The return of Japan's castle culture

TOKYO —

There is something about castles that attracts Westerners…especially those with central European backgrounds. But Japan, not any of the European countries, has been the all-time leader in the number, size, sophistication and prominence of castles since the 8th century.

This extraordinary phenomenon came about because the ancient clan system that appeared in the early history of mankind survived in Japan until 1867, when the, last ruling-clan dynasty, the Tokugawa Shogunate, lost power and its great Edo [Tokyo] Castle was replaced as the seat of government.

During the Tokugawa era [1603-1867] virtually all of Japan’s other 270-plus semi-independent clan domains had their own castles, and while over a hundred of them were destroyed during the civil war that ended the Tokugawa regime in the 1860s, many of the largest and most impressive ones survived—and others have since been rebuilt and/or renovated.

Surviving and refurbished castles in Japan’s southern islands of Kyushu and Okinawa in particular have now turned the clock back to the age of clan lords, making the castles among the most popular attractions in the country. In 2007, the Kumamoto Castle in Kyushu had over two million visitors during its 400th annual anniversary. The Shuri Castle in Okinawa, which dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom days [1429-1879], had 1.96 million visitors during the same year.

The secret of the renaissance of these two castles is not only a renewed interest in their historical prominence and the incredible sophistication of their design and special features [like their ramparts, numerous escape tunnels and magnificent gardens], it is because local interests combined their resources to reintroduce the food served to the lords of the castles during the feudal era—from main courses to desserts—and now serve these dishes to visitors in authentically decorated dining areas in the castles.

The dining hall in Okinawa’s Shuri Castle has recipes for 160 kinds of desserts that the castle lords could choose from when they were entertaining guests, and now offers several of the most popular of the sweets to present-day visitors. To add to the authenticity and ambiance of the castle dining experience the main courses and desserts are served in local-made lacquerware and pottery.

There are dozens of surviving castles in Japan that are larger, older and more imposing than the Kumamoto and Shuri castles, and many of them have also added to their appeal as historical artifacts by offering a variety of daily cultural events and experiences to their visitors. These include such things as theatrical performances and lessons in ikebana flower-arranging.

The Saga Castle, built in the 1600s and one of the most famous clan fortresses during the Tokugawa era, offers kimono classes and provides younger visitors with the opportunity to dress up like shoguns and princesses.

Many of the best-known of Japan’s surviving castles that are open to visitors are in well-established tourist destinations. These include: Hiroshima Castle, Himeji Castle, Matsumoto Castle, Matsue Castle, Hikone Castle, Hirosaki Castle, Matsuyama Castle, Inuyama Castle, Kochi Castle, Nagoya Castle, Nijo Castle, and Ueno Castle. If you are in any of these cities a visit to one or more of these historical treasures is a rare opportunity to see and feel the power and glory that made feudal Japan one of the wonders of the world.

Nijo Castle is high on the list of places to visit when you are in Kyoto.  While it is designated as a “castle” it is, in fact, a “castle-mansion” that was designed and built as the residence for Tokugawa Shoguns when they visited the Imperial Capital of Kyoto from Edo during the 264-year-long Tokugawa reign.

Boyé Lafayette De Mente is the author of more than 30 pioneer books on Japan’s business practices, language, social behavior and tourist attractions. He has authored similar books on China and Korea. See www.boyedemente.com.

  • -1

    ihavegreatlegs

    The Odawara Castle in Kanagawa-ken is a replica of the old one.

    The thing that is cool about it is that it is made of cement. Cement is the National Rock of Japan.

    Has some good views and neat Samurai outfits. People were really small back then though. About 1.6 meters.

  • 0

    taj

    "But Japan, not any of the European countries, has been the all-time leader in the number, size, sophistication and prominence of castles since the 8th century."

    Citation?

  • 1

    Spidapig24

    But Japan, not any of the European countries, has been the all-time leader in the number, size, sophistication and prominence of castles since the 8th century.

    Sorry to disagree here but most Japanese castles with a couple of exceptions (Himeji, Matsumoto and Inuyama) are pretty boring and dull. I can think of much better castles in England, Ireland and Scotland (Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Blarney Castle, Rock of Cashel, Edinburgh Castle to name a few) that are much nicer, more grand and better to visit and view. Even some of the castle ruins in these countries are better than the rebuilt castles in Japan.

    Not to mention these European castles know how to cater to the tourist better.

  • 0

    Foxie

    Kakegawa castle and Hikone are my favorite. Sure, they can't beat Neuschwanstein or Versailles nor any of the Loire Valley castles. Just a different style.

  • 1

    melguy

    Himeji, Matsumoto, and Kochi-jo are my favourites. You can keep your concrete rebuilds, no thanks.

  • 1

    CHAMADE

    It's hard to imgaine there were so many castles all over Japan at one time. It's hard to imagine more than say France, where chateaux and castles are a dime a dozen and in every other valley all over the country, in varying size, many cheaper than your average 3 LDK in suburban Tokyo.

    Japanese castles seem somewhat uncomfortable as living quarters, though - or is that just the impression one gets visiting the bleak interiors of castles like Matsumoto-jo in Nagano?

  • 1

    CHAMADE

    Versailles is no castle - it's for many Japanese and others simply an endless, gaudy, vulgar display of shinu hodo shitsukkoi spaces. Great fountains, though.

  • 1

    edojin

    I have traveled extensively throughout Japan and everywhere I go I tend to find yet another castle. And if one is in a place I am visiting, I will surely go there. The last one that turned up on my itinerary was in Shibata City, Niigata Prefecture, on July 16. But I couldn't get to the main tower as it was located on a Japan Self-Defense Agency base. I just tried to name my favorite castles ... but the list is too long to write here. The longest walk to the remains of a castle I experienced was in Sendai ... where a mountain offers a nice challenge to get to the castle grounds from the downtown area. There's no castle there, but the walk and the castle park are ... let's say ... breathtaking. There are interesting castle towns throughout Japan. And once I climb the steps of a rather large castle ... I usually remain on the top floor for at least an hour to enjoy the surrounding scenery, the castle itself and ... of course ... to cool off in the nice breezes that usually flow through them.

  • 1

    John Becker

    @Chamade: Agreed - there's a distinct difference between a castle and a palace. Versailles is a palace, as is Nijo-jo. Castles like Matsumoto-jo weren't designed to be comfortable residences; they were defensive strongholds.

  • 0

    ExportExpert

    I have always been a great fan of Japanese castles, Inuyama, Odawara, Nagoya being three of my favorites. I plan to visit more of them in my travels and always look to see if any are in proximity of my destinations.

    I must say though The Tower of London was pretty impressive to me, being from a country that doesnt have any castles or history going back that far.

    The closest we would have where I come from would be old Maori Pa sites. Mt Eden being the most detailed with hungi pits etc still clearly easily identifiable.

  • -2

    JeffLee

    >But Japan, not any of the European countries, has been the all-time leader in the number, size, sophistication and prominence of castles since the 8th century.

    That is utter balderdash, if not ironic comedy. The writer, an American long living in Japan, needs to take a trip down the Rhine Valley or about hundred other spots throughout Europe for a reality check.

    The first (and last time) I went to Osaka Castle, it had modern elevators. I mean, gimme a break.

  • 0

    gaijintraveller

    I remember visiting Osaka and picking up a brochure describing it. I forget the exact wording. The year may be wrong, but the decade is right.

    "Osaka Castle, a ferro-concrete structure built in 1926 ..." I burst out laughing.

  • -1

    JeffLee

    Gaijintraveller, Actually, the correct date seems to be 1997. From Wiki: "1997: Restoration was completed. The castle is a concrete reproduction (including elevators) of the original and the interior is intended as a modern, functioning museum."

    Tourists may as well go to Disneyland.

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