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As you probably know, Japan has a long, long history complete with many, many historical landmarks. You could spend your entire life making it a goal to visit all of them, or you could take it genre by genre. The Imperial Palace grounds? Not too bad, they’re mostly in one area. Shrines and temples? Good luck, you’ll need years.
Castles might be a little easier. No matter which prefecture you visit in Japan, there’s bound to be a castle in the area. Of course, they’re all different – some are overwhelmingly grand and almost like museums, while others are just empty remnants of what the castle used to be (though every castle has a beautiful view once you reach the top).
So how do you know which castles are worth going to and which are better off leaving for a rainy day? TripAdvisor is here to help you out. They recently made a castle ranking based on visitors’ word of mouth – a “We’re glad we went here!” ranking. Check this list out before planning your trip – castles can be a good time for all, from kids to adults, if you go to the right one during the right season!
1. Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Prefecture)tetedelart1855/Flickr
Kumamoto Castle is located on the southern end of Kyushu and is considered one of the three most important castles in Japan next to Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle. Part of the castle burned down in 1877, and the remaining 13 buildings have since been re-fortified and restored to be the castle site you can see today.
The Japan Castle Federation considers Kumamoto Castle to be one of the 100 finest castles in the country, and the site is an Important Cultural Property.
A castle descended from heaven: The scale is large, and it has the feel that it was definitely built by Kiyomasa Kato. No matter where you walk in Kumamoto, you can see the castle tower through the crevices in the buildings. One day is not enough to take in the entirety of the castle.
2. Matsuyama Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
Matsuyama Castle was built in 1603 on Mt. Katsuyama. The original castle tower was struck by lightning in 1784; the current castle tower was built sometime in the mid-1800s. The castle has undergone a large-scale renovation and is now, as Matsuyama city calls it, in “pristine condition just as it was.”
Picturesque castle overlooking the city of Matsuyama. We found the museum to be quite interesting too. It’s well worth taking time to really explore the castle grounds, though we moved pretty quickly to avoid getting caught in rain that day (which prevented us from seeing more of the gardens, for example).
On a sunny day, this would be a wonderful place to spend a few hours.
3. Himeji Castle (Hyogo Prefecture)かがみ～/Flickr
Himeji Castle is the largest castle in Japan, as well as one of the most important. It is also considered to be the example of Japanese castle architecture. It was one of the first Japanese UNESCO World Heritage Sites and was registered in 1993. The castle contains several National Treasures in its infrastructure, including the castle tower, or keep.
The castle is often referred to as a white egret or white heron because it is said to look like a large white bird about to fly. Because of its size and grandeur, it is often chosen to represent Japan in movies, both local and global (you may remember it from the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice).
If you can experience this castle in cherry blossom time it’s extra special. Anyhow, whenever you go it’s the best castle in Japan. Believe me… I’ve lived there 17 years and have been checking them all out! 🙂
It’s very convenient to the station, which is close to Kyoto. So it should be easy to include in your trip – please do, you won’t regret it.
4. Hirosaki Castle (Aomori Prefecture)
Hirosaki Castle, which was also referred to as Takaoka Castle, was the seat of the Tsugaru clan. The park which surrounds the castle is considered one of Japan’s best spots to view cherry blossoms, and in winter the city holds a snow lantern festival around the castle.
This was the highlight of my trip to Misawa, Japan. The grounds were beautiful and there was some sort of festival going on at the time, the fall colors were magnificent. You will do a lot of walking on the grounds but it was great to see all the beautiful sights, and explore all the food from the vendors. There were a lot of people when we went on a Saturday, there was also a man playing the flute while many relaxed on a huge picnic ground. The castle itself was not as big as it looks in the pictures but still very pretty. I would definitely recommend this to people who love to walk around to see the sights, there are many picturesque views that photographers will love.
5. Matsumoto Castle (Nagano Prefecture)かがみ～/Flickr
This castle, which was built on a plain and is a flatland castle, is one of Japan’s most famous as it was the seat of the Matsumoto domain. Because of its black exterior, it is often called the “Crow Castle” (in comparison to the white Himeji Castle, which is known as a white heron). The castle’s keep has is original structure from the sixteenth century and is a National Treasure.
You approach this castle on foot, round the bend, and there’s the spectacular castle. In the background are gorgeous mountains capped with snow. There’s a moat around the gardens with lovely swans swimming around.
Next to the castle is a museum with some artifacts of different time periods. Most interesting to me were these gorgeous crafts. Well born women would play with these balls made of colorful thread. New ones are being made still and ate sold in the gift shop.
You remove your shoes upon entering the castle. There are several floors. No accommodations are made for those who can’t climb steep stairs.
This attraction took my breath away. If you are in Matsumoto, don’t miss it!
6. Inuyama Castle (Aichi Prefecture)Takeshi KOUNO/Flickr
Inuyama Castle, which is located at the end of a town path lined with shops and restaurants from the station, is one of the 12 castles still in existence that were built before the Edo period. Among these castles, it is considered to be the oldest. Inuyama is also known for its ninja culture, which is displayed throughout the town and in the castle as well.
Totally worth the long journey on metro travelling there. When we get out from the Inuyama station, just 10 minutes away there is a small ancient town and a shop that displays all the old samurai and ninja culture which was absolutely fascinating. Especially love all the local foodstores and souvenir shops.
The castle itself is very interesting, we learn that the stairs were build high and narrow to make it difficult to attack and climb. There were also histories to the place and this castle was even featured in one of a Chinese poet’s ancient poem. I can easily spend a few hours there and if there is a chance I’ll definitely re-visit as well.
7. Matsuyama Castle (Okayama Prefecture)
There are actually two Matsuyama Castles in Japan: this one, otherwise known as Bitchu Matsuyama Castle or Takahashi Castle, and Matsuyama Castle in Ehime Prefecture. This Matsuyama Castle is one of the twelve remaining original castles in Japan, like Inuyama Castle, and is the one that sits the highest above sea level.
A genuine mountain castle!! This is my own impression, but even inside the real keep, this is a castle which is extremely hard to access. In a car, you go until the mountainside. From the parking lot, a bus will take you to the beginning of the trail. For someone like me who doesn’t usually exercise, the mountain climb was pretty tough, and after 20 minutes of climbing I will never forget the moment when at last I saw the castle tower. The view of the town is also amazing.
8. Takeda Castle Ruins (Hyogo Prefecture)bullets95/Flickr
The ruins of Takeda Castle is regarded as the Machu Picchu of Japan. It was originally known as Izushi Castle.
I’ve been to over 100 Japanese castles and castle ruins, but I was really fascinated by Takeda Castle in Asago City.
I visited before it got so popular and there was no entrance fee yet.
People call it the “Machu Picchu of Japan”. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but for castle fans this is a must-see!
If you have enough time, it’s also worth getting up super early to see the castle surrounded by clouds from a different observation point.
9. Takato Castle Ruins Park (Nagano Prefecture)nightwalk_it/Flickr
While this is another castle ruins site, it is most famous as one of the top 3 places in Japan to see cherry blossoms (the other two are Hirayama Castle and Mt. Yoshino). There is not much of the actual castle left, but because of its popularity as a cherry blossom viewing site, the park gets very crowded during peak season.
Not just for cherry-blossom season. It’s true that Takato Castle Ruin attracts huge visitors during cherry blosom season. When I went there in November, the leaves were beautifully changing colors. If you love to visit castle ruins Takato castle ruin is a nice place for you though the ruin has no keep (main tower).
10. Nijo Castle (Kyoto)Todd/Flickr
Nijo Castle in Kyoto consists of the Ninomaru Palace and the ruins of the Honmaru Palace. It is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Great insight into life of the shogun. We went in unexpectedly and were pleasantly surprised at how well restored the castle was and how easy it was to walk around and learn about the life of the Shogun. The ‘nightingale floor’ was something we had never heard of before. The buildings themselves are beautifully restored and there is plenty of information to keep you informed about how the different rooms were used.
11. Uwajima Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
Uwajima Castle is yet another flatland castle. It is also called Tsurushima Castle, and is of the twelve remaining castles built before the Edo period.
The castle at Uwajima is up on top of a hill, so it’s a bit of a hike up. There are bamboo walking sticks you can use for free. There is an asphalt slope (the ‘easy’ path) that is 700m or the crumbly rock stairs that is 400m. There is a nice grassy area at the top and entrance to the castle is 200yen. It isn’t a museum– there are hardly anythings displayed. It’s pretty much just a wooden tower. The very steep stairs are fun to climb up and try to imagine how they must’ve done it with traditional clothing and weapons. The castle was nice and cool on the inside despite the heat and the view from the windows at the top were lovely.
There are a few small (pay) parking lots around the entrance of the castle.
12. Nakagusuku Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)
Rather than the castle you and I might think of, Nakagusuku is an Okinawan gusuku, or an Okinawan castle/fortress-type kind of architecture with stone walls. This particular gusuku is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the 100 most famous castles in Japan.
This is like being at a Scottish castle and an Incan ruin at the same time. This is a remarkably intact old castle on the southern seas showing the ancient world of the Ryuku kingdom. Standing upon it’s stone walls visitors will enjoy the panoramic view of Nakagusku Bay on the Pacific. Breathtaking views also atop the parapets of both the Pacific on the east side and East China Sea on the western side. This castle is one of the best preserved in it’s original state that you will find, and dates back to the early 14th century. Admission is very cheap ( about $4 ) and there are six sections to this castle ruin to explore and climb about on. At the base of the entry is a little ice cream shop selling ONLY mango flavored ice cream. Don’t miss it. Buy the cone as it’s the best on the entire island!
13. Marugame Castle (Kagawa Prefecture)George Alexander Ishida Newman/Flickr
Marugame Castle is another flatland castle also known as Kameyama or Horai. A fire in 1869 destroyed most of the castle buildings, so few are left standing today, but the stone walls are still intact.
Impressive outlooks. This castle was built to defend Kagawa from sea invasion, so it is built very high and therefore it is a steep walk to the castle itself. It is surrounded by a water filled moat and local gardens for children to play; a baseball pitch, and beautiful swans gliding around the moat. Take it easy and do visit. Tickets can be purchased from the shop at the bottom just inside the main gates.
14. Kochi Castle (Kochi Prefecture)Takeshi KOUNO/Flickr
Kochi Castle is one of the twelve intact castles of Japan and is an Important Cultural Asset. The Kagami and Enokuchi rivers fill the outer moat surrounding the castle. The castle itself has been featured in the Studio Ghibli film Ocean Waves/Umi ga Kikoeru.
Anyone who wants to try to visit important Japanese castles would have to include Kochi Castle on that list. There are some castles that seem crowded and small and historically unimportant but Kochi castle is just the opposite. It is structurally fascinating with lots of intelligent designs like trick gates and entrances that lead to blind “traps” where an invading army would be slaughtered. This caste was an important part of the history of this part of Japan and the way that it was used and occupied throughout it’s history is fascinating. Kochi castle underwent extensive and extraordinarily well-done preservation and it is very impressive and majestic. I would have liked a little more detail about the day-to-day uses of the different rooms during the various periods when the castle served as the focal point for community and government activities, instead of just a bunch of static dioramas.
15. Shuri Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)Noriko YAMAMOTO/Flickr
Share Castle is another gushuku in Okinawa and was the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Although the castle was almost completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in WWII, it was reconstructed in 1992 almost fully like the original.
This is a must see if going to Okinawa. Very rarely can you tour a 14th century castle. You can definitely see through trade with China and Southeast Asia, how Okinawa is different from mainland Japan and how it affected not only it’s architectural style but culture. Unfortunately Shurijo Castle was reduced to ashes (with much of Okinawa) in the battle of Okinawa during 1945, but the castle has been restored and there are still some main gates as well as wall structures, and artifacts (like the Ryuhi dragon spring and Bankoku Bell to name a few) through out. The castle is painted in brilliant vermillion. It’s a world heritage sight and will delight all who come. They have a wonderful gift shop and it costs only 820 yen. A little over $6.
16. Edo Castle Ruins, East Garden of the Imperial Palace (Tokyo)鈴木 宏一/Flickr
The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace are open to the public, and while they once containedthe Edo Castle’s old defense circles (the honmaru and ninomaru), only the moats, walls, entrance gates and some guardhouses are still around. The gardens themselves are quite beautiful, can be accessed all year round and look completely different from season to season.
Quiet break from the bustling city. If you have extra time and want to wonder around a garden, this is a great stop. I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute must see, but we enjoyed our time there. The edo ruins are towering and have wonderful construction. The koi pond is scenic and we even got a chance to peek in on some martial arts practice at the gymnasium on site.
17. Katsuren Castle Ruins (Okinawa Prefecture)Nelo Hotsuma/Flickr
Another Okinawan gusuku, this castle is known in the local dialect as kacchin gushiku. It is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This place is quite small as far as castle ruins go, but it has a very beautiful view once you reach the top of the ruins. I lived in Uruma-shi for 3 years and I loved the area and this castle. It can get quite hilly and has a lot of steep steps, but its not that bad of a climb. Overall my experience here was amazing. This is one of those sites you should check out if you have time to burn. If you’re lucky you might find a few food cars or stables around the castle ruin, which I highly recommend you stop by and get!
18. Wakamatsu Castle (Fukushima Prefecture)shiro-navi.com
Wakamatsu Castle, or Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle, is also known as Tsuruga Castle. The largest tower of the castle was reconstructed in 1965 and fortified with concrete.
The castle itself is a relatively modern rebuild, so it’s not as atmospheric as the original castles or the ones rebuilt in wood. But the exhibits that fill the space are well laid out and have a good amount of English explanations.
When we visited the castle had been taken over by advertisements and manga versions of Yae, a woman who joined the fight to defend the castle before it was finally defeated in the 1860s. I’m not entirely sure she’d approve of her pink samurai self plastered all over the gift shop, but it was a lively display.
19. Matsue Castle (Shimane Prefecture)Laurenz Bobke/Flickr
Matsue Castle still stands in its original wooden form, and is often called the “black castle” or the “plover castle.” Although it is a feudal castle, it was never directly involved in battle. The entire castle dates back to 1611, without any reconstructions or reinforcements.
Matsue castle is one of only 12 castles in Japan that survived in its more or less original appearance. Access is free up to the castles´ main door (not just the outer gate as is usual) which means you can enjoy it even in early morning hours. The castle itself is accessible too but you must wait until the official opening hours. There are other attractions in the walking distance around the castle as well.
20. Imabari Castle (Ehime Prefecture)
Imabari Castle is known as one of Japan’s three “castles on the sea” along with Takamatsu Castle and Nakatsu Castle. The castle tower was completely rebuilt in 1980.
I travelled to Imabari as a half-day trip from Matsuyama (40 minutes by train). I then took a taxi from Imabari station, which only cost 700 yen, and caught the local bus back. The bus stop is on the main road as you exit the castle, just a little down to the left.
The castle is a reconstruction of the destroyed original, but it’s very well done and the end result is really quite impressive. The castle sits in the middle of a huge, sea-filled moat and you can walk all the way around to get some fantastic photos. The castle was originally built here to control the shipping (military and trade) through the Seto Sea. Inside the main tower is a great collection of samurai weapons and armour. I believe that it’s one of the biggest collections in Japan. [sic]