One type of attraction in Japan that is popular with both foreign and local tourists is castles. There are more than 100 castles in present day Japan; an impressive number until you learn that in days gone by there are thought to have been more than 5,000.
Many Japanese castles have fallen into disrepair or have been completely destroyed over the years. With earthquakes, typhoons, wars, sieges and atomic bombs, it’s no wonder that the number of castles has severely diminished.
However, there are still dozens of excellent choices for visitors to choose from on a trip to Japan. The trouble was narrowing it down to a list of 10.
Would you prefer to see a newly built, modern castle, or perhaps a castle that still retains some of its original buildings, or that wondrous rarity, a castle that has been completely unscathed over the years and is still in its original form?
In this unique list of the top 10 castles to see in Japan, we will explore some popular choices as well as the less-well-known ones. I wonder which castle you’d like to visit most?
1. Himeji Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)
Also known as the “White Heron Castle,” Himeji Castle was awarded World Heritage status in 1993. Widely considered the most beautiful castle in Japan, many of the original buildings are still intact. It is also known for the dozens of important cultural relics and cultural properties, as well as designated national treasures.
The main tenshu (castle tower) has five levels, decked out in black tiles on the roof which slot perfectly between layers of startlingly white walls.
The heavy wooden doors, gates, and arches are also in great condition. If you only plan on visiting one castle in Japan, Himeji Castle is an excellent choice. The layout and design are typical of traditional Japanese castles, and everything has kept very well.
A fifteen-minute walk from Himeji Station, Himeji city is easy to reach from other major locations such as Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Hiroshima.
2. Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Prefecture)
Anyone who has been keeping up to date with the news might wonder at this unusual choice – after all, since the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in April 2016, Kumamoto Castle has been closed to the public.
While not completely destroyed, damage to the castle was extensive, and they estimate that it will take 20 years to repair it completely.
However, there are still several good reasons for visiting Kumamoto Castle.
Firstly, if visiting the atomic bomb museum is on your dark tourism list, why not an earthquake-stricken castle? There is something mightily impressive about the piles of boulders and rubble that are all around its famous black walls.
Also, while you cannot currently enter the castle grounds, they have now opened up the area surrounding the castle, which is once again bustling with tourists on a daily basis.
At only a few minutes walk away from the Kumamoto Castle tram stop, the castle is still very much the top attraction in Kumamoto, and a symbol of solidarity and encouragement for the earthquake-affected city.
3. Matsuyama Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
This castle consistently ranks on listings of Japan’s top castles, and once you visit it, you can see why.
Originally built in 1603, Matsuyama Castle has suffered mightily over the years, with restoration work still continuing today. However, even with the modern improvements to the structure, it still maintains the look and feel of the original.
Built atop a well-located hill, you have commanding views of the city and can enjoy looking out both from the castle itself and from the spacious outdoor seating area before the entry gates.
Inside the castle are plenty of exciting exhibits, including hands-on stuff that kids will love such as a life-sized taiko drum which you can have a bang on, and a cabinet with samurai swords to lift and feel their impressive weight.
Take the tram either to Okaido or Keisatsusho-mae, and it’s just a few minutes walk to the ropeway entrance. You can choose the chairlift or ropeway for a gentle ride up to the top or tag along with the high-school students who run up the stairway for exercise (a 15-minute climb).
On exiting, walk down the back entrance and stop off at Ninomaru Garden before you leave – a quiet, idyllic break after the castle which will no doubt be bustling with tourists.
4. Shimabara Castle (Nagasaki Prefecture)
Here’s a castle that you probably won’t find on any other top ten lists, but is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area.
The main keep has five stories, and its striking white exterior looks particularly eye-catching against the surrounding scenery in both directions – Mount Unzen behind and Ariake Bay in front. One of the most interesting features is the moat, which is up to fifteen meters deep in places.
Work on the castle began in 1624. It is interesting to note that Christianity had been banned ten years before (with continued mass executions) and that the peasants were forced to pay higher taxes for the building of the castle, starting in 1618.
The increased taxes led to much unrest amongst the common people, culminating in the Shimabara Rebellion (1637 – 1638). The castle was undamaged during the siege, but more than 27,000 Catholic Christian peasants were killed, including their charismatic leader, the 16-year-old Amakusa Shiro.
A fascinating place and packed full of interesting historical artifacts. A short walk up the hill from the local train line (Shimabara stop), you should aim to finish your visit before a meal so that you can check out the popular restaurant just across the road from the entrance – it sells guzoni, a local delicacy of squishy rice cakes in a rich soup.
5. Ozu Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
Another one that you’re unlikely to have heard of, but one of my personal favorites. After a short (but steep!) climb to the top of the hill, you’ll be met by the impressive view which Ozu Castle enjoys. There may not be much to see in the surrounding area, but the wide open spaces of grassy fields and a wide river can be quite captivating.
With the castle dating back to the year 1331, it isn’t surprising that not much of the original remains. Major renovations were completed in 2004, and it all still looks as good as new.
The repairs have been masterfully done, and the materials used blend in perfectly. There are a few small exhibits to look at, but mostly your visit will be about admiring the craftsmanship of the renovations and taking in the view.
Iyo-Ozu is the nearest train station at a 30-minute walk away, or you can use the reasonably priced car park at the foot of the hill.
Be sure to get a combination ticket which includes entry to Garyu Sanso, a stunning little traditional villa and garden just a fifteen minute walk away – one of the nicest scenic spots in Japan.
6. Goryōkaku Fort (Hokkaido)
As the name suggests, this is more of a fort than a castle, but is well deserving of a place on the list because of how awesome it looks from the above.
If you’re a drone photography enthusiast, then this place will top your list. While it might not look like much from the ground, Goryokaku is designed in a perfect star shape which only becomes evident when viewed from above. The name even means “pentagonal.”
A fifteen-minute walk from the Goryokakukoen-Mae station, this is one castle location where your visit should include a good walk around the perimeter to get a feel for the shape of it as you follow your way alongside the moat.
Beautiful in all seasons, a quick Google image search will show you the castle in an array of colors: dressed in autumn reds, dazzling winter frosts and awash in pink during the cherry blossom season.
7. Fukuoka Castle Ruins (Fukuoka Prefecture)
While the Fukuoka Castle is mainly in ruins, don’t let this put you off a visit because it is a truly magical place.
Dating back to the early 1600’s, it was once the biggest castle in Kyushu owned by the Kuroda family for 12 generations.
Rather than falling victim to wars or natural disasters, the castle buildings were simply moved or taken down as the castle was decommissioned – an unfortunate demise for such a well-placed castle.
However, without all those pesky buildings the castle grounds are now wide open to nature, and it makes for a wonderful picnic spot.
The grounds are well kept and a lovely place for a walk amongst the ancient trees and moss covered stones.
A short walk from either the Akasaka or Ōhori Park subway stations, make a day of it and include a visit to the Korokan Ruins Museum and see the toilet paper of antiquity – “poo sticks.”
8. Nagoya Castle (Aichi Prefecture)
One of the most important castles of antiquity, this castle was almost destroyed by bombs during World War II. Despite the widespread desolation, a few important relics survived, including the intricately painted sliding doors of the Honmaru Palace, some old gates and a few corner towers.
The castle was reconstructed in 1959, and restoration work for the palace is currently in process.
Thankfully, many photographs, documents and measurements survive which make it possible for the restoration work to be completed as closely to the original as possible. The rebuilding project is set to be finished in 2018.
A short walk from the Shiyakusho Station, this tourist attraction is a top place to visit in Nagoya. On your visit, keep your eyes open for the Kinshachi – two golden dolphins which majestically adorn the rooftop.
9. Matsumoto Castle (Nagano Prefecture)
Built in 1590, this is one of the best examples of surviving castles in Japan as it is still in its original condition.
As well as being one of the most well-kept castles, it also possibly the castle with the most stunning entrance in Japan – cross over the moat on the brightly painted black and red bridge to the impressive wooden gateway.
A great time to visit is during the summer for the Taiko Drum Festival, and also Takigi Noh festival where you can watch a dramatic performance by torch light.
This castle is a top choice for history buffs, but be warned that during peak season (during the Obon and Golden Week holidays) you may have to wait for up to two hours to enter the main castle tower.
It’s a fifteen-minute walk from Matsumoto Station.
10. Takeda Castle Ruins (Hyogo Prefecture)
These hilltop ruins look a bit like the Machu Picchu of Japan – with a breathtaking mountaintop backdrop, these ruins have a wild, rustic look about them that is a world apart from the Fukuoka Castle Ruins.
This is a visit that will require some scrambling, and access to the surviving foundations of the main tenshu are by ladder. At more than 350 meters above sea level, the view is stunning.
Built in the 1400’s, Takeda Castle was abandoned after the last Lord of the castle was accused of setting the castle town on fire. He committed seppuku around 1600.
This castle is a popular tourist attraction and a visit you’re not likely to forget. The location is most accessible by car – it’s an hours walk from the nearest train station (Takeda Station) or you can take a taxi for about ￥1,500 – ￥2,000.
Trains run very infrequently, so time your visit carefully.
With so many amazing castles to choose from in Japan, you’ll have a hard time deciding which ones make it on your “must-see” list.
Hopefully, this article has given you some good ideas for castles to visit. If you want more information on other wonderful castles in Japan, check out the invaluable Jcastle website for extensive details on castles across Japan.
Which is your favorite castle in Japan? Leave us a comment about which castles you’d feature on a Top Ten Castles in Japan list!