Did you know that at one point there were around 5,000 castles in Japan? The daimyo (feudal lords) of history built castles as defensive structures and a way to show off their wealth. By the 16th century, they developed the classic architectural styles we’re familiar with today.
Most of the castles were built out of wood, so many of them burnt down over the centuries. Today, only about 100 still stand and even fewer are original constructions. Although only a fraction of them exist, there are still too many to see in one or two or even three trips to Japan!
For this article, we chose our favorite Japanese castles from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The order of this list goes from north to south since it’s impossible for us to decide which one is the best. No matter where you go in Japan, you’re sure to find something here that will fit with your itinerary!
Matsumae Castle was the gateway to Hokkaido’s untamed wilderness in the Edo Period. Like with many Japanese castles, the main keep was destroyed and rebuilt over the years. Inside, visitors can explore a museum that exhibits artifacts from the Matsumae Clan and Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people. It’s especially gorgeous in early May during the cherry blossom season.
The historic Tsuruga Castle has had a long history since its 1384 establishment. During the Boshin War in 1868, it was among the last strongholds of samurai who were loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, this led to its most infamous event. After a month-long siege, twenty teenage boys committed suicide when they wrongly thought the castle had fallen.
Matsumoto Castle is one of the few castles in Japan that isn’t a reconstruction. It gets its nickname “Crow Castle” from its black exterior and elegant look. There are year-round events for visitors to enjoy, including ice carving in winter, traditional gunnery presentations in autumn, and taiko performances in summer.
Also known as the “White Heron,” Himeji Castle represents the height of 17th-century architecture with its aesthetic appeal and advanced defense systems. Himeji is one of the twelve original castles in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ivory walls are striking when the sakura bloom and when the autumn leaves surrounding the grounds change colors.
Construction for Hikone Castle only took twenty years, but thanks to its unique engineering and luck, it’s still standing centuries after its 1622 establishment. The humble tower sits on top of a hill where you can see an expansive view of the city. The grounds at the base are a well-known destination for cherry blossom viewing parties from early to mid-April.
During the Warring States period (1467-1600), feudal lords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu fought for power with Ieyasu rising as the victor. Nijo Castle was his home in Kyoto. There are three main areas plus gardens that are surrounded by stone walls. Many types of cherry blossoms grow on the grounds from March to April, and they’re lit up at night.
Construction for Osaka Castle began in 1583, but it fell twice by 1665. For centuries, the castle lay in ruins until 1931 when a concrete reconstruction took its place. Inside of the castle tower, you can walk through a museum dedicated to its history. In April, you can stroll through cherry blossoms in the surrounding Osaka Castle Park.
Built in 1611, Matsue Castle stands as one of only a dozen castles in Japan that have survived centuries of fires, earthquakes, and battles. Inside, you can explore displays of authentic samurai swords and take in the view of the city from the castle tower. In addition to cherry blossoms, the tranquil gardens grow camellias, azaleas, and apricot trees.
Along with Himeji and Osaka Castles, Kumamoto Castle is one of the most beloved destinations in Japan. Unfortunately, an earthquake damaged the massive fortress in 2016, and it’s still under repairs. Despite the scaffolding, Kumamoto is still one of the most beautiful castles in Japan and well worth the visit. In October 2019, a viewing plaza will open, and construction is scheduled to end in 2021.
Before Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879, it was the Ryukyu Kingdom. At Shuri Castle, you can learn about Ryukyu’s history and culture. Walking through the multiple gates, you’ll immediately notice how the vibrant colors and intricate decorations greatly contrast to mainland Japan’s architecture. In the main keep, you can see historical artifacts and a replica of the king’s throne and crown.