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Learn About a Historic Castle

Learn About a Historic Castle

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many castles were built in Japan. At that time, Japan was split into many small domains and castles were built as bases to protect these lands.

The castles of this period were called yamajiro, meaning mountaintop castles. Most castles were not elaborate. They were simple structures with moats or earthen walls protecting them.

As a result, many of those castles are no longer standing. Some travelers may be disappointed if they show up to a location marked as a castle site looking for a spectacular castle only to find a mound of ruins. However, the military sense of the samurai is still evident if one considers where these castles were built. They were strategically placed on elevated ground overlooking plains or on cliffs that were difficult to attack. Get into the mindset of a military strategist and let’s go explore these amazing sites of castles past together!

In the latter half of the sixteenth century, more and more lavish castles were built as there was less war in the land. Mountaintop castles were becoming inconvenient to maintain.

These more visually impressive types of castles are called hirajiro, meaning castles built on flatlands. As they became more common, local people started building houses nearby. Merchants gathered together, and the towns that centered around these castles prospered. These castle towns, with all major roads leading to the castle, endure as major landmarks in some areas.

A fine example of a hirajiro that you can see today stands at Matsumoto. You can see it as part of our tour here

On a side note, some people may be a little confused about the meaning of the word castle. What they imagine a castle to be may just be a keep. The word “castle” actually refers to the entire keep building, in addition to the moat, walls, and area enclosed by those walls.

Even though war was less common in later years, there was still the possibility of a sudden attack by enemies. Small windows were built into the walls to allow soldiers with bows or guns to shoot at attackers. Additionally, stone walls were constructed in such a way that they were very hard to climb. If you visit a flatland castle, make sure to pay attention not just to the mighty keep, but also to the defensive mechanisms built into the castle itself.

One last interesting note about Japanese castles. If you visit a keep, please take a close look at its roof. On each end is a fish-like creature with the head of a dragon and the body of a carp. These are mythical creatures called shachihoko, said to be able to spit out torrents of water to put out flames. They are thought to protect the castle from fires. There are many intricate details such as this, so don’t forget to take plenty of pictures.

Many of Japan’s regions are proud of their castles. Some marvelous remnants of the era of castles endure today.

Matsushiro Castle stood in Nagano Prefecture and you can see its fine stone walls, moat and gate today on our tour of Nagano.

A final holdout of the samurai way of life, Aizu Wakamatsu is rich in history. Its castle serves as a museum so you can learn all about this area and the importance of the castle. It is a pure white color, and so is known as Tsuru-ga-jo (Crane Castle). You can see it for yourself on our tour of East Japan. Perhaps you will see the resemblance to a crane, the bird that symbolizes Japan.

On our artistic tour of West Japan, you can spend some time in the charming city of Himeji. And no visit to Himeji is complete without beholding Himeji Castle. It is one of the most visually spectacular castles in Japan. It is a work of art!

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