There’s always a list. On the list for Japan was “castle”. Up for debate was which castle. At the end of it all, we checked off the top three Japanese castles – all very different, all special for their own reasons and all so very Japanese.
Japanese castles are no exception. But they’re very different from all the English Castles I’ve visited. There are foreboding castles, there are majestic castles but here in Japan they manage to do imperious and very pretty as well.
Japanese Castles are a great place to see the Japanese Cherry Blossom, an incredible Spring activity to experience, as most castles are surrounded by Cherry Trees – which not find out which ones are the best for your Sakura spotting activities?
Our first castle stop was Kumamoto. After our overnight ferry from Busan, South Korea we picked up our Japan Rail Pass. Then we reserved a couple of seats and headed to Nagasaki and then on further south to Kumamoto. It rained. But we were lucky that was the worst of it, we were going slow trying to avoid Typhoon Phanfone. It also allowed us to take this opportunity to visit this castle, which while not completely original, is rather magnificent. Most of the keep was replaced in the 1960’s, but there are several “turrets” that are original.
Inside the keep Japanese design shows that it is timeless, with paper screens, and the beautiful Shokonnoma, where all the surfaces apart from the tatami mat floor are decorated in gold leaf, lacquer, and paintings.
The castle was originally built in 1467 and besieged during the 1877 Satsuma rebellion, when the keep was burned down. Sadly the keep is now a 1960’s concrete reconstruction, but that doesn’t stop it from looking magnificent, even on a rainy, Typhoon Phanfone blown day.
The “very Japanese” curved stone walls and wooden overhangs were used to keep attackers from getting into the castle, and also to allow rocks (and no doubt other items) to be dropped onto those attackers should they decide to try and climb the walls.
The next stop on our castle trail was Himeji, which has had its magnificent keep under wraps for some time now. The refurbishment is ongoing and due to be completed in late March 2015, but earlier this month they’d taken the covers off the keep and we could at least see it from the outside.
Himeji was a day stop for us, as the castle is in very easy reach of the train station, so clutching our Japan Rail Passes in hand, we dropped our bags at the coin lockers. We walked the 15 minutes down the main road (literally straight out of the station) to the castle. There’s also a free bus if you’re not up to the walk.
Himeji is glorious. Even with building cranes around and with the keep still closed. There’s a dual ticket that you can buy for 560 yen (which we did) to see the Koko-En garden, which is well worth it and was the loveliest garden we saw in Japan.
While the refurbishment is going on there’s a limited area of the castle that you can see – but even so, it’s pretty spectacular.
Starting in the long corridor, where the wide beams, oak floors and just glorious passageways evoke imagery of centuries gone by, it’s easy to imagine the samurai charging along the corridor defending the castle.
One wonders though, whether they had to take their shoes off like we did…
There’s a fabulous short video (only in Japanese) about the restoration of the castle which is well worth a watch. Then if you can find someone to take your photo, there’s also a mugging selfie shot available.
And the garden? On the joint ticket – glorious. The guy who upsold us to this ticket said we’d spend 3 hours there.. we spent an hour and it was lovely. Quiet, lots of different areas and peaceful.
“Matsumoto, Matsumoto” croons the voice as you pull into the railway station and we arrived here a few times from a variety of places. This time though we were staying and heading to the castle. Everything in Matsumoto is 15 minutes walk from the train station (except the ACE hotel, which I’m sure was more like 15 seconds) and the castle is no exception.
It’s a shame that there are weekends on this adventure, and that we have to be visiting places on a weekend along with the rest of the world. It was a busy day in Matsumoto, most of the city was in front of us in the castle. Apart from the cool samurai guy who let us hold his sword and posed for a photo too.
More renovation here too. One of the bridges is under wraps but it won’t soil your photos. It’s another pretty castle both inside and out, this time with pseudo moat (it doesn’t at this time go all the way round) and interestingly the castle is one of the lowest buildings in the area, built it seems on a plain in the middle of the alpine mountains that surround it. This is, in Japanese, a hirajiro – built on plains rather than on a hill or mountain. Matsumoto is unique for having both a secondary donjon and a turret joining the main keep.
The climb inside the keep to the top is long (because of the lines) and there’s a little in English on each floor, including the hidden floor – from the outside Matsumoto castle looks like there are five floors, when in fact there are six, as another security feature for the castle. There’s also a moon terrace, where you can view the moon. If the castle was open at that time of course.
Bonus Castle: Osaka
There’s a bonus castle here. Osaka, where we wandered around the grounds, watched something of the festival and put our fingers in our ears as the local drama group took to the stage.
It’s another pretty castle, majestic even, glorious at night and sitting atop some massive stones and comes complete with it’s own lift. Not just that, but clearly following some outcry as to “why have you put a lift into an original castle?” you get a full description of why the lift was installed and how it makes the world a better place.
All in all Japanese castles are unique, seemingly impregnable and so very impressively pretty.
- Where we stayed in Osaka – the Hotel Keihan Tenmabashi
- Where we stayed in Matsumoto – the ACE Hotel
- Where we stayed in Kumamoto – the KB Hotel
- Using a Japan Rail Pass in Japan
- What to Eat in Japan
- Our Guide book in Japan was the Lonely Planet Japan