Japanese castles (城 : shiro) were fortresses constructed primarily of wood and stone. Castles first appeared throughout Japan in the 15th century, during the era of the warring states.
Castles in Japan were built to guard important or strategic sites, such as ports, river crossings, or crossroads, and almost always incorporated the landscape into their defenses.
Warlords erected small, wooden castles on mountain tops, to defend against the frequent attacks of that time. After the unification of Japan, under Nobunaga Oda, castles started getting a lot bigger and more beautiful.
Even after many centuries, Japan’s castles still mesmerize tourists with their unique architecture and feudal charm.
You might often imagine Europe as the land of castles. Yet, the castles of samurais and regional lords in Japan harbor dramatic histories of their own.
Japan once had 5000 castles. They were particularly common in the Sengoku Period that was a turbulent time of war that lasted from 1467–1603. In the Edo-era (1603〜1868) the number of castles was significantly streamlined as peace set in for extended periods of time.
By the 1860s, Japan began a program of aggressive modernization and castles were seen as symbols of Japan’s old ways. Many castles were auctioned and scraped in the late 1800s.
The next great wave of castle destruction was in WWII. Many castles had been converted into military posts and were a target of American bombers.
Despite all this destruction, there are still original castles to be seen in Japan. There are also many modern reconstructions. In the 1960s, Japan went on a castle reconstruction boom that resurrected historical castles.
The following are some of Japan’s most visited castles that have either survived the perils of history, been reconstructed or are castle ruins.
Please check out this list of the most beautiful castles in Japan ♡
Himeji Castle is Japan’s largest castle with 83 buildings, three moats and twisting alleyways spread over 233 hectares. It’s close to its 17th century state, all the buildings here are authentic.
It was originally built in 1346, at the bottom of Himeji Mountain and was expanded during the rule of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, at the beginning of the 17th century.
This hilltop castle is located in Hyōgo Prefecture. Himeji Castle is said to be the most pristine example of traditional Japanese castle architecture.
The samurai warrior Akamatsu Norimura built the castle in 1333 as a fortress, and the initial structure has been subject to significant remodeling schemes over the course of the past several centuries.
Namely, several buildings were added as the castle changed hands. The castle miraculously survived WWII unscathed even though surrounding areas were bombed mercilessly. Like many castles on this list, Himeji Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The castle was once beside the sea but years of building out the area’s harbor has left it further from the ocean. Himeji Castle has survived major earthquakes and fire too. It’s steeped in legend including ghost stories.
Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s oldest surviving and principal historic castles that was competed in 1594. it is considered a National Treasure of Japan.
Because of its black exterior, the castle is commonly known as the ‘Crow Castle.’ Matsumoto Castle resides in Nagano Prefecture, an easy train ride from Tokyo proper.
Matsumoto Castle is a stunning castle with an authentic interior. Some locals believe it’s haunted by the ghost of a rebellious farmer.
Nagoya Castle is located in central Japan. The castle of today was constructed in the early 17th century; however, its origins date back even further than this.
The original castle was called Yanagi-no-maru,and the military governor Imagawa Ujichika built it as a gift for his son during the 1520s (The current buildings are a mix of 17th century originals).
Shortly after its completion, a warlord seized the castle and changed its name to Nagoya Castle. During WWII, the castle was used as a military headquarters and became the site of a POW camp. It was heavily damaged during US army air raids in 1945.
The castle’s golden dolphin roof ornaments were symbols of Japan that traveled to exhibitions all over the world until they were destroyed in WWII.
Osaka Castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks that saw a great number of battles that changed the course of Japanese history. The castle was erected on the site of a temple and former imperial palace.
The original castle was destroyed two times, during the 17th century. Tokugawa troops first burned it down in 1615, but it was rebuilt by Tokugawa Hidetada, during the 1620s. Lightning stuck the main keep and it again burned to the ground in 1665.
In the late 19th century, the castle underwent much needed repairs after years of neglect. The castle was featured in the 1955 film Godzilla.
In WWII, the castle was used as a munitions factory that employed 60,000 people. It was completely destroyed by a bomb in 1945.
Today, the reconstructed castle looks much like it did in the 19th century from the outside. Many of the castles moats, walls and store houses managed to survive history.
Osaka Castle is now one of the most important tourist attractions in Japan, especially during the cherry blossom season, when thousands of tourists flock to see the 600 cherry trees in its lawn garden.
Completed in 1611, Matsue Castle (Shimane prefecture) is one of the few remaining medieval castles to still contain its original wooden structure. Though the fact that the castle is predominantly wooden, a major fire hazard, the castle was built after the great war of feudal Japan, so it never saw battle.
It is nicknamed the ‘plover castle’ due to its structure and coloring, which is reminiscent of the type of bird. It is one of the oldest castles in Japan and the only one remaining in the San-in region.
For a 234-year reign spanning over ten generations, Naomasa Matsudaira and his descendants ruled the castle. Today, only the castle tower remains.
The Tsugaru clan built the castle in the early 1600s after raising enough money and resources through a number of strategic alliances. It was destroyed when a lightning bolt struck the gunpowder magazine only about 15 years after its construction.
Hirosaki Castle (Aomori prefecture) was rebuilt two centuries later. Today, the surrounding park is one of the most notorious cherry blossom spots in the country. The park contains 2,600 cherry blossom trees, which were planted on the grounds in 1903.
The Hikone Castle (Shiga prefecture) is located in the Shiga Prefecture. It is considered to be the most important historical building in the entire region and was constructed at the orders of the son of the reigning regional lord (daimyo).
During the Meiji Period of the late 1800s, many castles were commissioned to be dismantled. Hikone Castle was spared by request of the Emperor himself. Many features of the castle are, indeed, considered Japanese cultural assets.
These include the stable and three different turrets incorporated in the castle’s architecture. In addition to the Matsue Castle, the Hikone Castle is another on this list that still has its original structure.
You will find Shimabara Castle in the Nagasaki Prefecture. It is located near Mount Unzen and Ariake Bay. Shimabara Castle is known for its moats, which are up to 15 meters deep and 50 meters wide in some areas.
The daimyos of Shimabara Castle fostered an oppressive regime, executing many Christians living in their territory and significantly raising taxes to pay for the castle. In the late 1800s, part of the castle was turned into school grounds and much of it became farmland.
The castle is now a museum that contains exhibits on local culture and the Shimabara Rebellion (1637〜1638) during feudal times.
Shuri Castle is located in Okinawa and served as the palace for the Ryūkyū Kingdom. The castle was an important stop in Japan’s East Asian maritime networks. It dates all the way back to 1429.
It was the largest castle on the island, though not necessarily the strongest militarily or economically. The castle has a long history of economic activity, and it has changed hands many times.
In the beginning, the Ming Dynasty sent many Chinese families to live here for business purposes. In 1853, the infamous Commodore Matthew Perry paid a visit here as well. The United States occupied the grounds for nearly 30 years following WWII.
One of many castles located in Okayama Prefecture, this castle was built in 1597 after almost 20 years of construction. Its owner was captured just three years later and died shortly thereafter without leaving an heir.
It is also nicknamed the ‘crow castle’ because of its black exterior, which is often contrasted with the neighboring, white Himeji Castle. In its heyday, the roof of the main keep consisted of gilded tiles and golden fish gargoyles. Okayama Castle’s main tower was destroyed during WWII.
During the 1960s, the castle was restored, and its interior now features air conditioning and elevators. The golden fish gargoyles have been returned to their perches, and entry to the inner sanctuary is free.
Kumamoto Castle was once amongst Japan’s largest castles with a tall keep, 49 turrets and a palace. It was constructed in 1607, by the Kato Clan and was one of best fortified structures of its time.
The castle was the site of a large battle between samurai and government troops at the turbulent end of the Edo-era. The castle today is a mix of reconstructed buildings with 13 original structures.
However, the castle sustained damage in a magnitude 6.2 earthquake that struck on April 2016, in Kumamoto prefecture. This event is substantially similar to the 1889 Kumamoto earthquake which also damaged the castle.
A 1590s flatland castle that was once surrounded by three large moats. Hiroshima Castle was mostly destroyed by the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima. The current castle is a modern reconstruction.
Nijo Castle was the Kyoto home of the Tokugawa Shoguns who ruled Japan in the Edo-era. It has two large moat systems but beyond that it isn’t very castle-like. Inside there are two palaces surrounded by gardens that were owned by the Shogun and Emperor.
The Shogun’s palace is open to the public. It’s ornately decorated in gold leaf and has nightingale floors designed to detect ninja attacks. It is the largest surviving palace of the Tokugawa Shoguns.
Inuyama Castle (Aichi prefecture) is a hilltop castle that’s one of Japan’s oldest surviving castles constructed in 1440 and renovated up to the year 1620. The castle overlooks the Kiso River where the ancient technique of cormorant fishing is still practiced.
Edo Castle was the largest castle ever built in Japan. It was at an unfathomable scale. Its outer moat once circled much of what’s now central Tokyo. Unfortunately, Edo Castle was completely destroyed in a 1873 fire and demolished.
What remains are its massive moats, walls, bridges and guardhouses. Most of these were used in the design of the current Imperial Palace.
The site of the former castle is now in the Imperial Palace East Gardens. It’s open to the public. Here you can explore the castle’s moats and the base of the largest castle keep ever built in Japan.
The ruins of a large castle that once had 47 turrets. Fukuoka Castle was mostly dismantled in 1871. Several of the castle’s original turrets, gates, walls and parts of the moat remain today.
A castle in Fukushima Prefecture that saw a fairly steady stream of battles throughout its history from 1384 to 1874. The Samurai of the Aizu area were known for their martial skill.
The castle was the site of the Battle of Aizu in the Boshin War (1868〜1869) that pitted the samurai against modern Japanese troops. The castle was reconstructed in concrete in 1965.
It’s surrounded by a large park filled with stone walls and remnants of moats. The castle looks best in sakura season, autumn leaf season and in the area’s snowy winter.
Hara Castle (原城, Harajō, Minami-Shimabara-city,Nagasaki) was built in 1604 on a hill overlooking the Ariake Sea. In 1637, it became the final battle ground of the Shimabara Rebellion, a large uprising of peasants – many of whom were Christians – who were upset about excessive taxation and religious persecution by the local lord.
Large shogunate forces were sent in to put down the uprising, but the defenders held out for more than a year. The castle was eventually overrun, its fortifications razed and the rebels killed.
All that is left of Hara Castle today are some ruined fortifications, including the outlines of the former baileys, stone walls and the foundation stones of the castle gates. The honmaru (main bailey) is now a small park with a stone monument memorializing the rebellion.
There is also a bronze statue of Amakusa Shiro, the charismatic young rebel leader, who was executed after the fall of the castle.
This may become World Heritage Site in near the future.
We offer a silent prayer for the souls of the victims.