Travel Features : Castles Of Japan
Five centuries ago, Japan was in political chaos as feudal lords fought to increase their share of land and power. Castles were built as military strongholds and later as symbols of wealth and status. Most of these castles have not withstood the ravages of natural disasters, war and modernization. However, there are a few that have survived. These intact castles provide a glimpse into Japanese history, to a time when samurai ruled and the highest code was the way of the sword.
The earliest castles were mountaintop fortifications known as yamajiro. These small castles, built in near inaccessible locations, served as good watchtowers and easily defensible retreats for the feudal lords. As the warlords fought, the victorious gained more land and increased the size of their armies and personal wealth. The small size and inaccessibility of the mountain forts soon became a disadvantage. The successful lords built their new castles on the tops of lower hills, which provided both a viewpoint and greater space for their armies. The role of castles also changed from being purely militaristic to also functioning as a center for government and a residence for the lord’s family.
The larger lowland castles, however, were more susceptible to attack than the remote mountaintop positions. The lowland castles, therefore, were built with the addition of walls, moats and other defenses to protect the lord and his army.
The largest most impressive castles were built once the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi had gained control over most of Japan. From 1582 onwards most castles were flatland castles with extensive fortifications that were just as much a symbol of power as they were a defensive position.
In 1615, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu took power and unified the whole of Japan under one government. He also decreed that each regional lord could only have one castle. This reduced the number of castles in Japan to around 170 allowing Tokugawa and his descendants to maintain control more easily.
The Tokugawa dynasty reigned in peace for 250 years until 1868 when the government was overthrown and the Meji restoration began. The new Meji government, anxious to embrace the modern and put the feudal age behind it, passed the 1873 castle abolishment law. In the two years that followed two-thirds of the 170 remaining castles were destroyed.
Over the last two hundred years most of the surviving castles have been lost to earthquakes, fires and the aerial bombardment of WWII. Only twelve original castle towers remain, of which the most famous are Himeji, Hikone and Matsumoto. All three of these castles are now designated as national treasures.
The main structure of each castle was its donjon or keep. The keep had a strong stone foundation, but unlike European castles, the main structure had a wooden framework. This meant that the castles were much more susceptible to fire, either at a time of war or from lightening strikes. Some castles, such as Himeji, were covered by a thick layer of white plaster to add some fireproofing and reinforcement. This gave these castles their distinct white appearance. The keep usually had between two and five stories although the number of internal floors was often greater than the number seen from the outside.
The keep was surrounded by the castle walls. Usually there were three sets of walls that encircled the keep. Guard towers were placed at strategic points along the walls while deep moats provided a further line of defense.
The entrance to the caste was an obvious weak point so usually there were several ingenious ways to make it defensible. One method was to have two sets of gates, set at a 90 degree angle to one another, with a small courtyard between them. Attackers having broken through one gate would be subjected to an onslaught of arrows, rocks and hot oil while they tried to penetrate the second gate. Castle towns often grew up around the main castle walls. The road layout of some towns was even designed with dead ends and switchbacks to confuse attacking forces. The samurai would reside in the castle town with the most senior in rank living closest to the castle walls.
Himeji is thought by many to be the most beautiful of Japan’s castles. It is one of the few remaining original castles and for that reason it is a designated national treasure and also a UNESCO world heritage site.
The castle, due to it white walls and distinctive shape, is known as Shirasagi-jo or the white egret castle. It is heavily fortified with a five-story main tower plus four smaller towers. The central structures are then surrounded by a double moat along with inner and outer walls. The castle was never used in battle, but remains as possibly the best example of Japanese castle design.
Himeji Castle is also famous for the many cherry trees on its grounds making it a very popular destination for tourists during cherry blossom season.
The castle was completed in 1622 by the Ii family who ruled over Hikone as feudal lords until the Meji restoration began in 1868. The castle and its walls have remained intact and are now designated a national treasure. The castle is surrounded by more than a thousand cherry trees and a landscaped garden. The Genkyu-en with its carefully positioned trees, pagodas, ponds and bridges is a great example of a classical Japanese garden. At the center of the garden is the Hosho-dai guest house where the lords of Hikone once entertained their guests. Visitors today are able to rest on the tatami mats and sip green tea while admiring the panoramic views of the pond and trees.
Matsumoto castle is another of the remaining original castles. It is also a good example of a flatland castle built with no advantage in elevation over the surrounding area. The roofs of the tower have a higher pitch than most castles due to the snowfalls in the Nagano region where the castle is situated.
The three-turreted castle keep was built around 1595 in contrasting black and white. The first two towers were built with slits for guns and archers' arrows, while a third tower, built when peace was more secure, was designed for moon viewing.
Work on Osaka castle began in 1583. Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi hoped that the huge structure would be a symbol of his power as the new ruler of Japan, and that Osaka would become the new capital. It took 100,000 men three years to construct the granite castle, but in 1598 Toyotomi died and it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who took control of most of Japan. In 1615 Tokugawa’s troops laid siege to and then destroyed Osaka castle which had been the final stronghold of Toyotomi’s heir. The “indestructible” castle was then rebuilt only to be struck by lightening in 1665 and destroyed again.
The present Osaka castle is a 1931 concrete reproduction of the original, but the sheer size of both the tower and its defensive walls make it an impressive sight.
The exterior is impressive, but the gloomy interior tends to disappoint in comparison. Like many other castles there is a small museum which lacks the impact of the castle itself. Entering the interior of the Osaka castle, however, does give you access to the eighth floor, which provides a viewpoint over the city.
When to go
Mainland Japan has a temperate climate with the possibility of snow in winter and hot humid summers. It is best to avoid travel during the start of summer due to the occurrence of the rainy season. Spring and autumn have cooler weather with brighter skies.
The most photogenic time to visit any of the castles is during early April when the cherry trees are covered in pink blossoms. The castles will be crowded with other visitors, but the views are spectacular. Follow the example of the locals and bring a picnic, sit beneath the cherry trees, and gaze up at some of the most magnificent architecture in Japan.
Tokyo and Osaka are the main transport hubs for both flights and trains on the Japanese mainland. Tokyo’s Narita or Haneda airport have the best access to Matsumoto Castle while Osaka’s Itami or Kansai airport are better positioned for visiting Himeji, Hikone and the historic cities of Nara and Kyoto. Kyoto makes an excellent central base from which nearly all the other sites can be visited on day trips. The city has a wide variety of accommodation from five-star hotels to backpacker’s hostels.
Travel from city to city can be done by rental car or bus, but by far the best way is to use the fast and reliable train network. It also provides the opportunity to ride some of the shinkansen. These bullet trains are more expensive than the local or express trains, but traveling at 200 miles per hour in comfort is a truly modern way to get to the next historic site.
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