When most Westerners think of castles, they think of medieval fortifications built at the edge of chilly cliffs, but Japan has many beautiful castles, each with their own interesting story to tell. Many were built during the Sengoku, or "warring states" era of Japan, where warlords battled for control of the country. Here are some of our favorite castles and the tales behind them.
Known as the Crow Castle because of its black panels and winged roofs, Matsumoto Castle has a great ghost story attached to it. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, a farmer named Tada Kasuke lead an uprising of farmers in protest of the region's high taxes. The revolt failed and Tada Kasuke was executed, but his ghost has since been seen of the castle ground and his curse has been blamed for structural damage during the reconstruction. The castle is a regular tourist attraction and known for its weapons exhibit.
The majestic Osaka castle played a central role in the unification of Japan during the 17th century. Built by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in imitation of Oda Nobunaga's castle, the site became the center of two major battles between Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his former ally Tokugawa Ieyasu. In the first battle, Toyotomi forces inside the castle were able to fend off the numerically superior Tokugawa forces. The second battle lead to the death of the Toyotomi line. The castle was regularly used as an armory and munition storage through both the Meiji restoration and WW2. Today it's a favorite site for visitors who come to watch the cherry blossoms bloom. Also, Godzilla destroyed it in the 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again.
This beautiful castle, located in Kanagawa Prefecture, has been touched by some of the most dramatic events in Japanese history.
Built during the Kamakura period of Japan, the era marked by the rule of the first shogun and the formation of the samurai class, the castle saw several new owners as fortunes changed through constant warfare. It was in regular use during that era. In the 19th century, when the Meiji government worked to modernize the country, Odawara castle was torn down and a Shinto shrine was built in the castle's memory. It was later listed as a historical site and several of the buildings were restored to pristine condition.
The Takeda castle ruins stand on the mountains to the northwest of Kyoto and is known as the Machu-Picchu of Japan.
Originally built as Izushi castle in 1441, the castle fell under the control of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1577. The castle changed hands through the years until it fell into the hands of its final owner, warrior Hirohide Akamatsu. He fought on the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu but was accused of arson and ordered to commit ritual suicide. Takeda castle fell into ruin shortly thereafter.
Gifu castle has a very long, colorful history. A constant battleground, the castle was considered one of the most formidable castles in the Sengoku era but was once captured by only sixteen men!
The first story involved Takenaka Hanbei, a samurai who entered the castle on the pretext of visiting his sick brother. In reality, he came to kill Saitō Tatsuoki, the lord of the castle at the time. Tatsuoki believed that a large army was attacking him and he fled the castle. The castle was eventually returned to him but Tatsuoki suffered a loss of face for his cowardice.
The second story involved the siege of Gifu castle, which involved an assault very similar to a Special Forces raid! The castle is built on top of a very steep hill which helped keep invaders at bay. When Oda Nobunaga laid siege to the castle, he sent his retainer Kinoshita Tōkichirō to scale the mountainside to attack the undefended rear of the castle. His team opened the castle gates and let the rest of the army through.
The largest and most visited castle in Japan, Himeji castle is a massive structure comprised of 83 buildings. Known as the White Heron Castle because of the wing shape of the buildings, the fortress features views of the surrounding areas and elevated defense positions for soldiers to fire down on attacks. Himeji castle has been featured in film and TV for years, most notably in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
The castle is full of legendary tales, from the master carpenter who killed himself over dissatisfaction in his work to the old woman who turned over her millstone to help with the castle construction to the ghost of the poor servant woman whose spirit still haunts the well her body was thrown into. Visitors to this magical castle can see a rich tapestry of Japanese history.
Did we miss any favorites? Let us know in the comments. And please share this article with anyone interested in Japanese history or castles of yore.