Top Five Preserved Castles of Japan
Japan's stunning castles were constructed as military strongholds as well as symbols of power and opulence. Most have been destroyed by natural disasters, change of government or warfare, but a handful of original, non-reconstructions remain. The following are some of the most well-preserved and impressive castles left in Japan today.
Easily Japan's most famous castle, Himeji's colossal fortress was built by 24.3 million workers and reached its present form in the 17th century. The castle underwent restoration work from 2011 to 2015, resulting in a brilliant-white appearance that has become the subject of local controversy—tourists often prefer the gaudier, updated version, while long-time Kansai residents miss the former castle's more subdued look. Either way, it is a must-see for any visitor to Japan.
Located in Kyushu, Kumamoto Castle is the favorite of castle-lovers throughout the nation, particularly its picturesque stone walls. Many of the complex's structures are preserved well and have been designated as important cultural properties, while the black-painted, dual-tower keep is a well-executed reconstruction of the original. Unfortunately, a large number of historic buildings were damaged or destroyed in the massive Kumamoto Earthquakes of 2016. During the months of continuing quakes, locals were surprised at how well the old structures held up, particularly when compared with damage to the surrounding city. Reconstruction is underway and most of the castle grounds are currently off-limits, but this is the only castle in Japan that can be viewed during repairs, and it's worth a visit even if only to see the fortress from afar. During cherry blossom season (the end of March to beginning of April) the castle site bursts with color, and portions of the grounds are open to picnickers and other visitors wishing to enjoy the soft pink and white flowers.
Although not on the official list of Japan's top three famous castles, many consider this Nagano Prefecture castle, along with those in Himeji and Kumamoto, to be the true top three because they largely retain their original structures. Matsumoto Castle's six-story main keep is the oldest such keep left in Japan, and the castle with the background of the Northern Alps is easily one of Japan's most elegant.
One of the few feudal castles remaining in wooden form, Matsue Castle in Shimane Prefecture was completed in 1611 and is registered as a national treasure. Unlike some castles, which were built or modified in the post-civil-war era of Tokugawa rule, Matsue Castle was designed for real warfare, and one visit to the site will drive this reality home—the fortress has an intimidating, robust look complemented by an unmistakable aura of old Japan, back when the threat of bloodshed was daily. Don't miss the Horikawa Pleasure Boat tour, a historical boat ride through the castle moat and city's old canals.
Situated near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, about an hour by train from Kyoto, Hikone Castle was completed in 1622 and retains its original form. Its three-tiered keep is registered as a national treasure. Like Matsue Castle, this fortress was designed for warfare, complete with moats and gates for defense. Also like Matsue's stronghold, Hikone Castle retains its original keep, which has a truly regal look. Hikonyan, the adorable yuru-kyara (PR mascot character) for the castle, was introduced in the 2000s and has attracted numerous tourists over the years. In fact, this loveable cat character has become one of the most popular yuru-kyara in Japan.