Access: Takamatsu Station (Yosan Line), walk 10 min.
Admission: ¥200

on our Google map

Kanazawa

Kanazawa castle is situated in the Ishikawa Prefecture of Honshu. It has been burnt down and rebuilt many times, the last of which was in the late 1800s. The main gate and some other features are original, but many of the other buildings such as the fortress are concrete reconstructions. There are plans to reconstruct more of the original buildings. The castle is surrounded by impressive and well-kept gardens. The town of Kanazawa was modelled around the castle after it was built by Sakuma Morimasa and is now the capital city of Ishikawa.

The castle is close to Kenrokuen Gardens, and both can be easily visited in one day.

Date: 1583, rebuilt numerous times
Condition: reconstruction ongoing
Access: Kanazawa Station. (Hokuriku Line), 15 minutes by bus
Admission: ¥310

on our Google map

Nagoya

Nagoya Castle is in the Chubu region of central Japan. Though it was originally built in 1532 much further out from Nagoya, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first military commander of Japan, rebuilt it in 1609 within the city using vastly improved techniques. Construction finished in 1619 and the Tokugawa family took up residence the following year. Over 200,000 workmen laboured on the construction of this magnificent building. The golden dolphins were added in 1725 and have been moved around many times, but are now iconic of this castle.

It was originally built as a defensive keep with two moats as well as turrets which are placed on every corner. Most of the castle was badly damaged by American bombing during World War 2, but within two decades the ruined parts of the castle were reconstructed using concrete.

Nagoya Castle is also famed for its fauna and flora, with many species of deer grazing in the summer , and many different blooming plants in spring.

Construction Notice: there is an ambitious project under way – started in 2009 – to rebuild the castle’s palace (Honmaru Goten) using traditional construction materials and techniques. The first part of the reconstructed palace, including the entrance and main audience hall with beautiful copied paintings on the sliding doors (fusuma) is complete and re-opened to the public. The reconstruction is due to be completed in 2018.

Date: 1610-1619
Condition: concrete reconstruction
Access: Shiyakusho Station (Meijo Line), walk 15 min.
Admission: ¥ 500

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Hikone

The interior of this castle is quite plain, in stark contrast to the exterior which is breathtaking. The construction started in 1603 but took 20 years to complete. It was then in use for the following 250 years until 1874. It is the oldest original keep in the whole country, older than Himeji Castle, and is a national treasure. During the Meiji Era, the emperor dismantled many castles, but after seeing Hikone, he decided to keep it standing. It was a castle built for battle: this is clear from the layout, with a moat as well as steep stairs (visitors please note).

Not only is the exterior of the castle beautiful, but the grounds are incredible too because they are so well-kept. There is also a fantastic view of the Biza lake which is very much worth seeing. This castle is not as well-known as Himeji or Matsumoto Castle, not so frequented by tourists, so is an ideal castle to visit to escape the bustle of Kyoto.

Date: 1603
Condition: Original, National Treasure
Access: Hikone Station (Tokaido Honsen), walk 15 minutes
Admission: ¥ 500 (museum only)

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Nijo

Nijo castle in Kyoto can easily be overlooked, amongst all the other attractions that Kyoto has to offer. Construction started in 1601 and was completed 25 years later, to be Tokugawa Ieyasu’s living quarters when visiting Kyoto.

Nijo Castle has been ravaged by natural disasters, being rebuilt a number of times following fires and typhoons, the earliest of which are recorded back to the mid-18th century. In 1939, the castle was bestowed upon the city of Kyoto having served its purpose as an extravagant residential home or a venue for important meetings of state.

Both the interior and exterior of the castle are very impressive. The rich murals and paintings are testament to the power of those who occupied the castle in its heyday. There is also a “Nightingale Floor” – made deliberately to creak and warn of intruders. The surrounding grounds were specially designed for the castle, but have been added to more recently: the Seiryu-en Garden was constructed in 1965. It is used as a setting for many social occasions.

Visiting the castle and grounds is particularly recommended when the cherry trees are in blossom.

The castle is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Date: 1601-1626, rebuilt numerous times
Condition: reconstruction ongoing
Access: Kyoto Station, 10 minutes by bus
Admission: ¥ 600 (English audio guide available, ¥ 500)

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Osaka

Constructed in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideoshi to be more impressive than the other castles being built by his rivals at that time, Osaka castle was certainly impressive, with its five storeys and gold leaf.

In the 17th Century, the castle survived a siege, proving its defensive capabilities, even though Toyotomi’s troops were vastly outnumbered. An effective feature was the large moat which could only be crossed in two places. The castle did however fall to the Tokugawa Family in the subsequent years, following another siege which ended the Toyotomi family name.

Like many of the other castles in Japan, Osaka Castle has been rebuilt numerous times: after being struck by lightning in the mid-1600s and catching fire, and most recently after the Second World War , during which it was used as an arsenal. Unfortunately, in the haste to provide an attraction for visitors to Osaka, the latest reconstruction of the castle was undertaken rather crudely in concrete. The interior is rather bland; the most pleasing aspects are the exterior architecture and the original watchtowers or gates.

It is located relatively centrally in Osaka City and is one of Japan’s most well-known.

Date: 1583
Condition: Concrete Reconstruction
Access: Osaka-Jokoen Station, then 15 minutes walk
Admission: ¥ 600 (Castle Tower/museum)

 on our Google map

Himeji

Himeji Castle is the most impressive castle in Japan, and was at one time the largest in the whole of Asia. It was never destroyed in wars, earthquakes or fires and survives in its original form. It is both a national treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From 2010-15 the castle underwent major reconstruction work. But now the main scaffolding covering the main keep has been removed, so the impressive exterior can now be seen once more. The castle re-opened to the public in March 2015.

Date: 1346/1618
Condition: Original, restored
Access: Himeji Station, walk 15 min.
Admission: ¥ 600 (reduced to ¥ 400 during renovation until Mar15)

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Takeda

Known more for its views than the ruins, Takeda castle is a beautifully picturesque castle, and popular among photographers. It is located in Asago in Hyogo Prefecture.

However, it is about an hour from the nearest station, and at an altitude of 353 metres (over 1,000 feet) so access is not as easy as many other castles. Because of its ruined state and its dramatic and spectacular hilltop location, it has been likened to Machu Picchu. It is also called the “Castle in the Sky” because of the effect of early morning fog in the autumn, which surrounds the castle and makes it seem to float on the clouds (as in the photo, which is taken from the nearby mountain Ritsuunkyo). The original stone walls and the steep drops have not been fenced off or restricted (although some minor renovation works take place from time to time). Due to its location in a remote area, it is generally quite quiet.

Date: Unknown
Condition: Ruins
Access: Takeda Station, 60 minute walk
Admission: ¥ 300

Okayama

Okayama Castle is a main attraction of Okayama in Chugoku. In contrast to Himeji Castle’s white exterior, Okayama Castle is black, leading to their nicknames of the “White Egret Castle” and the “Crow Castle” respectively. The main keep was destroyed in Second World War bombing, and reconstructed in the 1960s.

During the Edo period, the castle was in the hands of the Ikeda Clan, and the impressive Korakuen Garden was developed around it. The garden is one of the three finest traditional gardens in Japan, making Okayama well worth a visit.

The reconstructed castle is a concrete building with air-conditioning, lifts and plenty of displays documenting the castle’s history, although there is little information available in English.

Date: 1573
Condition: Concrete Reconstruction
Access: Okayama Station, then 20 minutes by bus
Admission: ¥ 300 (¥ 800 during special exhibition)
¥ 560 combined ticket with Korakuen Garden

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Matsue

Matsue castle is located in the Shimane Prefecture of Chugoku, on Japan’s north coast.

This is one of the few medieval castles remaining with an original wooden keep rather than a concrete reconstruction. As the castle was built in the early 17th century, after the wars of feudal Japan had finished, it escaped the usual risks of battle and fire, and has never been damaged by natural disasters. The original castle was built by the Tokugawa family.

The whole structure and the buildings surrounding the keep which were demolished towards the end of the 19th century were restored in the 1950s.

Boat tours are offered on the moat, which give great views of the castle. The climb to the top of the castle is quite steep and tiring, but well worth it for the dramatic views.

The castle museum is also impressive with its array of armour and weapons.

The grounds are well-kept, and are well-known for the fine display of flowering trees at cherry blossom time.

The writer Lafcadio Hearn lived in Matsue for 15 months, working as a teacher. The nearby Hearn Residence and Hearn Memorial Museum commemorate his life in the city.

Date: 1607-1611
Condition: Original
Access: Matsue Station, then 10 minutes by bus
Admission: ¥ 560 castle only (50% off for overseas visitors)
¥ 1,160 including Samurai Residence, Hearn Residence and Hearn Memorial Museum.

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Kochi

Kōchi Castle is located in the prefecture of the same name in Shikoku.

Constructed 1601 – 1611. Much of the original fortress burned down in 1727; it was reconstructed between 1729 and 1753 in the original style. The castle underwent major restoration from 1948 to 1959. Though no battles were fought at the castle, it is noteworthy because the castle is the original structure, and not a post-war replica. It is also the only castle in Japan to retain both its original tenshu, or keep, and its palace: in fact, it is the only castle to have all the original buildings in the honmaru, or innermost ring of defence, still standing.

Kōchi Castle is located in the town centre of Kōchi. The main entrance faces the west entrance of the Obiyamachi shopping area. Visitors are asked to remove their footwear before entering the building, but slippers are provided.

As the castle is quite old, the tatami rooms are visible but not accessible. There is a small museum area, but information provided is in Japanese only. The upper rooms of the tower are all empty, but visitors are able to climb to the top. The view from the top is a stunning panorama of the city that surrounds the castle. There are many steps on the approach to the castle, and no lift inside.

The grounds have become public gardens and are enjoyed particularly during the spring, in blossom time.

Kōchi Castle can be seen in the background of the Studio Ghibli animated film ‘I Can Hear the Sea’, during the class reunion scene.

Date: 1601-1611
Condition: Reconstruction
Access: Kochi Station, then 20 minutes by bus
Admission: ¥ 420

Hiroshima

Hiroshima Castle is, of course, located in Hiroshima City and has been branded the Carp Castle due to the large number of carp that used to be in the moat. The castle managed to survive during the Meiji Period, when many other castles were neglected or demolished, because of its functional use as a military arsenal. It was designated a National Treasure in 1931.

It was destroyed by the atomic bombing of 6 August 1945.
The reconstruction, finished in 1958, features the main tower (tenshu) only, which is made primarily of reinforced concrete. However, in 1994, a gate and a yagura in theninomaru (secondary circle of defence) were re-constructed out of wood using the original methods.

While the main castle is made of concrete, many of the walls, the moat and the grounds are original. The museum is definitely worth a visit, but as this is a flatlands castle (‘Azuchi-Momoyama’ type) rather than a hilltop one, the view from the top is not remarkable.

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Hirado

Hirado Castle, which may be referred to as Kameoka Castle, is located on the island of Kyushu in Nagasaki prefecture. The coastline acts as a geographical defence – the sea surrounds the castle on 3 sides, a natural moat. The original castle was constructed at the very end of the 16th century, but the original owner burnt it down as a sign of loyalty to Toyotomi Hideoshi just 14 years after it had been completed.

The present Hirado Castle was constructed in 1704 by Matsuura Takashi, intended to be the keystone of Japan’s coastal defence in the East China Sea region, to reinforce the policy of ‘sakoku‘ or national seclusion against Western traders and missionaries.

In 1871, all structures of Hirado Castle were dismantled except the northern gate, a yagura and the moat, and the grounds turned into Kameoka Park.

In 1962, four yagura, the ramparts, and the keep were reconstructed. The modern keep is a five-story steel-reinforced concrete structure, and contains a museum with artifacts of the Matsuura clan.

Date: 1599, then 1718
Condition: Concrete Reconstruction
Access: Tabira Hiradoguchi Station (Matsuura Rail), then long walk or bus journey
Admission: ¥ 500

Kumamoto

Kumamoto Castle is one of the most impressive castles in Japan. In Kumamoto, on the island of Kyushu 100km south of Fukuoka, it has large castle grounds and a variety of buildings, although only a few original structures have survived intact. The castle keep and most other buildings are modern reconstructions. With about 800 cherry trees, the castle becomes a popular cherry blossom spot in late March and early April.

The construction of Kumamoto Castle 1601-1607 was undertaken by the daimyo who ruled the area, Kato Kiyomasa. Kato was an experienced warrior, and he used his knowledge to build fortifications that were highly regarded for their strategic effectiveness. The signature curved stone walls, known as musha-gaeshi, as well as wooden overhangs, were designed to prevent attackers from getting into the castle. Rock falls were also used as deterrents.

In 1960 a ferro-concrete reconstruction was built that recreates the building’s outward appearance.

The castle keep has two towers, a main tower with six stories and a small tower with four stories.

A particular feature of Kumamoto Castle is the reconstruction of the Honmaru Goten Palace building. The original palace building was much larger and included the living quarters of the daimyo, but unfortunately it was one of the many buildings destroyed during the Seinan Civil War.

The current palace building was constructed with original materials and methods.

Unfortunately on 14 and 15 April 2016 the castle suffered serious earthquake damage, which undid 60 years of prior restoration work. It is now closed to visitors.

Date: 1467, then 1607
Condition: concrete reconstruction, serious earthquake damage
Access: closed until further notice
Admission: n/a

on our Google map