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The Original Castles

Whilst most castles in Japan have been reconstructed, there are 12 original castles in Japan - “original” means they have a castle tower (or main keep) which was built before or during the Edo period - that have survived over the centuries without being damaged or destroyed: Bitchū Matsuyama Castle, Hikone Castle, Himeji Castle, Hirosaki Castle, Inuyama Castle, Kōchi Castle, Marugame Castle, Maruoka Castle, Matsue Castle, Matsumoto Castle, Matsuyama Castle (Iyo), and Uwajima Castle.

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Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle was constructed in the mid-14th century, and a three-layer castle tower was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century. Ikeda Terumasa, a feudal Lord of the castle remodelled it in the 17th century. Its figure was likened to a white heron spreading wings, and thus also called White Heron Castle. It was designated as a national treasure in 1931, and the World Cultural Heritage in 1993.


The Tenshukaku (castle tower) is the main structure and has five stories in appearance but six stories inside and a first basement. All the structures are covered with a white plaster unique to Japan. The plaster is made from slaked lime, shell ash, hemp fiber, and seaweed. A 3cm thick layer protects the walls from fire, winds, rain, and snow. The roofs are covered with kawara tiles and white plaster was applied to the joints. Its magnificent structure and elegant appearance, as well as complex and tactical defense devices make the castle the most prominent castle in Japan.


The labyrinth-like approach from the Hishi Gate to the main keep leads along walled paths and through multiple gates and baileys with the purpose to slow down and expose attacking forces. At the heart of the complex stands the main keep, a six story wooden structure. It is one of only a handful castle keeps in Japan that feature wing buildings, adding complexity to its appearance.


Himeji Castle lies at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto. The first fortifications built on the site were completed in the 1400s, and were gradually enlarged over the centuries by the various clans who ruled over the region. The castle complex as it survives today is over 400 years old and was completed in 1609. It comprises over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys, which are connected by a series of gates and winding paths.

Himeji Castle

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan's premier historic castles. The keep completed in the late sixteenth century, maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework. It is listed as a National Treasure of Japan. Matsumoto Castle is a flatland castle because it is not built on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain.


The castle's origins go back to the Sengoku period. At that time Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan built a fort on this site in 1504, which originally was called Fukashi Castle. In 1550 it came under the rule of the Takeda clan and then Tokugawa Ieyasu. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi transferred Ieyasu to the Kantō region, he placed Ishikawa Norimasa in charge of Matsumoto. Norimasa and his son Yasunaga built the tower and other parts of the castle, including the three towers: the keep and the small tower in the northwest, both begun in 1590, and the Watari Tower; the residence; the drum gate; the black gate, the Tsukimi Yagura, the moat, the innermost bailey, the second bailey, the third bailey, and the sub-floors in the castle, much as they are today. They also were instrumental in laying out the castle town and its infrastructure. It is believed much of the castle was completed by 1593–94.


For the next 280 years until the abolition of the feudal system in the Meiji Restoration, the castle was ruled by the 23 lords of Matsumoto representing six different daimyo families. In this period the stronghold was also known as Crow Castle because its black walls and roofs looked like spreading wings.

Hikone Castle

Hikone Castle traces its origin to 1603 when Ii Naokatsu, son of the former daimyo Ii Naomasa, ordered its construction. The keep was originally built in 1575, as part of Ōtsu Castle, and was moved to Hikone by the Ii clan. Hikone Castle was completed in 1622. Naokatsu's lands had been taken from him in the interval by the Tokugawa shogunate, and when his brother Naotake assumed control of the area around Ōmi Province, he was able to complete the castle by collecting stones from the former Sawayama Castle.


When the Meiji era began in 1868, many castles were scheduled to be dismantled, and only a request from the emperor himself, touring the area, kept Hikone Castle intact. Today it remains one of the oldest original-construction castles in Japan. The main keep of Hikone Castle was designated a National Treasure by the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture in 1952. Hikone Castle also has several parts which are designated Important National Cultural Assets: Umaya (Stable), Tenbin Yagura (Balance Scale Turret), Taikomon Yagura (Drum Gate Turret) and Nishinomaru Sanju Yagura (West Bailey Three-story Turret).


Hikone Castle's three storied castle keep is relatively small but displays a unique design that combines multiple different architecture styles. This is one reason why the castle keep has been designated a national treasure, the highest designation for cultural properties in Japan, held by only four other castle keeps, namely the ones of Himejijo, Matsumotojo, Inuyamajo and Matsuejo. By climbing the steep stairs on the inside of the castle keep to the top floor, visitors can enjoy views over the castle grounds and the city.


The approach to the hilltop castle keep is also interesting. It includes a spiral ramp onto a wooden bridge that can be easily destroyed in case of an attack. There are also several turrets which can be inspected from the inside as well as a large bell that is still rung several times per day to tell the time. A large store house and a horse stable stand near the castle's main gate.

At the base of the castle hill stands the Hikone Castle Museum whose main attraction is a partial reconstruction of the former palace buildings. The buildings, which include multiple tatami rooms, corridors and gardens, served as the government offices of the lords and have been reconstructed in the 1980s with great care according to excavations. Ordinary exhibition rooms display the clan's family treasures, including arms and armor, kimono, music instruments and documents.


Inuyama Castle

Inuyama Castle stands on top of a small hill next to Kiso River. It is often claimed as the oldest castle in Japan. Its original construction was completed in 1440. According to Engishiki (a Heian Period-book), Harigane Shrine (a Shinto shrine) was moved to make way for the castle. That structure has been heavily augmented over time, and the current towers were completed in 1537, by Oda Nobuyasu, Oda Nobunaga's uncle. Though the antiquated architectural style of the watchtower atop the tenshu has in the past led many historians to believe this to be the oldest extant tenshu in Japan, that honor goes to Maruoka Castle, built in 1576. Construction on the main tenshu (donjon) at Inuyama began in 1601, and continued through 1620. The main keep's structure is built almost entirely with wood and rocks, and its interior is beautifully preserved and retains an authentic feel.

The castle was the center of power for the Naruse clan, retainers of the Matsudaira clan and rulers of the Inuyama Domain. In the battle of Komaki/Nagakute, Hideyoshi Toyotomi was based at this castle with 120,000 soldiers, and fought the only battle against Ieyasu Tokugawa in his lifetime. Following the Battle of Sekigahara, Ishikawa was defeated and Matsudaira Tadayoshi (master of Kiyosu castle) stationed his retainer Ogasawara Yoshitsugu in Inuyama Castle. In 1616 Ogasawara was replaced by Naruse Masanari and his family have more or less owned the castle through the present day.

Inuyama Castle was unique in Japan in that it was privately owned. The donjon (tenshu) has been designated as national treasure. However, it was seized by the Japanese government as part of the Meiji Restoration. In 1891, the castle was damaged in the Great Nōbi Earthquake, and it was returned to the Naruse family in 1895, on the condition that they repair and maintain it. In 2004, ownership of the castle was turned over to a foundation set up by the Aichi Prefecture's Board of Education.

Inuyama Castle's wooden keep (donjon) exhibits displays of samurai armor, folding screens (byobu), swords, roof tiles including a large shachi, photographs of other Japanese castles and various documents from the castle's long historical past. The first floor of the castle contains a storage room and a room for the lord of the castle. The second floor is the castle's armory and has wooden shelves for storing weapons and a 3.6m wide corridor surrounding the room which is known as musha-bashiri (warriors running). The third floor is divided into two rooms known as Hafu-no-ma and Kara-hafu. The fourth and final floor is surrounded by a viewing balcony.

Matsue Castle

Matsue Castle (Matsue-jo) was built by the daimyo Horio Yoshiharu, who governed the region of the present Shimane Prefecture, over a period of five years starting 1607. All the buildings which functioned as a castle were demolished except for the donjon and the stone wall when political power passed from the Edo shogunate to the Meiji government. The donjon, which is designated one of Japan's Important Cultural Properties, has five tiers and is about 30 m tall. It is characterized by a structure designed for actual warfare with a well for underground siege, and the top floor is an observation level.

Unlike other famous castles such as the one in Himeji, Matsue Castle has an overall dark appearance, with wooden panelling covering a large part of the castle tower. The outward appearance of the castle, with its spreading roofs, is said to resemble the spread wings of a plover, and so is also known as the Plover Castle (‘Chidori-jo’). There is a museum inside, and the top floor offers a panoramic view of the castle grounds and the city.

For 230 years, until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the castle was home to the Matsudaira clan, a junior branch of the ruling Tokugawa family. The castle underwent reconstruction and repair work in the 1950s. Further restorations were completed on three turrets on the castle walls in 2001. The castle’s overall construction was completed using stones in their natural form, with minimal shaping of the stones where needed.

The interior of the castle features pine and paulownia wood. Inside the castle, there is a large collection of armor and battle helmets, along with a pictorial display of the castle's history, photos of all the castles throughout Japan, and miniature replicas of the layout of Matsue as it has changed over time.

The black-painted wood of the castle's keep gives a menacing effect to the six-story tower. Matsue Castle has the second largest donjon (keep) of all the twelve remaining original Japanese castles, is the third tallest at 30m and the sixth oldest. Inside are displays of arms and armor and the original shachi (mythical dolphins) of the castle's roof. Shachi were believed to protect a castle from fire.


Matsuyama Castle

Matsuyama Castle (松山城, Matsuyamajō) is one of Japan's twelve "original castles", i.e. castles which have survived the post-feudal era since 1868 intact. It is also one of the most complex and interesting castles in the country. It is located on Mount Katsuyama, a steep hill in the city center that provides visitors with a bird's eye view of Matsuyama and the Seto Inland Sea. There are about 200 cherry trees on the castle grounds, making this a lovely cherry blossom spot typically around late March to early April each year.

Matsuyama Castle provides an excellent example of a feudal castle. The main circle of defense (Honmaru) is located on the top of the hill, accessible through multiple, well defended gates. The main keep is one of only a few in the country that boast multiple wings. The complex also includes a secondary keep and multiple turrets, giving Matsuyama Castle a grand appearance and making it interesting to explore. Inside the castle, some exhibits offer information on Matsuyama's history and the feudal period.

In spite of the castle's steep hilltop location, a ropeway and a chairlift make it easily accessible. Riding the single-chair chairlift is a pleasant and popular way to ascend Mount Katsuyama. Alternatively, it is possible to climb up the hill in about 15 minutes from the base of the ropeway station or from the Ninomaru Garden.

The original castle was built here in 1603 by Kato Yoshiakira. It had a large 5 storey tenshu that was actually moved to Aizu when Kato was transferred there in 1627. Tadachika Gamoh became the new lord of Matsuyama castle and completed construction of the Ninomaru before he died in 1635, leaving no heirs.

In 1635, Matsudaira Sadayuki moved into Matsuyama Castle and the Matsudaira family ruled over the area the end of feudalism. Sadayuki rebuilt the main keep with three stories in 1642. This main keep was struck by lightning and burned down on New Year's day in 1784. The construction of the current main keep was not begun until 1820 and not completed until 1854. From 1926 on, many of the yagura, gates and other structures were destroyed by arson and bombings in WWII.

As a relative of the Tokugawa shogun, Matsudaira Sadaaki naturally fought for the Tokugawa in several battles at the Meiji Restoration. Once the emperor regained political power, Sadaaki was a wanted man and considered an enemy of the emperor. In order to avoid attack, he decided to submit and allow Tosa soldiers into the castle while he sought penance and refuge in Joshinji temple in Matsuyama. His sincerity was accepted and thus Sadaaki and Matsuyama Castle were saved from attack.

The Matsudaira family eventually gave the castle to the city of Matsuyama in 1923. The city has been working since 1966 to repair the original structures and rebuild those that were destroyed.

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