On one hand, choosing the best castles in Japan is a futile (feudal?) pursuit. They’re all fantastic but also completely different one another, particular the more of them you visit and the better you get at discerning their uniqueness.
On the other hand, castles (and castle towns) make great touchstones for any trip to Japan, no matter where in the country you are or how many times you’ve been. They also tend to be beautiful in all Japan’s distinct seasons, especially amid the blazing colors of the Japanese autumn.
Continue reading to learn about some of my favorite Japanese castles, including how I came to be interested in them in the first place. The samurai era is long since over, but it’s easy to step back into it on your next trip to Japan.
How I Popped My Castle Cherry
Before I name some of the best castles in Japan for you, allow me to explain how my love affair with Japanese castles started. It was in late April of 2014, and I was days from wrapping up my first trip to Japan. As had been the case most everywhere else in the country I’d visited in those weeks, the city of Matsumoto was covered in cherry blossoms that were more or less at full bloom. Nowhere was this more than apparent at 16th-century Matsumoto Castle, the first such structure I ever visited in Japan.
Visiting Matsumoto-jo, which is sometimes nicknamed “crow castle” on account of its black color, started a love affair with Japanese castles in me that’s still strong. In fact, I’d say I actually go out of my way to see castles wherever I go in Japan, whether they’re original structures (like many of the ones I’ll be mentioning throughout the coming paragraphs) or faithful reproductions that are impressive nonetheless.
My Favorite Japanese Castles
In addition to being one of my personal favorite castles in Japan, Matsumoto Castle is also objectively impressive. One of Japan’s 12 original castles, its keep is more than 400 years old, which is especially impressive once you’re up in it looking out on the city. Although my favorite time to visit Matsumoto Castle is during sakura season, its grounds are also one of the most beautiful urban destinations to experience autumn in Japan.
Like many of the other best castles in Japan, Hyogo prefecture’s Himeji Castle is original, with a keep dating back to 1561. However, the castle’s origins lie two centuries earlier, which you can learn more about when you tour the museum. Although Himeji Castle is by far Japan’s most famous castle, visiting it is easy and stress free. It’s an easy day trip from anywhere in the Kansai region, including Osaka, Kobe and even Kyoto.
To the untrained Japan traveler, the name of Matsuyama Castle can seem to be the same as Matsumoto’s. I won’t give you a Japanese lesson here, although I will say these two castles are incredibly different, in spite of both being original structures that date back more than four centuries. While Matsumoto Castle sits inside a moat in a city surrounded by mountains, Matsuyama Castle stands on a dramatic hill overlooking the sea, making it one of the best sunset spots in Shikoku.
Although it’s not original, having been rebuilt in 1960, Kumamoto Castle is still one of the best castles in Japan as far as I’m concerned. The symbol of its namesake city (along with super kawaii Kumamon), Kumamoto-jo has in very recent years become a symbol of resilience, having mostly survived a severe 2016 earthquake. Visiting the sprawling castle grounds remains one of my favorite things to do in Kumamoto in spite of the ongoing restoration work—and maybe because of it as well.
Like Matsuyama and Matsumoto, many people confuse Hikone (a castle town on the shores of Lake Biwa just northeast of Kyoto) with Hakone, a hot spring getaway near Mt. Fuji that’s popular among Tokyoites—never mind this. To be sure, 17th-century Hikone Castle is magnificent, especially in autumn, and particularly because of the incredible view it offers of Biwako. The fact that it’s an easy day trip from Kyoto doesn’t hurt its cause.
Perhaps the best place to go if you want to see cherry blossoms and castles in concert, if Aomori prefecture’s Hirosaki Castle. Beyond the castle itself, the “petal moat” (which fills up with petals to the extent that its surface is rendered transparent, almost paved by them) is one of the most otherworldly sights I’ve ever seen in Japan.
I’ve just name-dropped five Japanese castles I consider to be the best, but they certainly aren’t the only ones worth visiting. Here are some of my other favorites:
- Osaka Castle: Although it’s a reconstruction, this fortress nonetheless remains one of the symbols of Japan’s second city, one of the top Osaka cherry blossom destinations
- Kochi Castle: If I’m honest, Kochi-jo is right up there with Matsuyama Castle for me in terms of beauty, but I couldn’t in good conscience name two Shikoku castles to a list of five. Ditto for Marugame Castle!
- Kanazawa Castle: Like Osaka’s, Kanazawa Castle is a reproduction, albeit a bit more faithful one in my opinion. Part of why I love it so much is that you can literally cross the street and arrive in incredible Kenroku-en garden!
- Maruoka Castle: A small, wooden castle that’s often overlooked by casual visitors to Japan, this original structure in Fukui prefecture is beautiful in all four seasons. You can easily see it on a day trip from Kanazawa, too!
Note that other examples of the best castles in Japan don’t get a mention at all in this article, as some no longer exist (Okinawa’s Shuri Castle was recently destroyed in a fire) or are too ruined to qualify as castles anymore—I’m looking at you, Yonago-jo.
FAQ About Japanese Castles
How many castles are in Japan?
Japan is home to more than 100 castles in various states of existence (and sadly, in many cases, disrepair). While not every city in Japan has its own castle, there’s one within day-trip distance of most major Japan destinations.
How many original castles are in Japan?
Japan is home to 12 castles whose tenshu (“keep” in English) are wholly original. These include several on my list above, including castles in Himeji, Hikone and both Kochi and Matsuyama castles in Shikoku.
What is the oldest castle in Japan?
Tiny Inuyama Castle in Aichi prefecture near Nagoya is generally regarded as the oldest castle in Japan. While this appears to be true, given that it was built all the way back in 1469, many internet users seem to dispute it.
The Bottom Line
If I’m honest, I fear I might not have helped you narrow down the best castles in Japan. After all, I mentioned nearly a dozen of them in this post alone! However, I am confident I’ve helped you down into the rabbit hole of feudal architecture in Japan, which can prove bottomless (it has for me, anyway), but also endlessly fruitful. Overall, I’d recommend picking a few castles before your next visit to Japan, as using them as guideposts for the rest of your itinerary. Assuming you plan it yourself—you can always hire me to create an unforgettable Japan trip for you!