Top 15 Castles in Japan
Japanese castles are an excellent way to explore the country's history. Though few original Japanese castles remain, those that do, as well as those that have been reconstructed, cannot be recommended highly enough. We've got a guide to the 15 best Japanese castles to help you along your way.
Of the 5,000 castles built throughout Japan’s history, only 147 remain. Of these, only 12 can be considered original. The others have had to be rebuilt or redesigned, normally as a result of fire damage. The fire-bombing campaigns inflicted on the country during World War II were especially destructive in this regard. What’s more, simple neglect, especially during the Meiji era, also contributed to the decline of the Japanese castle.
However, the modern heritage industry has done much to try and reverse the trend. Many castles have been rebuilt, sometimes using the same construction techniques and materials as the originals. Japanese castles are thus a mixed bag and often a window into many periods of Japanese history.
We’ve come up with a guide to the 15 most popular Japanese castles (and palaces) to help you enjoy them for yourself:
1. Heijo Palace
Nara is a popular tourist spot, with crowds drawn by the famous free-roaming deer, as well as Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. It was Japan’s first official capital city and therefore home to the seat of power – the Imperial Palace. When, however, the capital was moved to Heian-Kyo (now Kyoto), Nara’s Imperial Palace was simply abandoned. The ensuing centuries ravaged the building, the elements slowly chipping away at this most significant of palaces. Fortunately, the sections that lay underground were preserved and re-discovered by modern archaeologists who began restorative efforts in 1955. The site was opened to the public in 1998 and now welcomes thousands of visitors every year.
Access: 10 minutes walk from Yamato-Saidaiji Station
Price: Free (Passport required)
Business Hours: 9:00 am – 4:30 pm. Closed on Mondays.
2. Hikone Castle
Hikone Castle is one of the oldest Japanese castles that still remains intact. Dating from the Edo period, it is one of only five Japanese castles classified as Important National Treasures (along with Himeji, Matsue, Matsumoto and Inuyama castles). Hikone Castle is located in Shiga Prefecture near Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. Construction began in 1603 by order of Shogun Ii Naokatsuand and was finally completed in 1622. The hulking castle is set perfectly against a traditional Japanese landscape of beautiful gardens, just as well, for entrance to the building itself is forbidden. There is, however, a castle museum. The best period to visit is during the cherry blossom season.
Access: 15 minutes walk from Hikone Station
Price: Castle, Garden, and Museum ¥ 1.000, Castle and Garden ¥600 or Garden only ¥200
Business Hours: 9 am – 7:30 pm.
3. Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle, nicknamed “The White Heron” and located in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, is said to be Japan’s most popular. Built in 1609 by a Tokugawa clan general, it is both a marvel of aesthetic beauty and of strategic defence, reflected in its Important National Treasure status and recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Himeji Castle is an excellent example of an intact Japanese castle, complete with traditional wooden structure and white plastered stone walls. The castle owes its condition to never having been attacked or bombed, unlike most others of its kind.
Access: 15 minutes walk from Himeji Station
Price: adult ¥1000, children (under 16) ¥300
Business Hours: 9 am – 5 pm ( 1st September to 26th April) and 9 am- 6 pm (27th April to 31rd August)
4. Imperial Palace
Now surrounded by skyscrapers in the heart of Tokyo, the Imperial Palace was first built during the Edo period when Emperor Meiji ordered the transfer of the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. the Imperial Palace remains the residence of the emperor, with a Kyūden (main palace building) and a Kyūchū-sanden (three palace sanctuaries) where ceremonies are conducted. It was built on the site of the pre-existing Edo Castle, the political center of Japan during the Edo period. The distance around the Imperial Palace moat is roughly 5 kilometers, accessible from its two adjoining parks: the eastern gardens, Higashi-gyoen and the outdoor garden, Kokyo Gaien.
Access: 10 minutes walk from Tokyo Station and Otemachi Station
Business Hours: Garden open all year except on Monday and Friday and New year holidays
5. Inuyama Castle
Considered a Japanese National Treasure, Inuyama Castle (literally “dog mountain”) in Aichi Prefecture, is another of the remaining original Japanese castles. Construction started in 1440 by order of Oda Nobuyasu Yojiro (Nobunaga’s grandfather), making it the oldest castle in Japan. The Castle is particularly popular during cherry blossom season in Spring and Momiji (red leaves) in Autumn. It is considered one of the five Important National Treasures of Japan. Definitely worth a visit!
Access: 10 minutes from Inuyama Station
Business Hours: 09:00 am – 5:00pm. Close on New Year Holidays
6. Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa Castle is a must-visit whilst in Kanazawa, especially as it is so conveniently located within a triangle formed with the Kenrokuen Garden and the art museum. Built in 1583 on the initiative of the Maeda Family (Kaga clan), the current castle is, as is often the case, a reconstruction. The dungeon has, however, yet to be restored. Apart from its pleasant garden, the castle itself doesn’t have too much to offer. The best time to visit would be during the cherry blossom season.
Access: 20 minute bus ride from Kanazawa Station
Business Hours: 7:00 am – 6:00 pm (1st March-15 October) and 8:00 am- 5:00 pm (16 October- 28/29 February)
7. Kumamoto Castle
Not far from Kamitori and Shimotori, the main shopping streets of Kumamoto’s city center, Kumamoto Castle is well worth a visit. The castle was built between the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama era and the beginning of the Edo period in the 16 – 17th century. Notable for its imposing size and hillside location, a hike is necessary to access the castle. Bordered by gardens, parkland and cherry trees, it is the ideal location to celebrate hanami (cherry blossom viewing).
Access: 10 minutes walk from Torichosuji Station
Price: adult ¥500 and child ¥200
Business Hours: 8:30 am – 6 pm (Mars- September) and 8:30 am- 5 pm (December-February)
8. Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture is surrounded by mountains, acclaimed for its beautiful views and is notable for Kaichi School (Japan’s first High School) and as the home of Temari (traditional Japanese handball). Built in 1504, Matsumoto is also known as Crow Castle (Karasu Jo) because of its black facade and considered one of the five castles deemed Important National Treasures. Its last occupants were the Toda clan who occupied the castle until the end of the Samurai era in 1866. The castle is now open to tourists, with many ancient weapons, including early muskets and rifles, on show. The dungeon (tenshu) added in 1597 by the Ishikawa clan is the oldest in Japan.
Access: 15 minutes walk from Matsumoto Station
Price: adult ¥610, child ¥300
Business Hours: 8:30 am – 5:00 pm and during Golden Week and Obon Week 8:30 am- 6:00 pm
9. Nagoya Castle
Nagoya is the fourth biggest city in Japan but is often neglected by travelers. Nonetheless, it may be worthwhile to devote at least one day to the city, even if solely for Nagoya Castle. Built by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600, the castle remained the property of the Tokugawa clan until 1868. Destroyed during World War II, the structure was rebuilt in 1959 using the techniques of the time, returning it to its former glory. Away from the main tower, reconstruction continues, however, with a prospective finish date sometime in 2018.
Access: 3 minutes walk from Shiyakusho Station
Business Hours: 09:00 am – 4:30 pm. Close on New Year Holidays
10. Nijo Castle
Nijō Castle in Kyoto consists of two concentric rings of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of Honmaru Palace, various support buildings and several gardens. Built in 1626, it served as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. The castle has suffered significant damage over the years from a variety of sources, including a lightning strike in 1750. In 1788 the Inner Palace was destroyed by a city-wide fire, leaving the site empty until 1862. Now, the entire site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Access: 4 minutes walk from Nijo Station or 2 minutes Nijojo-mae Station
Business Hours: 8:45 am – 5:00 pm. Closed on Tuesdays from July to August and during the New Year holidays
11. Okayama Castle
Probably one of the most beautiful castles in Japan, Okayama Castle, also called Ujo (Crow Castle), was built in 1573 by Ukita Naoie, a notable feudal lord. In 1603, the castle became the property of the Ikeda Family, the lords of Okayama. WWII bombing left the castle in need of extensive repair, which eventually came in 1966. The beautifully decorated facade, the greenery of the Asahi riverbank and the adjoining Korakuen gardens make this an extremely peaceful castle.
Access: 20 minutes walk from Okayama Station or 5 minutes from the Higashiyama tram line
Business Hours: 9:00 am- 5:30 pm
12. Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle in central Osaka is one of the city’s premier tourist attractions. Located on a hilltop overlooking a vast garden, Osaka Castle, in what is now called Osaka Castle Park, is the symbol of the city as a whole. Built in 1583 by order of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the castle subsequently suffered several manmade and natural disasters. The current Osaka Castle was rebuilt in 1931 and now features an observation deck on the top floor as well as a museum stocked with trinkets and souvenirs. At night, the castle is illuminated, forming an unmistakable silhouette against the night sky. The castle is also a nice picnic spot for Japanese and foreign tourists year-round.
Access: 2 minutes walk from Osakajokoen Station
Price: Park: Free, Castle entry: ¥600
Business Hours: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm closed for the New Years holidays
13. Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle, in Shuri, Okinawa, was built in the fourteenth century to mark out the city as the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom (an independent kingdom existing from the 15th to the 19th century). Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the final time as a result of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. The castle also hosted the G8 summit in 2000. With almost two million visitors in 2015, Shuri was the tenth most visited castle in the world and the most popular castle in Japan.
Access: 15 minutes walk from Shuri Station
Business Hours: 8:30 am – 6 pm (December-March), 8:30 am- 7 pm (April-June and October-November), 8:30 am- 8 pm (July-September). Closed on the first Wednesday and Thursday of July
14. Takamatsu Castle
Takamatsu is the capital of Kagawa Prefecture and is the largest city in Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. With its four-hundred thousand inhabitants, foreign tourists are a rarity, though the few that do visit are sure to visit the castle. Built in 1590 by Chikamasa Ikoma, along with Nakatsu Castle and Imabari Castle, Takamatsu Castle makes up one of “three great water castles” of Japan. Popular for its sea-facing Tsukimi Yagura turret as well as Tamamo Park, a pleasant stone garden dotted with cherry and pine trees, Takamatsu Castle is well worth a visit.
Access: 2 minutes from Takamatsu-chikko Station
Business Hours: 7:00 am – 5:00 pm
15. Matsue Castle
Matsue Castle is located in Shimane prefecture and nicknamed the “black castle” or “plover castle” due to its dark exterior. Not to be mistaken for the “crow castle” – also black – which refers to Matsumoto Castle. Matsue Castle is one of the five medieval castles in Japan considered Important National Treasures and has many original features, protected by that title. The castle was constructed from 1607 to 1611, under the local feudal lord Horio Yoshiharu. In 1638, the property rights and fief passed to the Matsudaira clan, an affiliate branch of the ruling Tokugawa clan at the time. Tokugawa Ieyasu is one of the three famed “unifiers” of Japan.
Access: 10 minutes by Lakeline Bus from Matsue Station
Business Hours: 8:30 am – 6:30 pm (April – September) and 8:30 am – 5:30 pm (October – March)
Bonus: Azuchi Castle
Azuchi Castle was both the first Japanese castle and the model for those that followed. Built in 1575 by Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful samurai in the country, Azuchi Castle was a revolution in castle design, marking a turning point for a new type of castle in Japan. Before Azuchi, most were smaller mountaintop structures, used as lookouts. Azuchi on the other hand took a mammoth 3 and a half years to complete, though sadly, it did not stand for long. Nobunaga was killed by Akechi Mitsuhide in 1582 at Honnoji Temple and in the power struggle that followed the castle was burnt to the ground.
Although only ruins remain, Azuchi Castle is a fantastic place to visit for history buffs with a good imagination. Archaeologist and experts have done an excellent job of excavating the ruins and rebuilding the stone walls throughout the site, though many remain inaccessible. This site is a must for castle fans.