From the 14th to the 16th century, Japan went through a period of a kind of civil war. With the arrival of peace in the Edo Period (1603-1868), feudal (封建的な) lords started to build palaces for themselves too. These palaces were usually situated within the castles but separate from the main keep. They served as residences, offices and reception halls.
Most castle palaces have been destroyed, leaving only a handful (ひと握り) of original ones, most notably (特に、目立つほどに、明白に) the Ninomaru Palace at Nijo Castle and some recent reconstructions at the castles of Nagoya, Kumamoto and Hikone.
The civil war gave the impetus (刺激、勢い) for the construction of castles. Initially (最初は、初めに) built for purpose of fortification (要塞), the castles became the center of government and status symbols for the provincial (地方の) lords as war drew to an end and Japan was reunited in the late 1500s.
Hundreds of castles used to stand across the country, but due to wars, natural disasters and past governments’ policies to limit their numbers, today only twelve castle keeps survive from the feudal era (封建時代), while a few dozen (数十の) others have been rebuilt in the 20th century.
The primary material (主原材料) for castle construction used to be wood, but most of the rebuilt castles were constructed using ferro (鉄の) concrete, and thus they look authentic (本物の) from the outside but not from within. Two of the best original castles, i.e. (すなわち) castles that survived the post-feudal years, are Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle.
Himeji Castle is Japan’s largest surviving castle. The castle was first constructed in 1333 and is in its 17th century state as it exists today. It has 83 buildings and two surviving moats (堀). The castle’s grounds include winding pathways that appear to be intentionally (意図的に) confusing.
During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), the samurai were required to reside (住む、属する) in the castle towns that surrounded the castles. The grandeur (壮大、豪華、威厳) of a samurai’s house was determined (決定する、限定する) by his rank in the hierarchy. Strict regulations (取り締まり、規則) had to be followed; for example, the size of the pillars and the type of gates to be used were pertained (関係する) by status. While higher ranking samurai lived closest to the castle in large houses with spacious (広大な) tatami rooms and gardens, lower ranking samurai had more humble (地味な、粗末な) residences further away from the castle.
Naturally, only the mansions of high-ranked samurai were preserved over time, and therefore they may not portray (描く) the picture of the average samurai residence. Nonetheless (それにも関わらず), they provide interesting insights to what a samurai residence looked like. Today, former samurai residences are best seen in cities which preserve some of their samurai districts (地区), such as Kanazawa or Hagi. A few of them date back to the Edo Period.
Townhouses were inhabited (住む) by craftsmen and merchants, further down (さらに下って) the social ladder in the past. Many townhouses had relatively (比較的、相対的に) narrow facades (正面、外見) but extended wide into the back because taxation (課税) was often based on road access. A typical townhouse had its store in front, the living quarters behind, and a storehouse (kura) in the back.
Storehouses were fire-insulated (隔離する、遮断する) with earthen walls to protect valuable goods from the threat of fires. Several merchant districts exist today with nicely preserved townhouses, such as those in Takayama and Kurashiki. Some of the merchant houses open to tourists may resemble samurai residences. This is due to the tendency to preserve only the houses of the richest merchants, who towards the end of the Edo Period had become successful enough to design their houses in a style similar to that reserved for the samurai.
Farmers made up the majority of Japan’s population into the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Different farmhouse construction styles developed according to widely varying (変える、変わる、異なる) weather patterns. However, architectural similarities can be seen between dwellings (居所) across the country, such as the wooden facades (外見、正面), thatched (ふきわらの) roofs, sunken hearths (囲炉裏), earth floors for stable (厩舎) and kitchen, and living spaces on elevated (高い) wooden floors that may have included some tatami rooms in case of the more well-off (裕福な) families.
Farmhouses were the most numerous (多数の) among the old buildings but were rarely preserved, and thus the remaining ones that we see today tend to be the more prestigious (名門の) ones, such as those that belonged to village heads or those in remote locations such as Shirakawago (白川郷・岐阜) and Miyama (美山・京都) where entire villages have been preserved to a certain degree (ある程度に).