Castle spotting in Japan

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As a nation shaped by warfare for well over 1,000 years, Japan has long been a land of castles. Mark Buckton of Time Out Tokyo chooses six of the most impressive

Several hundred years ago, it would have been no exaggeration to claim the existence of well over 2,000 castles around Japan. Few ever looked like their famous European counterparts, built with huge slabs of rock – mostly, they were wooden structures on high ground boasting a maze of access paths designed to confuse potential foes. Not many survived in original form, but some of the reconstructed castles are still worth going out of your way to see.

Edo Castle (The Imperial Palace), Tokyo
Home to the Emperor, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of Edo Castle (and we do mean a glimpse) right in the middle of Tokyo. Dating back to the mid-15th century, and once the castle home of the ruling shogun, the keep was torn down in the late-1860s rush to modernise, so only the foundation stones, some defensive walls and samurai guard quarters remain from the original. Apparently plans are afoot to rebuild a replica before the 2020 Olympics. Chiyoda, Tokyo (Takebashi, Otemachi Stations), +813 3213 1111; sankan.kunaicho.go.jp.


Edo Castle

Himeji Castle, Hyogo
Arguably the most beautiful castle in Japan – known as ‘White Egret’ in English due to it appearing like a bird taking to the air – this World Heritage Site has its origins dating back to 1333. Over the years, warfare took its toll, resulting in frequent bouts of rebuilding, the most recent of which is still underway in many areas of the castle grounds, although the keep itself does date to the early years of the 17th century. 68 Honmachi, Himeji, Hyogo (Himeji Station), +817 9285 1146; himeji-castle.gr.jp.


  Holding Fort Himeji Castle

Nagoya Castle, Nagoya
One of the best examples of traditional Japanese castle architecture, Nagoya Castle is a post-World War II (and much smaller) reconstruction of the original, which dated back to 1521. As the site of some of the most important moments in Japanese medieval history, this is a must-visit. 1-1 Honmaru, Naka, Nagoya, Aichi (Sengencho, Shiyakusho Stations); nagoyajo. city.nagoya.jp.


Castles in the sky Nagoya Castle by night

Osaka Castle, Osaka
Also a big name in Japanese castle history, Osaka Castle is seen as a symbol of Japan’s third biggest city. It’s had its fair share of dramas since it was first built in 1583, including several reconstructions after being damaged by war, fire and even a lightning strike. Today’s version, another post-World War II restoration project, was completed in 1997. 1-1 Osakajo, Chuo, Osaka (Osakajo-koen, Tanimachi Yonchome Stations), +816 6941 3044; osakacastle.net.


Osaka Castle

Tsuruga Castle, Fukushima
Supposedly the only castle in Japan with a red roof, Tsuruga Castle (aka Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle) is a 1960s replica of a former castle on the site dating back to 1384. It is particularly beautiful in the winter when deep snow once added an extra layer of defence against potential attackers. Nearby is Mt Iimoriyama, the site where the Byakkotai (White Tiger Corps) boy soldiers committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) after believing their castle had been burned down after the fall of the shogunate in 1867. It hadn’t, actually. 1-1 Outemachi, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima (Aizu Wakamatsu Station), +812 4227 4005; tsurugajo.com.


Tsuruga Castle

Kumamoto Castle, Kumamoto
First established in 1467, but now a 1960s reconstruction, Kumamoto Castle was once one of the strongest in the nation. Its location in Kyushu meant that, for much of its history, it was essentially out of harm’s way – at least until 1877 when most of the original structure was destroyed in the Satsuma Rebellion. 1-1 Furukyo-machi, Chuo, Kumamoto (Kumamoto Station), +819 6352 5900; manyou-kumamoto.jp.

 


  Kumamoto Castle

Travel Tips!

Tsuruga Castle
Hotels are plentiful in Fukushima and, outside peak holiday periods, can be booked upon arrival at the English-speaking tourist information office in Aizu-Wakamatsu Station on the Banetsu West line. From Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama in Fukushima, then change to the Banetsu West line.

Himeji and Osaka Castles
Another town with its tourism industry centred on the castle, Himeji has plenty of hotels, which you can book on arrival at Himeji Station. But it may be easier to stay in nearby Osaka and see the two castles in one trip.

Kumamoto Castle
For this one, the best option is to take a flight from Tokyo (one hour and 40 minutes). The fact that this is the city’s most noted tourist spot means that hotel rooms are always available and can be booked, in English, at Kumamoto Airport upon arrival.

How to get there

Hong Kong Express flies direct from Hong Kong to Tokyo Haneda (from $2,472 inc taxes and surcharges), Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (from $2,220 inc taxes and surcharges) and Nagoya (from $2,164 inc taxes and surcharges). For more details, see hkexpress.com.

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