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Travel, Teach, Live in Japan

How to Visit Castles in Japan

Europe isn't the only place to see medieval castles. Japan's beautiful, ornate feudal castles rival the best anywhere in the world. In the 15th century, Japan's government broke apart into many small, independent states fighting one another. Castles soon appeared everywhere as defensive structures. As many as 5000 castles existed in the past, but now only about 50 remain in some form you can visit.

Plan an itinerary for your trip. If touring castles is your primary reason for being in Japan, you can visit sites across a large region. There are castles across all of Japan and the island of Okinawa to the south, but the heaviest concentration is in central Honshu, which is Japan's mainland. You may want to focus on seeing the most historically significant castles or all of the originals. If you're limited to one area such as Kyoto or Tokyo, try booking a tour of the city, which certainly will include the notable castles, temples and ruins.

Learn some history of Japanese castles to better appreciate them. Although towns often sprang up around the castles, the walls never extended around the town or village, as many European feudal castles did. Later castles in Japan were not built simply to repel attackers, but were intended to intimidate rivals by showcasing their wealth and strength. In fact, actual sieges on castles were rare. Usually attackers tried to cut off resources to the castle, or else the defenders would march out to meet their opponents in battle.

Be aware that although there are many castles in Japan, most have been restored or rebuilt to some degree. Built of wood and stone, many were destroyed in fires or in battles throughout the feudal era. Many were lost in World War II as well. About a dozen castles remain preserved in their original condition.

Learn some Japanese terminology. Shiro is the general word for castle. Mountain castles, or yamashiro, were the preferred form due to the defensive advantage of being placed on a mountain top. Tenshukaku refers to the heavily fortified central tower, also called the donjon. A guard tower, or turret along the castle perimeter is called a yagura. Heavy stone walls and deep moats were also a common form of defense.

Focus on the well-preserved heritage sites if your visit is brief. Don't miss Himeji Castle, near Kyoto, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in its original form since 1609. The oldest remaining original castle is Inuyama, near Nagoya, built in 1537. Others near Kyoto that are well worth seeing are Hakone and Ueno castles. If you're in Tokyo be sure to see the Imperial Palace, where the current Emperor of Japan resides today.

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