The Three Famous Castles of Japan
Even a country like Japan which is rich in tradition and history will have a list that allows national treasures to rise to the top. Japan is well known throughout the world for its castles. Amongst both Japanese and foreigners, the “Three Famous Castles” of Japan are places that you must visit while in Japan. The “Three Famous Castles” of Japan are the Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture; Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture; and Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto Prefecture.
Himeji Castle is the most visited of the three and is known by many as the “White Heron” castle due to its bright white exterior. It is on the list of UNESCO World Cultural and Heritage Sites. The castle was built over a number of years starting in 1333 and being completed in 1346. Like many castles in Japan, it features tall stone foundations. However, Himeji Castle is unique for its complex and confusing paths which lead to the main stronghold. These mazes of paths were constructed with many dead ends, thus providing a strategic advantage to those guarding the castle. Himeji Castle has been used extensively in both Japanese and foreign films. Amongst its credits include: Abarenbo Shogun; You Only Live Twice (James Bond); Kagemusha (film by Akira Kurosawa); Ran (film by Akira Kurosawa); The Last Samurai (starring Tom Cruise); and Shogun (miniseries staring Richard Chamberlin).
Matsumoto Castle is an excellent example of a castle built on a plain vs. a hilltop or mountain. Built in the 1580’s, Matsumoto Castle is also known as “Crow Castle” because of its black walls which appear to be spreading wings. In 1872, following the Meiji Restoration, the tower was sold at auction. Like so many castles in Japan, the Japanese government determined that the cost of maintenance was too high and the castles provided limited military value. However, a local citizen of Matsumoto, Ichikawa Ryozo saved it from the auctioneers and the castle was purchased by local citizens in 1878. The most intriguing part of the castle is its main stronghold. When viewing from the outside, it appears that it has 3 stories but in reality it has 4. The hidden floor was used for concealing defenses. Before leaving Matsumoto Castle, it is a must to stroll around the moat which is home to large colored koi and black swans.
Last but not least of the “Three Famous Castles” is Kumamoto Castle. Built in 1607, it is known for its curved stone walls which act as a defense against attackers as it prevents the walls from being scaled. In the Seinan Rebellion, samurai forces led by Saigo Takamori marched to Kumamoto Castle expecting a quick victory. However, the small band of government forces in the castle refused to give up. The castle at the end was destroyed by fire and lay in ruins for many centuries. It was rebuilt in 1960 with the castle’s main keep now serving as a museum of the days of the samurai of Kumamoto. In the museum, you can find displays of armor, swords, and uniforms used during the Seinan Rebellion. One can climb to the top of the castle for a view of Kumamoto city and the castle grounds.
One may not be able to see all three national treasures in one visit to Japan. However, making these sites a part of your sightseeing itinerary is a must if you are in that area.