There are 12 original castles in Japan, “original” means they have a castle tower (or main keep) which was built during the Edo period or earlier. It may surprise you, as there are a number of castles around Japan but only a dozen of them have survived over centuries without being damaged or destroyed. It is mainly because of the fact that most of them were demolished by the Meiji government in 1873, when they tried to transform the whole nation into a westernized form by implementing a series of reformations. Old castles were regarded as useless any more, and the cultural values were ignored.
Today, we can enjoy 12 original castles which stand across the country. Each of them fascinates visitors with unique features, and visiting them gives you an opportunity to get to know the history and backgrounds more deeply. In this article, we will introduce 12 original castles you can visit in Japan!
History of 12 Original Japanese Castles
Like we mentioned above, the original castles indicate the castle which was built in the Edo period or earlier and has a main keep. It was after the late 16th century when the Japanese castles started to have a castle tower. It was rather rare to have a castle tower before then.
After the late 16th, the charismatic warrior Oda Nobunaga started to unify the whole country, and one of his remarkable achievements was to build Azuchi Castle by Lake Biwa as a center of his dominance. The castle was surrounded by the stone wall and had a gorgeous appearance and quickly became the symbol of his power. Since then the trend of displaying power with the stone walls and a castle tower spread throughout Japan and it is said there were over hundreds of castles built around that time and many of them had a castle keep.
However, things drastically changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate proclaimed the rule to limit the number of castles : only one castle per territory is allowed. As a result, over 3,000 castles were reduced to 170, about 95% of the Japanese castles were ruined.
About 260 years later, in 1873, the Meiji government promulgated the law of demolishing the castles to proceed with the westernization in Japan. Some castles remained and were used as military bases but others who escaped from demolishing were sold with very low prices or used for school campuses. But there were people who stood up against this, and there was a movement demanding to preserve the castle for artistic and architectural value. By the early 20th century, there were 20 castles left thanks to the effort of people, however, it eventually reduced to 12 during the world war Ⅱ.
These 12 castles we are going to introduce here are the result of the effort of many people who tried really hard to protect the castles for the future generations, and were lucky enough to survive from the wars.
1. Bitchū Matsuyama Castle
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is an iconic castle located in Takahashi city, Okayama prefecture. It was built in 1240 by Akiba Shigenobu, a warrior during the Kamakura period, and has been loved by many people as a landmark and the most visited tourist attraction in the city. It is known as the only Yamajiro-style castle among the 12 original castles, sitting 430-meter high above the sea level. Make sure to prepare for a hike as you need to take a steep pathway to reach the castle tower before enjoying a spectacular view from there! From late September through early April, especially early in the morning when the clouds around the castle get thick, you can see the castle floating above the sea of clouds! It is often referred to as the castle in the sky, making it a unique photogenic spot featured in many travel guide books.
9am-5:30pm (Apr. – Sep.) 9am-4:30 (Oct. – Mar.)
Admissions ¥300 (Adults) ¥150 (elementary/ junior high school students)
How to get there: From JR Bitchu Takahashi station, take a taxi and it takes about 15 min.
2. Hikone Castle
Hikone Castle is a symbolic spot located in Hikone city, Shiga prefecture. Designated as a National Treasure along with 4 other original castles such as Himeji castle and Inuyama castle, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Hikone area. The construction of the castle started with an order from Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of Tokugawa Shogunate in 1604. It took about 20 years to complete the whole castle, and it prospered as a political and business center of the Hikone clan dominated by the Ii family during the Edo period. The three-story main building is relatively small, but the remaining structures combine different architectural styles from the middle ages and the early modern ages, making it a unique historical site. Most of the structures are still in perfect condition, and some of the stone walls and moats are officially designated as Important Cultural Properties.
Admissions ¥800 (Adults) ¥200 (elementary/ junior high school students)
How to get there: Take the JR line and get off at Hikone station. It is a 15min walk to get to the castle.
3. Himeji Castle
The white, beautiful facade appears in most of the travel guides that introduce the highlights that you shouldn’t miss in Japan. Himeji Castle is an iconic castle located in Himeji city, Hyogo prefecture. It is widely recognized as a representative castle in the Kansai region along with Osaka castle in Osaka, and visited by numerous numbers of tourists all year round. The elegant appearance is often referred to as Shirasagi-jo (White Heron), and reopened to the public after more than 5 years of restoration work in 2015.
The current castle complex, completed in 1609, consists of over 80 structures, and most of them fortunately survived several wars and fires unlike other castles in Japan. In 1993, it was registered as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan. During cherry blossom season, the grounds are packed with people who enjoy the short lived blossoming with the beautiful castle in the background. Over this period, Himeji Castle and the cherry trees are lit up for an amazing illumination in the evening as well. With over 1,000 cherry trees, this area is a great place to view cherry blossoms day or night!
9am-4pm, Sunset-12am for the night illumination
Castle day admission: ¥1,000 (Adults) ¥300 (Children)
Nishi no Maru Admission(Night cherry blossom illumination):￥600(Adults) ￥200(Children)
How to get there: From JR Himeji station, take a bus called “Shinki Bus” and get off at Otemon-mae stop.
4. Hirosaki Castle
Hirosaki Castle is an iconic castle in Hirosaki city, Aomori prefecture. Oura Tamenobu, the first feudal lord who ruled the area started the construction in 1603. After his death, the construction was continued by Oura Nobuhira, his son who is also known as the second feudal lord until 1611. Although the original main tower (called Tenshukaku in Japanese) was struck by lightning and unfortunately destroyed, it was reconstructed during the Edo period and remains today. Designated as National Important Cultural Property, it is visited by lots of tourists all year round, especially in spring when over 2,600 cherry blossoms on the castle ground bloom!
9am-5pm (Apr. – 23 Nov.)7am-9pm
7am-9pm (23 Apr. – 5 May for the sakura season)
※Closed from 24 Nov. through the end of Mar.
Admissions ¥320 (Adults) ¥100 (Children)
How to get there: From JR Hirosaki station, takes about 10 min by car/taxi. You can also take a bus there from the station.
5. Inuyama Castle
Along with Nagoya Castle, Inuyama Castle is a symbolic castle in Aichi prefecture. It stands on a small hillside overlooking the Kiso river running by the prefectural border between Aichi and Gifu. The surroundings boast a plenty of nature and allow visitors to take a refreshing stroll along the pathway along the river. The castle town nearby is full of Japanese traditional buildings which are well-preserved. In recent years, it has been attracting a number of tourists as a popular sightseeing spot where you can enjoy tasty dishes and find small gifts as well.
Admissions ¥550 (Adults) ¥110 (elementary/ junior high school students)
How to get there: From JR Inuyama station, it is only a 20min walk to reach the castle and surrounding area.
6. Kōchi Castle
Located at the heart of Kochi city, Kochi Castle has been loved as a landmark representing the power and prosperity of the Yamauchi family, who ruled over the region during the Edo period. The construction was originally started by Yamauchi Kazutoyo, the first lord of the Tosa clan (old name for Kochi) in 1601. Although most of the buildings were accidentally burned down by fire in 1727, they were reconstructed later and some of them survived over periods and stand there even today. The main keep remains in a perfect condition, which makes it outstanding among the 12 original castles. This is also the only place where you can take a photo of both the Otemon Gate, the main entrance gate, and the castle tower altogether!
Admissions ¥420 (Adults 18+)
※Admission free for under 18 years old
How to get there: From JR Kochi station, take a city bus or tram and get off at “Kochi Castle-mae” stop.
7. Marugame Castle
Standing on a 66-meter hillside, Marugame Castle is known for the stone walls recognized as the highest ones in Japan. The origin of the castle dates back about 400 years ago, when Ikoma Chikamasa started the construction as his subsidiary castle in 1597. It is a typical Hirayama-style castle which combines the design and architectural style of both Yamajiro-style and Hirajiro-style. The castle grounds are surrounded by moats which played a role to protect the castle from attacks. The symbolic stone walls are claimed as a masterpiece of the most advanced techniques during the early Edo period. As the size and shape of stones used for each wall is different, you can enjoy comparing the details of walls as you explore the castle grounds!
Admissions ¥200 (Adults) ¥100 (elementary/ junior high school students)
How to get there: From JR Marugame station, it is about a 10min walk to get to the castle.
8. Maruoka Castle
Maruoka Castle is the only castle that still has the original structure in the Hokuriku region. Although most of the castle was demolished in 1871 in the process of westernization implemented by the Meiji government, the main tower survived and is designated as Important Cultural Property. Visit the museum just outside the castle which houses a collection of valuable historical exhibits. Over 400 cherry blossoms welcome visitors in spring and offer a breathtaking view that is illuminated at night as well!
Admissions ¥450 (Adults) ¥150 (Children)
How to get there: From JR Maruoka station, take the “Keifuku Bus” and get off at Maruoka Bus Terminal Stop.
9. Matsue Castle
Matsue Castle was built in 1611 by Horio Yoshiharu and Horio Tadauji, who achieved a great accomplishment at the battle of Sekigahara. They were officially assigned to be in charge of the Oki and Izumo area which is currently part of Shimane prefecture. They started to build the castle in 1607, and it took almost five years to complete the construction. It is among the 5 original castles which are designated as a National Treasure. From the top floor of the main tower, there is a panoramic view of Matsue city. In spite of the remote location, it fascinates a number of visitors with the powerful black facade that gives you a completely different impression than other castles!
8:30am-6:30pm (Apr. – Sep.) 8:30am-5pm (Oct. – Mar.)
Admissions ¥680 (Adults) ¥290 (Children)
How to get there: From JR Matsue station, take the “Lake Line Bus” and get off at the Ote-mae Stop.
10. Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle is one of the most famous original castles located in Nagano prefecture. The history dates back to the 16th century, and has been loved as an iconic landmark in Matsumoto city by local people. The five-story main tower is considered to be built during the Azuchi Momoyama to the Edo period, and designated as National Treasure along with other 4 castles such as Himeji Castle in Hyogo and Inuyama Castle in Aichi. The black and white exterior creates a stunning view with the natural surroundings and the Northern Japan Alps in the background!
Admissions ¥700 (Adults) ¥300 (elementary/ junior high school students)
How to get there: From JR Matsumoto station, take a local bus and get off at “Matsumoto Castle/ City Hall-mae Stop”.
11. Matsuyama Castle (Iyo)
Matsuyama Castle is located in the center of the Matsuyama city in Ehime prefecture. It is a typical Hirayama-style castle standing on a 132-meter-tall hill called Katsuyama. There used to be around 40 historical structures, and 21 of them remain and are designated as Important Cultural Property. The construction was started by Kato Yoshiaki in 1602, and it took almost a quarter of a century to finally complete. The castle is accessible only by ropeway or chair lift, which takes you from the base of the hill up to the top where the main keep stands. Enjoy the stunning view from the top floor of the castle overlooking Matsuyama city and the surrounding nature!
※Varies depending on season
Admissions ¥520 (Adults) ¥160 (Children)
※need to purchase round trip tickets for ropeway or chair lift separately.
How to get there: From JR Matsuyama station, take a city tram bound for “Dogo-onsen” and get off at “Okaido Stop”.
12. Uwajima Castle
Uwajima Castle is another original castle that you can visit in Ehime prefecture. Although it’s relatively small compared to Matsuyama castle, it’s beautiful appearance fascinates tourists with the scenic surroundings all year round. It was originally designed by Todo Takatora, a famous lord who was involved in building many castles built during the Azuchi Momoyama to Edo periods. It was later used as a residence and political center for the Date family, who ruled the area through the Edo period. Standing on an 80-meter-tall hillside, there is an amazing view of Uwajima city with towering mountains and the ocean off in the distance!
9am-5pm (Mar. – Oct.) 9am-4pm (Nov. – Feb.)
Admissions ¥200 (Adults) ¥160 (65 and older)
※Free admission for junior high school students and under
How to get there: From JR Uwajima station, it is a 15min walk to the castle
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Visiting old castles is one of the most exciting way to spend time while traveling around Japan. If you take a closer look at the details of each castle with a better understanding of the history, you will realize the slight differences that makes it a special spot with unique features!
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