Japan, a nation celebrated for its rich history and enduring cultural heritage, is particularly famous for its magnificent Japanese castles (お城 oshiro). These majestic structures―fortified fortresses made of stone and wood―are more than mere relics of the past, and stand as living testimonies to the country’s feudal era, samurai warriors, and extraordinary architectural ingenuity.

Hence, it’s no surprise that Japan has a special day to celebrate them. April 6 is “Castle Day” (城の日 Shiro-no-hi), as four can be pronounced as “shi”, while six can be pronounced as “ro”.

In this article, we’ll go on an enchanting cultural journey, guiding you through 10 of Japan’s must-visit castles, delving into the history and beauty of these magnificent Japanese castles.

 

Japan’s 12 Original Castles

Maruoka Castle in the winterMaruoka Castle in winter. | Photo by 福井県観光連盟

With the abolition of the feudal domain system during the Meiji Period (1868 –1912), many Japanese castles were destroyed or burnt to the ground under the orders of the Meiji government, as the castles were seen as symbols of the previous Shogunate. It is believed that around 95% of Japan’s castles were destroyed during this period. During World War II, even more castles were destroyed due to bombing and fires. 

As such, many of the castles we see in Japan today are post-World War II reconstructions, with some using reinforced concrete, and others opting to use traditional techniques that remain faithful to the Edo Period (1603–1868) when they were initially constructed.

 

Japan's 12 original castlesJapan’s 12 original castles. | Photo by Carissa Loh (top, middle rows), and photoAC (bottom row).

Fortunately, a small handful of castles managed to survive destruction over the years: 12 to be exact. These 12 castles are known as the “12 Original Castles” (現存天守 genson tenshu)—castles that have a main building (天守 tenshu) built in the Edo Period (1603–1868) or earlier, that remains intact since its original construction. 

These 12 original castles are:

  • Hirosaki Castle (Aomori Prefecture)
  • Matsumoto Castle (Nagano Prefecture)
  • Inuyama Castle (Aichi Prefecture)
  • Maruoka Castle (Fukui Prefecture)
  • Himeji Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)
  • Hikone Castle (Shiga Prefecture)
  • Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle (Okayama Prefecture)
  • Matsue Castle (Shimane Prefecture)
  • Kochi Castle (Kochi Prefecture)
  • Matsuyama Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
  • Uwajima Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
  • Marugame Castle (Kagawa Prefecture)

 

Although original castles are extraordinary and have withstood the test of time, reconstructed castles also hold great importance, as they provide significant historical reminders and insight into a region’s past, and have become symbols of their respective cities. With unique architecture and fascinating stories behind them, let’s take a look at 10 must-visit castles in Japan!

 

10 Must-Visit Castles in Japan

 Hirosaki Castle: The Moving Miracle

Hirosaki Castle in springHirosaki Castle at its original spot atop the stone foundation. | Photo by photoAC

Starting from the north and heading southwards, the first castle on our list is Hirosaki Castle (弘前城) in Aomori Prefecture (青森城), mainland Japan’s northernmost prefecture. Hirosaki Castle is the only original castle in the Tohoku Region, and was originally built in 1611. 

Located in Hirosaki Castle Park, the sight of the castle with cherry blossoms (桜 sakura) blooming in spring is said to be one of the best in Japan, with visitors from all over the country flocking over to catch them from late April to early May each year. Aomori Prefecture is the top producer of apples in Japan, and techniques taken from apple cultivation have been adapted to grow denser and more beautiful cherry blossom trees.

 

Hirosaki CastleHirosaki Castle at its new spot 70m away. | Photo by Carissa Loh

Hirosaki Castle sits atop a dry stone foundation (石垣 ishigaki), surrounded by a moat. Over the years, the stone foundation has experienced wear, tear, and damages, so reparation works needed to be done. In order not to damage the castle building, the entire 400-ton castle keep was physically moved 70m away with hydraulic jacks and a dolly system, with an amazing feat of engineering known as hikiya (曳屋). The move took place over three months in 2015, but it is estimated that the earliest the castle tower will be returned to its original spot is in 2025.

 

Hirosaki Castle (弘前城)
Address: 1 Shimoshiroganecho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8356
Access: 5-minute walk from Shiyakushomae Bus Stop, which can be reached via the Dotemachi Loop Bus from JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅)

 

 Tsuruga Castle: Japan’s Only Castle with Red Roof Tiles

Tsuruga Castle in Aizu-Wakamatsu.Tsuruga Castle in Aizu-Wakamatsu. | Photo by 福島県観光復興推進委員会 

Heading south to Fukushima Prefecture (福島県), the second castle on this list is a reconstructed castle in Western Fukushima’s Aizu-Wakamatsu City, a former castle town with a rich samurai history. Originally built by the Ashina Clan in 1384 as Kurokawa Castle (黒川城), the castle was rebuilt in 1592 after being captured, and renamed Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城). Unfortunately, Tsuruga Castle was torn down in 1874 after the Boshin War, under the orders of the Meiji Government. The only original structures that remain are the stone walls. With donations from many people, the castle keep was beautifully reconstructed and opened in 1965.

 

Tsuruga Castle’s unique feature: red roof tiles.Tsuruga Castle’s unique feature: red roof tiles. | Photo by Carissa Loh

An iconic feature of Tsuruga Castle is its red roof tiles―most other castles have black, grey, or white roof tiles, but Tsuruga-jo is the only castle in Japan to have them. The castle is also known for its night-time illuminations, which can be enjoyed in spring during the cherry blossom period and in autumn during the autumn leaves period.

 

Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城)
Address: 1-1 Otemachi, Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima 965-0873
Access: 5-minute walk from either Tsurugajo Kitaguchi bus stop or Tsurugajo Iriguchi bus stop, which can be reached by loop buses (Haikara-san bus or Akabe bus) from JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (会津若松駅)

 

 Edo Castle: Echoes of the Shogunate

Remnants of the Edo ShugonateEdo Castle. | Photo by photoAC

Next, arrive at the historic heart of Tokyo (東京): Edo Castle (江戸城), once the mighty seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate for 260 years. Although much of the original structure has been lost to time, the site’s significance remains undiminished. The Imperial Palace, which now occupies the site, offers a poignant reminder of the castle’s former glory.

Visiting the castle grounds, you can still sense the grandeur of the Edo Period, with remnants like the massive stone walls and moats evoking a powerful past. While much of Edo Castle’s physical presence has given way to modernity, its spirit endures in the city’s vibrant culture.

 

Edo Castle (江戸城)
Address: 1-1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 100-8111
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Tokyo Station (東京駅)

 

 Matsumoto Castle: The Majestic Crow Castle

Matsumoto Castle among the cherry blossoms in SpringMatsumoto Castle in spring. | Photo by Carissa Loh

One of only five castles in Japan to be designated a National Treasure (国宝 kokuhо̄), the next castle on our list is the majestic Matsumoto Castle (松本城) in Nagano Prefecture (長野県), which is built atop a stone foundation and surrounded by a moat.  

Five structures in Matsumoto Castle are designated as National Treasures, including the main castle keep, the secondary castle keep, and three turrets (櫓 yagura); all of which are original structures believed to have been built during the Bunroku Era (1592–1596). From the outside, the castle looks like it has five floors, but it actually has six, as there is a “hidden” floor. 

 

Matsumoto Castle’s walls are coated in black lacquerMatsumoto Castle’s walls are coated in black lacquer. | Photo by Carissa Loh

Matsumoto Castle is the only castle in Japan where all walls of the main castle keep are coated with black lacquer, a feature which has earned it the nickname of “Crow Castle” (烏城 karasu-jо̄). It is said that the shape of the black castle resembles a crow spreading its wings.

 

Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
Address: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano 390-0873
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅)

 

 Hikone Castle: A Journey Through Time

Hikone castle's main keepHikone Castle’s main keep. | Photo by Carissa Loh

Our journey continues to Hikone (彦根), a lesser-known yet equally enchanting destination. Located in the landlocked Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県), Hikone Castle (彦根城) overlooks Japan’s largest lake, the 670km2 Lake Biwa. This castle boasts a strikingly well-preserved three-storey main keep, and its smaller size offers a more intimate glimpse into the life of a samurai. The castle grounds are a serene escape, with stunning gardens and views of Lake Biwa.

 

Hikone Castle (彦根城)
Address: 1-1 Konki-cho, Hikone, Shiga 522-0061
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Hikone Station (彦根駅)

 

 Osaka Castle: An Emblem of Power

Osaka Castle in springOsaka Castle. | Photo by photoAC

Next up, we head over to Osaka (大阪府) for the iconic Osaka Castle (大阪城), a symbol of power and resilience. This castle has witnessed some of the most pivotal moments in Japanese history, including the unification of Japan in the 16th century. The castle’s towering presence, surrounded by moats and massive stone walls, makes it a sight to behold.

A reconstructed castle, Osaka Castle’s interior is entirely modern, and even features an elevator to go up and down. Inside the castle museum, you can learn more about the castle’s history and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the castle’s former lord and the second unifier of Japan.

During spring, the massive castle park, which spreads over 100 hectares, is a popular cherry blossom viewing destination, with over 3,000 cherry blossom trees blooming in the vicinity.

 

Osaka Castle (大阪城)
Address: 1-1 Osakajo, Chuo, Osaka 540-0002
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Ōsakajōkōen Station (大阪城公園駅)

 

 Himeji Castle: Japan’s First UNESCO World Heritage Castle

Himeji Castle is an icon of JapanHimeji Castle is one of the best-preserved Japanese castles. | Photo by photoAC

It is impossible to talk about castles in Japan without mentioning Himeji Castle (姫路城) in Hyogo Prefecture (兵庫県). In fact, if you can only visit one castle in Japan, it has to be Himeji Castle―and with good reason. Not only is Himeji Castle a National Treasure, it is also the only Japanese castle to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having been one of the first sites in Japan to be registered in 1993.

Due to its elegant, white-plastered walls that resemble a bird taking flight, Himeji Castle is also referred to as “White Egret Castle” (hakurojo) or “White Heron Castle” (shirasagijo).

 

Himeji Castle is a popular spot to view cherry blossomsHimeji Castle is a popular spot to view cherry blossoms. | Photo by Hyogo Tourism Bureau

Originally completed in 1609, this impressive castle complex is made up of over 80 structures, many of which are astonishingly well-preserved. Serving as a prime example of traditional Japanese castle architecture, 74 of the castle’s structures are designated as Important Cultural Properties (重要文化財 jūyо̄ bunkazai), while eight structures are designated as National Treasures. 

 

Himeji Castle (姫路城)
Address: 68 Honmachi, Himeji-shi, Hyogo 670-0012
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Himeji Station (姫路駅)

 

 Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle: The Castle in the Clouds

Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle, the castle in the skyBitchu-Matsuyama Castle looks like it is floating in a sea of clouds. | Photo by photoAC

The next castle on our list is an incredible sight to behold if you encounter the right conditions. Often referred to as a “castle in the sky” (天空の城 tenkū no shiro), the Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle (備中松山城) in Okayama Prefecture (岡山県) is the only original castle on a mountain. The structure we see today was built in 1683, and from late October to early December, when the mountain is shrouded in clouds, the castle appears to float in a sea of clouds, a fantastical sight that is bound to be unforgettable.

How is the sea of clouds formed? It occurs when the moisture in the air is rapidly cooled and turns into mist. A few factors are required increase your probability of seeing the castle floating in a sea of clouds:

  • A large temperature difference of over 10 degrees between day and night
  • A stable atmosphere with little to no wind
  • High humidity
  • Clear skies

 

The best time to view the sea of clouds at Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is in the early morningThe best time to view the sea of clouds is in the early morning. | Photo by 岡山県観光連盟

The best place to observe the castle floating in a sea of clouds is at the Omatsuyama Observation Deck (大松山展望台), which is a 20-minute taxi ride from JR Bitchu-Takahashi Station.

 

Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle (備中松山城)
Address: 1 Uchisange, Takahashi, Okayama 716-000
Access: 20-minute walk from the upper parking lot, which is a 15-minute taxi ride from JR Bitchu-Takahashi Station (備中高梁駅).

 

 Kumamoto Castle: A Fortress of Resilience

Kumamoto Castle in springKumamoto Castle in spring. | Photo by photoAC

Heading over to Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県) the island of Kyushu (九州), Kumamoto Castle (熊本城) is a fortress celebrated for its imposing stone walls and elaborate defensive measures. Often regarded as one of the most formidable castles in Japan, Kumamoto Castle has withstood numerous battles throughout its history, symbolising the resilience and enduring spirit of the Japanese people.

Though heavily damaged by an earthquake in 2016, restoration efforts were swiftly undertaken―a testament to its historical significance―and the castle reopened to the public in April 2021. The castle’s unique black-tiled keep, set against the backdrop of cherry blossoms in spring, offers a striking visual contrast that is both beautiful and poignant.

 

Kumamoto Castle (熊本城)
Address: 1-1 Honmaru, Chuo-ku, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto, 860-0002
Access: 10-minute walk from Kumamoto Castle tram station, which is a 17-minute tram ride from JR Kumamoto Station (熊本駅)

 

 Shuri Castle: Relics of the Ryukyu Kingdom

Shuri Castle’s main hall before it was burnt downShuri Castle’s main hall before it was burnt down. | Photo by photoAC

Finally, we end this list off with Shuri Castle (首里城) in Okinawa Prefecture (沖縄県), Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Okinawa has a unique history, and used to be part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, so Shuri Castle is very different from all other Japanese castles. 

Housed in a large park, Shuri Castle was a palace with over 500 years of history, and formerly used as the residence of the kings of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The original castle was destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, but was rebuilt in 1992, and registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu in 2000.

 

Reconstruction works underway at Shuri CastleReconstruction works underway at Shuri Castle. | Photo by photoAC

Unfortunately, in 2019 a devastating fire completely razed to the ground all of the castle’s main structures, including the main hall (正殿 seiden). Efforts are currently underway to rebuild the damaged structures, with reconstruction works estimated to be completed in 2026. In the meantime, you can still visit other parts of the castle park, and visitors are encouraged to come and have a look at the reconstruction works.

 

Shuri Castle (首里城)
Address: 1-2 Shurikinjocho, Naha-shi, Okinawa 903-0815
Access: 15-minute walk or 5-minute bus ride from Yui Rail Shuri Station (首里駅)

 

The Legacy of Japanese Castles and Culture

As we conclude our tour of Japan’s remarkable castles, it’s clear that these structures are more than just stone and wood; they are the heart of Japanese history and culture. Each castle tells a unique story, not just of battles and lords, but of the people who lived within and around its walls.

These are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are so many more we haven’t even covered, such as the opulently-furnished Nagoya Castle (名古屋城) in Aichi Prefecture with its iconic golden shachihoko, Hokkaido’s Matsumae Castle (松前城)―Japan’s northernmost Edo-style castle, or Ueda Castle (上田城) in Nagano Prefecture―renowned for having repelled not one but two attacks from the Tokugawa forces.

 

Explore Japanese Culture with JAPAN RAIL CLUB

Celebrating Castle Day isn’t just about revisiting the past; it’s about exploring destinations while embracing the rich tapestry of Japanese culture. At JAPAN RAIL CLUB, we celebrate all facets of Japan’s heritage, such as “ohanami” under the sakura in spring, and moon-viewing or “otsukimi” on the cusp of autumn. 

 

This April 2024, experience Japanese springtime in the comforts of your homes with our spring-themed snack box! Titled “Spring Beginnings”, here is a box filled with Japanese snacks that will remind you of your visit to Japan during spring. Snacks like Sakura Karinto by Marui Suzuki have a history as rich as the castles in Japan, so when you plan your next visit to these majestic structures, remember to immerse yourself in the full experience. 

Why not start with JAPAN RAIL CLUB’s Omiyage Snack Box? Subscribe by 30 April 2024 to receive our exciting “Spring Beginnings” Omiyage Snack Box and enjoy discounts of up to USD33 when you use the promo code “SPRING14” at the checkout page. Happy Castle Day!