Culture

Top 10 Japanese samurai castles

OSAKA CASTLE

Although construction of Osaka Castle was begun in 1583, what you see today is mostly a 1931 concrete replica. Still, the eight-storey keep with its upturned eaves is impressive, and contains a museum devoted to renowned shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan. Clamber to the top – or use the anachronous lift – for great city views. Below stretch vast defensive walls and dry moats filled with 600 cherry trees. See osakacastle.net

ODAWARA CASTLE

The powerful Hojo clan once ruled over Odawara Castle near Hakone. The current structure is modern, but this is the closest samurai castle to Tokyo and will appeal to children for its small zoo and amusement park. The interior has a decent museum devoted to the samurai, and an early May historical re-enactment features a procession of costumed warriors. A late-July lantern festival illuminates the moat to lovely effect. See city.odawara.kanagawa.jp

MATSUYAMA CASTLE

This castle sits atop a massive hill and looks down on an impressive complex of enclosures, defensive walls and the residences of the shogun and his family, which are perhaps the most impressive in Japan. Building funds ran out, however, so the downsized central keep is surprisingly modest. The interior has fine collections or swords and armour of the Matsudaira samurai clan. Views over Matsuyama city are marvellous. See matsuyamajo.jp

 

Matsumoto Castle and its red bridge.Matsumoto Castle and its red bridge. Photo: Brian Johnston

HIMEJI CASTLE

The on-location choice for many a samurai movie, Himeji Castle near Kobe dates mostly from the 17th century and may be Japan’s finest example of a castle, whose defensive architecture is best appreciated by joining a guided tour. Its 80-odd buildings are plastered in dazzling white purported to resemble a flying egret, making this Japan’s most beautiful castle, especially in springtime when surrounding cherry blossoms erupt. See himejicastle.jp

NAGOYA CASTLE

The castle was built by the ruling Tokogawa family in the Edo period, and one of Japan’s largest cities grew up around it. Much of it was reconstructed after World War II bombing, and recently fine replicas of painted, sliding doors and other interiors have been installed. Good displays show the daily life of samurai families, as well as weaponry. There are free guided tours in English at 1pm. See nagoyajo.city.nagoya.jp

HIROSAKI CASTLE

This castle in northern Honshu recently reopened after earthquake damage and is rather petite, but has one of only a few original keeps left in the country. While most Japanese castles are prime spots for cherry-blossom viewing, Hirosaki’s 2600 trees are a springtime standout, and gorgeously illuminated in the evenings. As the petals fall, the moat turns pink. A winter Snow Lantern Festival is also popular. See hirosakipark.jp

MATSUMOTO CASTLE

This relatively modest castle is unusual for lacking a hilltop location, though its impressive keep sits out against the Japanese Alps in the background. The 1633 residence was built in a relatively peaceful era, and features decorative turrets and a moon-viewing pavilion. An original wooden interior provides more authenticity than many of Japan’s reconstructed castles. It’s reached across its moat via an elegant red-lacquer bridge. See matsumoto-castle.jp

TOKYO IMPERIAL PALACE

Only moats, massive stone walls and some minor buildings remain from Edo Castle in central Tokyo, whose grounds now house the imperial family’s residences. The five-kilometre circumference of the fortified most does, however, make for a fine jogging route. Several gardens of the sprawling complex are open to the public, of which the East Gardens are the best for dainty vistas, wide lawns and arbours of laburnum. See kunaicho.go.jp

NIJO CASTLE

Though this central Kyoto caste has moats and creaking floorboards designed to alert its residents to lurking assassins, it was never built with serious defence in mind. Its main gate opens into the street, and whole walls can fold back to catch the breeze. It was here in 1868 that the emperor announced the abolition of shogunates. Landscaped gardens with their manicured pine trees are a highlight. See kyoto.travel

EDO WONDERLAND

OK, this open-air museum in Nikko, two hours from Tokyo, isn’t a castle but a theme park that recreates the Edo Period. After all those castles it provides light relief with its period comedy shows and ninja performances. Staff are dressed in samurai and other historical garb, and the recreated village (and samurai residence) is often used as a movie set. Kid will enjoy the disorienting Ninja House and maze. See edowonderland.net

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation and various hotels and tourism operators in Japan.

Robin Cole