The return of Japan's castle culture
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.