Monday, 6 April 2015

It’s Castle (shiro 城) Day!

I only found out this morning on Twitter, but apparently today is Castle Day in Japan! Kind of appropriate for me as just yesterday I tweeted about Matsumoto castle.

The rush of castle construction [in Japan] lasted around four decades from the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century. Some of Japan’s best-known castles were built during that time, such as Himeji Castle, Hikone Castle, Inuyama Castle, and Matsumoto Castle, which are the only four castles nationwide to be designated as national treasures. The construction of new castles ultimately came to an end, however, with the unification of Japan under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98) at the end of the sixteenth century, which brought the wartime era to a close, and the start of the Edo shogunate under Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616) at the start of the seventeenth century.

Although serving the same military purposes when they were first constructed, often built on hills or in easily-defendable-locations and with surrounding moats, Japanese castles are quite different to their British and European counterparts. Castles in Japan, in my opinion, look nothing like those in the Western world, in fact they look similar to Japanese temples or other traditional Japanese structures – with curving tiered roofs, onigawara and other typical Japanese architectural details. I do love British and European castles, but there is something all the more magical about a Japanese castle. (Perhaps I’m just biased because everything about Japan seems magical to me!)

I was lucky enough on my trip to Japan, last April, to see a total of five castles. Well, I say five but not all of them were original or complete castles, more on that in a moment… I had initially only definitely planned to see one castle – Matsumoto. As mentioned in the extract from the article above, Matsumoto is one of the most famous and beloved of all Japanese castles – it was certainly my favourite. But the others were each lovely in their own way. So, here are my Top 5 Japanese Castles from my April 2014 Japan trip:

5. Kanazawa Castle

Not strictly a complete or original castle any longer as it has unfortunately suffered from severe fire damage several times throughout history, only to be rebuilt again and again. Only the castle’s Ishikawa-mon Gate remains intact, but the castle overall is well-restored – and it was undergoing further renovation work when I visited. It is situated alongside Kenroku-en Garden – one of the largest and most celebrated gardens in all of Japan – and the garden can be reached across a bridge from the Ishikawa-mon Gate.

4. Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Nijo Castle in Kyoto is a little different to the other Japanese castles in my list, as it is for the most part a single story. The castle is made up of two main parts: the Honmaru (main circle of defense), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense). Ninomaru Palace consists of a number of different buildings, surviving in their original form, and these are connected by the famous nightingale floors – floors that have been designed to ‘sing’ at the lightest of footsteps (to warn of any potential assassins!).

3. Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle is quite a famous castle in Japan but it is far from being the original that was built in 1518. As with many Japanese castles, it suffered from destruction and excessive fire-damage over the years and, in 1665, the main castle tower was struck by lightening and completely burnt down. In 1931 that the present concrete reconstruction of the castle tower was built and it miraculously survived the city-wide air raids during the war. Major renovation works gave the castle a new lease of life in the late 90s and the insides are now entirely modern, serving as a museum.

2. Odawara Castle

Odawara Castle was the one castle that was a complete surprise for me. I’d never even heard of Odawara before I took a train into the Hakone national park from there. That was when I first glimpsed the castle – from the train station. I visited the castle very briefly one morning, at the end of my trip before returning to Tokyo, and it was lovely. The castle was originally built in 1447, rebuilt in the 1600s and again in the 1700s. The castle that you can see today was built in 1960 and is a reproduction of its appearance at the end of the Edo period (1603–1868).

1. Matsumoto Castle

It is unsurprising that I state Matsumoto castle as being my favourite of all the Japanese castles that I visited on my 2014 trip. It is the one that I remembered seeing photographs of long before I seriously began planning my first trip to Japan and it was one of my absolute highlights of my whole trip. Matsumoto Castle – or the the ‘crow castle’ as it is known for its distinct black exterior – maintains all of its original wooden interiors and external stonework, unlike the other castles features in this post, with only some of the castle dates having been rebuilt. It is a designated national treasure of Japan. It is incredibly beautiful and certainly deserves top spot on my list.

Here is Wikipedia’s compilation of Japan’s Top 100 Castles. I’ve got quite a long way to go until I get to see even a tenth of those on the list, but I do at least plan to see Himeji castle next year!

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