20 Most Popular Japanese Castles According to Locals
Japan’s castles are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. They’re grand, beautiful, and are essentially history given physical form. But considering that there are hundreds of them spread throughout the country, it might be difficult to decide which stronghold you should visit. Fortunately, in 2020, Tripadvisor compiled a list of 20 Japanese castles most popular with domestic tourists, which we’ll discuss in this article, together with everything you need to know about these fascinating fortifications.
Nov 10 2021 (Aug 01 2022)
The History of Japanese Castles
By the 15th century, the Emperor and the shogun—the country’s military leader and, at times throughout history, Japan’s de-facto ruler—lost a lot of their authority, leading to a period of political instability when powerful warlords vied for control of Japan. This came to be known as the Sengoku (Warring States) period, which lasted from 1467 to 1615. It was during these turbulent times that the majority of Japan’s castles were constructed. A lot of these strongholds eventually developed castle towns around them, which over time became modern Japanese cities.
The Layout of a Japanese Castle
A typical Japanese castle was built on an elevation, which was reinforced by large stones built in a sloped shape to make it hard for attackers to approach the fortification, with moats providing additional security. However, unlike European castles, the foundation is where the Japanese castle’s stonework largely ended, as castle walls in Japan were normally made from wood, plaster, and tiles.
The most strategically important (and often the most grandiose) part of Japanese castles was the tower keep (“tenshu”), though it is important to note that it didn’t include sleeping quarters. Those were located in a separate palace building, which was usually the most ornamented and opulent part of a Japanese castle. These structures could be found in the innermost part of the complex called the “honmaru”, meaning “main circle” since Japanese castles were arranged with multiple defense enclosures. The honmaru was its center and it was typically surrounded by a protective “ninomaru” second circle, though some Japanese castles could have three (sannomaru) or four (yonnomaru) enclosures in total.
20 Most Popular Japanese Castles Rated by Japanese Tourists
20. Maruoka Castle (Fukui Prefecture)
Today, only the three-story keep of Maruoka Castle (Maruoka-jo) remains of the original structure, which was once nicknamed “The Mist Castle.” The name is based on a legend which says that whenever enemies would approach Maruoka Castle to attack, the entire area would suddenly become shrouded in a thick, mysterious mist. The castle grounds are today a public park and one of the most popular cherry blossom-viewing sites in Japan, where every year around mid-April, 400 cherry trees are decorated with 300 paper lanterns.
19. Osaka Castle (Osaka Prefecture)
When completed in 1597, Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo), was the largest Japanese castle ever. Meant to serve as the seat of power for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the great unifiers of Japan, the castle was destroyed by his opponents in 1615. It was later rebuilt but its keep burned to the ground following a lightning strike in 1665. The modern-day tower that stands on the grounds of Osaka Castle today is the result of reconstruction efforts carried out in the 1990s. Nowadays, it’s regarded more of a modern museum rather than a strictly historical Japanese castle.
18. Inuyama Castle (Aichi Prefecture)
Dating back to 1537, Inuyama Castle (Inuyama-jo) is possibly the oldest Japanese castle ever, so it’s no surprise that its surviving keep has been designated a National Treasure. Special attention has been given to preserving the castle’s steep steps, which were once used to slow down enemy forces if they ever made it into the keep. Today, you can use them to get to an observation point, which gives you spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding area.
17. Iwakuni Castle (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Upon its completion in 1608, Iwakuni Castle (Iwakuni-jo) was one of the most unassailable fortifications in Japan due to its location atop Mount Shiroyama and being surrounded on two sides by the Nishiki River, which acted as a natural moat. Sadly, the castle was ultimately defeated by bureaucracy when the shogun decreed that there can only be one castle per province. Iwakuni didn’t make the cut and was dismantled. What stands in its place today is a reconstruction dating back to 1962, which nonetheless is considered one of the 100 Great Castles of Japan.
16. Kanazawa Castle (Ishikawa Prefecture)
Kanazawa Castle (Kanazawa-jo) is a symbol of opulence and resilience. The Japanese castle was the headquarters of the Maeda clan, one of the most powerful families in Japanese history, for 14 generations. Originally dating back to the 1580s, the structure was heavily damaged by numerous fires but always managed to rise from the ashes thanks to reconstruction efforts. After WW2, Kanazawa Castle was the campus of Kanazawa University until the school’s headquarters moved to another location in 1994. The castle was designated a National Historic Site in 2008.
15. Iwamura Castle (Gifu Prefecture)
Iwamura Castle (Iwamura-jo) is the highest fortification in Japan, being located atop a 717-meter-high peak. It’s also one of the country’s most historic strongholds, with the fort that would eventually become Iwamura Castle dating back to 1185. Today, though, only some sections of its wall and a turret remain. The ruins might not be as grand as the original castle, but the area is steeped in history connected to some of the famous samurai and Japanese warlords, including Takeda Shingen and Oda Nobunaga.
14. Uwajima Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
A registered Important Cultural Property, Uwajima Castle (Uwajima-jo) originally dates back to 1596. Today, it boasts one of only 12 surviving castle keeps built during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). It underwent massive renovations and expansion in the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries, all of which thankfully retained its original charm, turning Uwajima Castle into a beautiful time capsule. The castle grounds are now a public park famous for its cherry trees.
13. Hikone Castle (Shiga Prefecture)
Both a National Historic Site and a National Treasure, Hikone Castle (Hikone-jo) served as the seat of power for the Ii feudal lords from 1622 to 1868. One of the most remarkable things about this stronghold is just how much of the original complex survived to this day without having to be rebuilt from the ground up. This includes the keep, the inner moats, guardhouses, walls, and gates. Originally ordered to be decommissioned by Emperor Meiji, Hikone was spared after the monarch actually visited the Japanese castle and decided that it was too beautiful to be destroyed.
12. Zakimi Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)
Dating back to the early 1400s, Zakimi Castle (Zakimi-jo) is an example of a gusuku, a style of Okinawan fortresses and strongholds known for their spectacular walls, which occasionally incorporated coral into their design. Today, Zakimi Castle lies in ruin, but its walls and foundations have been restored, and are now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu. The adjacent Yuntanza Museum features exhibits on Okinawan art, culture, and history.
11. Imperial Palace East Gardens (Tokyo)
The Imperial Palace East Gardens (Kokyo Higashi Gyoen) are the part of the official residence of the Emperor of Japan that’s opened to the public. Built on the former site of Edo Castle, the gardens contain many remnants of the former seat of power of the Tokugawa shogunate. None of the main buildings survived to the modern era, but the remaining gate entrances, walls, guardhouses, and moats are in amazing condition, giving you a glimpse into what once was the most important Japanese castle around.
10. Nakagusuku Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nakagusuku Castle (Nakagusuku-jo) is one of the few remaining remnants of gusuku castles built throughout Okinawa in the 15th century. Nowadays, only its walls are standing, but the complex is in such good condition that you can easily make out the castle’s layout like where its citadels used to be. The man-made stronghold blends harmoniously with the natural landscape, offering you a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding area and the sea.
9. Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Prefecture)
Considered one of the three greatest Japanese castles alongside Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle, Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto-jo) is famous for its 800 cherry trees and many different buildings that make up the complex. A lot of them are reconstructions of the original 17th-century structures, but they are of unparalleled quality. Kumamoto Castle was heavily damaged by a 2016 earthquake, and its keep only became available to the public back in June 2021. Some estimates say that it will take another 15-20 years to complete all the necessary repairs. If you ever get the chance, check out the parts of Kumamoto Castle that have reopened.
8. Shuri Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)
Appearing on everything from the UNESCO World Heritage Site list to postcards, guidebook covers, and even a Call of Duty game, Shuri Castle (Shuri-jo) is a global symbol of Okinawa and the Ryukyu culture. It was once the palace of the Ryukyu kings, but fell into decline after WW2 when it was almost destroyed. Tragically, the same thing happened again on October 31, 2019, when a fire burned most of the complex to the ground. Large sections of the castle complex were irreparably damaged but reconstruction work is currently underway to salvage as much of Shuri Castle as possible. In the meantime, parts of the castle grounds have reopened to the public.
7. Kochi Castle (Kochi Prefecture)
As mentioned before, the castle keep of a typical Japanese castle was not where the lord of the castle and his family slept. Kochi Castle (Kochi-jo) is an exception to that rule. There, the tenshu was used for both military purposes and as a residence, which was one of the reasons why the stronghold was designated an important cultural property. Originally built in the early 17th century, the buildings you see today are actually reconstructions from around the mid-18th century after the original ones burned down.
6. Katsuren Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)
As with so many other gusuku fortifications, Katsuren Castle (Katsuren-jo) lies in ruins today, but those ruins hide a fascinating and rich history. For example, Ancient Roman coins, which according to one theory might have reached Okinawa via the Silk Road, were unearthed at Katsuren in 2016. The Japanese castle also has a strong connection to the famous Lord Amawari. According to legend, Amawari was abandoned in the mountains as a child to die, but survived to become a powerful lord who later threatened to overthrow the Ryukyu king. Katsuren Castle was where he ruled from.
5. Nijo Castle (Kyoto Prefecture)
One of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo) was constructed on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that went on to rule Japan for over 250 years. After the shogunate fell, the last Tokugawa ruler returned power to the Japanese Emperor in this very castle, which later housed the Imperial Cabinet. Today, the stronghold boasts expansive gardens and one of the best-preserved Japanese castle palaces in all of Japan.
A can’t-miss part of Nijo Castle is the Ninomaru-goten Palace. Consisting of six connected buildings, it’s the only surviving fortified palace complex in Japan and a designated National Treasure.
4. Matsue Castle (Shimane Prefecture)
With its elevated position, mighty walls and moats, and the dark coloring that’s earned it the nickname of “The Black Castle,” Matsue Castle (Matsue-jo) is one impressive fortification. It never saw actual war so its keep and walls survive today in pristine condition. On the other hand, the Japanese castle has its beautiful side, as it offers visitors stunning views of Lake Shinji (a symbol of Matsue known for its spectacular sunset scenery) which is one of the reasons why it’s counted among Japan's Three Great Lake Castles.
3. Matsuyama Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
Featuring three enclosures, a large garden, massive foundations, and hidden gates, Matsuyama Castle (Matsuyama-jo) is one of the most complex strongholds in Japan. It’s also a popular cherry blossom-viewing site since its grounds are home to 200 cherry trees. Being located atop Mount Katsuyama, the Japanese castle gives visitors spectacular panoramic views of the city of Matsue and the Seto Inland Sea, and can be reached easily via ropeway.
2. Matsumoto Castle (Nagano Prefecture)
A designated National Treasure of Japan, Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto-jo) contains many unique features, like being located on flat terrain instead of a hill, or having a secondary castle keep. Originally set for demolition during the 1800s, Matsumoto Castle was eventually saved thanks to campaigning by local residents. Thanks to continued restoration efforts, it’s now one of the top three Japanese castles, alongside Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle. It’s also a popular cherry blossom-viewing site.
1. Himeji Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)
Frequently topping the lists of the most famous castles in Japan, Himeji Castle (Himeji-jo) is also known as the White Heron Castle because of how its dazzling white exterior brings to mind a bird mid-flight. In 1993, it was registered as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan, with many of its sections being Special Historic Sites and National Treasures. The complex is composed of over 80 buildings, which together form one of the best-preserved Japanese castles around, attracting millions of visitors each year.
History Captured in Wood and Stone
If you want to get closer to Japanese history and stand where some of the country's greatest warriors and warlords once stood, your first stop should be one of Japan’s many majestic castles. We hope that this list of castles most popular with locals will help you decide which ones to visit first!
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.