Exploring Japan’s Original Castle Towns

22 November 2015
Read Time: 3.0 mins

There are only 12 surviving feudal castles in Japan, and half of these can be found south of Kyoto, in the Hyogo region and on the island of Shikoku.

After the end of the feudal age, many castles were destroyed as unwelcome relics of the past, and some were lost during World War II.

While some have since been reconstructed, only 12 are considered to be original, including Matsuyama, Kochi, Marugame, Uwajima, all located on Shikoku. A short distance from Shikoku, across the water in Hyogo, is the most impressive castle of them all: Himeji Castle.

Himeji Castle

Surrounded by crowds of tourists, Himeji Castle, or White Egret Castle, is open and ready for visitors after a five-year hiatus during the Heisei Era Restoration. The castle is 3.5 hours from Tokyo by Shinkanzen, and a 20-minute walk (or 5-minute bus ride) from the station.

 Himeji Castle hides a tragic tale (Image: Holly O'Sullivan)

It’s a breezy autumn day as we explore Himeji Castle for the first time. The labyrinth-like approach from the Hishi Gate to the main keep leads along walled paths through gates and baileys, which had the original purpose to slow down and expose attacking forces.

As we stroll through the castle gardens, Nishi-no-Maru (West Bailey), I can see the fresh white walls of Himeji Castle poking through the greenery while our guide tells us the tragic tale of Princess Sen, who lived in the castle in the early 1600s.

The daughter of a Shogun, Sen was married at the age of seven to a Japanese prince called Toyotomi Hideryori, who committed suicide shortly after, during the Osaka Summer Battle. She then remained unmarried until she was twenty, when she was married to Honda Tadatoki, son of the lord of Himeji Castle.

 Looking up towards Himeji's towers (Image: Holly O'Sullivan)

The princess used her sizable dowry to build her palace, Musashino Goten in the third bailey, and there she lived happily with her husband and two children for 10 years, until her son died of a disease at age three, and then her husband at age 31. Sen never recovered from this tragedy, returning to Edo to become a Buddhist nun and spending the rest of her days in mourning,

The castle, is regarded as the most beautiful in Japan. Both a national treasure and a world heritage site. Though appearing smaller from the outside, the interior reveals a seven-storey structure accessible by steep staircases. The highest floor boasts panoramic views and the relocated Shrine of Himeyama Hill.

Marugame Castle

Across the water on Shikoku Island, a two-hour train ride from Himeji castle, is Marugame Castle. The castle was originally constructed between 1597 and 1602, but due to policies of one castle per province it was quickly torn down and rebuilt after the province was split in two.

Today, only the original keep and castle gates remain, and a large public park covers the original castle grounds. Marugame Castle is one of the region’s favourite cherry blossom spots with nearly 1000 trees planted around the walls and castle keep.

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Matsuyama Castle

Another three hours along the Shikoku coast, you’ll find Matsuyama Castle, crowned the second best castle in Japan in 2014.

The castle sits atop Mount Katsuyama, a steep hill in the city centre, with panoramic views of Shikoku’s largest city and the Seto Inland Sea.

 Matsuyama castle dates from 1602 (Image: Holly O'Sullivan)

There are three ways to get up the mountain: if you’re feeling energetic you can hike up, and if you’re conserving your energy for exploring the castle, take the chairlift or the ropeway. We chose the chairlift.

The castle dates back to 1602, built by Yoshiaki Katoh, the son of a Samurai warrior, who became a famous warrior himself when he was just 20 years old in the Battle of Shizugatake, and proceeded to make his fortune as he climbed the ranks of the armed forces and was rewarded along the way for his acts of bravery.

Dogo Onsen

A short train ride from the castle you’ll find Dogo Onsen, which is said to be the inspiration for Hayo Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, Spirited Away, and it really is not to be missed.

 Dogo Onsen is not to be missed (Image: Holly O'Sullivan)

Uwajima Castle

A further two and a half hours along the coast brings you to one of the smaller of Japan’s remaining original castles, Uwajima Castle was constructed at the turn of the 17th century and was refurbished in 1615 after ownership changed.

It’s an easy 10- to 15-minute climb up to the castle and most parts of the three-storied main keep are accessible to visitors.

Kochi Castle

Across the island to the south east coast is Kochi Castle, constructed during the Edo period between 1601 and 1611.

The castle used to be the seat of the Yamauchi lords, who ruled over the surrounding region previously known as Tosa. The original inner citadel is still intact and the castle is surrounded by very pretty gardens, now known as Kochi Park which is also very popular during the cherry blossom season.

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Deborah Dickson-Smith

Deborah plays the mother role in a blended family of seven. She's a travel blogger, diver and passionate eco warrior. She has lived in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Edinburgh, London and now resides in Sydney’s northern beaches with her Brady Bunch-style family - all seasoned travellers. Follow Deborah on Twitter @where2nextblog or visit her blog, Where to Next?, all about travelling with teens and mid-life style.