Tales of Sengoku warlords' castles | Japan Highlights Travel, for sightseeing around Tokaido

Hamamatsu Castle

"The Three Great Heroes" refers to Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Ieyasu Tokugawa, three daimyos born in the provinces of Owari and Mikawa (modern-day Aichi Prefecture) who led Japan out an era of war and toward unification. They built several notable castles in the process of unifying Japan, and these are considered to mark a turning point from "fighting castles" to "charming castles". In other words, the magnificence and beauty of the castles we see today originate from this era. Why not take a walk around some of these precious structures yourself, and enjoy these fusions of history and beauty which have come down to us under the name of "castle".

Portrait of Nobunaga Oda (part)
(The original is preserved in Choko-ji, Toyota-shi)

Portrait of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (part)
(Preserved in Kodai-ji Temple)

Portrait of Ieyasu Tokugawa (part)
(Preserved in Mt. Kuno Toshogu Shrine Museum)

From military stronghold to place of political and cultural expression

When you first hear about Japanese castles, you may imagine places with grand towers and impressive stone walls. However, most of these magnificent castles were built during the Edo period. Prior to that era, the lord and his family would live in a mansion located at a vantage point, and "castle" could mean any one of the several fortresses constructed all over the mansion estate in case of war, such as forts for relaying communications and strongholds overlooking borders and highways.

  • It was Nobunaga Oda who drastically changed the role of castles. Nobunaga took the approach of transferring his headquarters to a castle near to his next military objective, and thus transferred his base from Nagoya Castle to Kiyosu Castle, and then to Komakiyama Castle. In 1567, Nobunaga captured Inabayama Castle in the province of Mino (in modern Gifu Prefecture) and took up residence there, renaming it Gifu Castle in the process. Up to this point castles had merely been fortifications to hole up in and fight, but for his next residence, Azuchi Castle, Nobunaga placed more emphasis on political and cultural aspects than on uses as a military stronghold. The symbol of this shift in emphasis is the castle tower. The castle tower was built to display power, and could be seen from anywhere in the castle town.
  • Gifu Castle

  • Osaka Castle Golden Tea Room (Preserved in Osaka Castle Tower)

  • The subsequent era of Hideyoshi Toyotomi saw the building of a castle as an administrative seat of the kanpaku (chief imperial adviser and effective ruler of Japan), and this led to a style of castle architecture representative of Momoyama culture. Osaka Castle and Jurakudai are good examples. The single-story building where the daimyo lived was called the Goten, and was built in the so-called shoin style around a central parlor. The walls and fusuma or shoji (sliding doors) of the great meeting room where the daimyo held audience with his subjects were decorated with shoheki-ga by the Kano school of artists and featured strong colors, particularly mineral pigments such as ultramarine and copper green, applied thickly to a background of gold or silver foil. Another very famous feature is the "Golden Tea Room". It is said that the walls, ceiling, pillars and shoji skirting boards were all covered with gold, and that there was a golden tea set.
  • In the era of Ieyasu Tokugawa, castles began to function entirely as a places of "politics". Castles also maintained a graceful architectural style. In particular, the Honmaru Goten that Ieyasu built for his ninth son at Nagoya Castle was described as a masterpiece of the early-modern era, and was referred to as one of the "twin jewels" of the samurai shoin style, the other jewel being the Ninomaru Goten of Nijo Castle in Kyoto. Later, Ieyasu transferred his base to Edo Castle, and after that the Tokugawa shogunate government continued for over 250 years.
  • Nagoya Castle Honmaru Goten

The endless pleasure of strolling around a castle

A typical castle was constructed on a multi-layer pattern consisting of a Honmaru (first citadel) which housed living quarters, studies and meeting rooms, a Ninomaru (second citadel) which functioned as a Han Yakusho (clan administration building) and Buguko (armory), and a Sannomaru (third citadel), where residences, storehouses and stables were located. Surrounding all was a moat. Strolling through the maze-like structure can be a breathtaking experience.

Of course, since castles had a function as military strongholds, they have various defensive features. For example, walls and towers are furnished with small windows called "sama". Depending on the weapon in mind, these are further divided into ya-sama (arrow-slits), teppo-sama (musket loopholes), taiho-sama (for firing cannon from) and ishi-sama (for hurling stones out of). The entrance of a castle is called the "koguchi" (which literally means "tiger's mouth"), and here are also to be found various design elements for defense against attack. Enemies approaching the koguchi and walls had to survive the yokoya (literally, "side arrow"), an architectural bend which enabled defenders to shoot arrows into their flank.

Sunpu Castle Moat

Kakegawa Castle Machicolation

Osaka Castle Sama (Preserved in Osaka Castle Tower)

Most castle towers today act as resource centers enabling visitors to understand and experience their history and structure through panels describing the lives of successive daimyos, miniatures showing the castle town in former days, displays of armor, weapons and other equipment used in battle and an observation deck on the top floor affording panoramic views. What a waste just to admire castles from afar, when you could go inside and experience their history and "beautility".

Inuyama Castle Hakutei Bunko Nagashino Castle Byobu

Nagoya Castle Kinshachi (Golden dolphin)

Gifu Castle View from the castle tower

"The Three Great Heroes", and the fascinating castles from which the commanders of the Sengoku age seized glory

Nagoya Castle, the stronghold of Nobunaga in his early years, and Gifu Castle, rebuilt on the site of Inabayama Castle. Osaka Castle, built by Hideyoshi at age 46, and Odawara Castle, which he took over bloodlessly at age 53. Hamamatsu Castle and Nagoya Castle, both built by Ieyasu , and Edo Castle, which became the stronghold of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Tokaido is a treasure-trove of castles built and contested by "The Three Great Heroes", and the stage on which the daimyos of the Sengoku age made their bids for a place in history. As fun as it is just to stroll around one, nothing can be more moving than to reach a deeper understanding of a castle's place in the history of its times and how significantly its role changed to reflect its lords' strategies and tactics, both in and out of war - a deeper understanding, indeed, of the very reasons for its existence.

Today, owing to war, fire, the Tokugawa shogunate's "Law of One Castle per Province" and the "Ordinance for the Disposal of Castles" promulgated during the Meiji Restoration, there remain only 60 castles with a castle tower. And of these 60, only 12 have survived to the present without being rebuilt. Nevertheless, even a restored castle can retain the overwhelming air and presence of the original, as long as the restoration honors the layout of the former. On seeing the elegant architecture of a castle that has stood through history until today, we can immerse ourselves in its eternal history and beauty, and feel like we have slipped back in time to the world of 400 years ago. We will introduce you to some recommended Tokaido castle destinations.

Two castles designated as national treasures, both with their original towers

Hikone Castle and Inuyama Castle, both of which remain today as they were in the Edo period, have castle towers and other features that have been deemed to have "particularly high cultural significance", and thus both castles are now designated national treasures. The castle tower of Hikone Castle is relatively small, having only three tiers and being just three stories high, but it has a splendid design and a truly elegant appearance. Inuyama Castle, which stands on a 40-meter-high cliff overlooking the south river bank of the Kiso River, is otherwise known as the "Hakuteijo". It has the oldest original tower in Japan. There is an air of elegance to these two national treasure castles that have survived the hardships of history to show us the beauty of the past.

Admire the scenery from the castle tower

Regardless of whether it is the original or a replica, most castle towers have an accessible top floor which allows visitors to admire magnificent scenery which at one time only the daimyo and his close aides would have seen. The view from Hikone Castle is highly recommended. You can enjoy a picturesque view of Lake Biwa and the mountains to the west of the lake. Then there is Gifu Castle, which offers a bird's-eye view of the city around it. The castle stands on ground with an elevation of 329 meters, and so is one of the highest in Japan. It is open at night in spring, summer and fall, and the dazzling panoramic night view offers beauty comparable to an aurora.

Castles that watched over the change of the eras

Kiyosu Castle was the starting point from which Nobunaga Oda set out on his quest to conquer Japan, and a castle that later daimyos who shared his ambition considered a critical stronghold. In the age of the third family head Ujiyasu Hojo, Odawara Castle was said to be impregnable, and withstood attacks by Kenshin Uesugi, Shingen Takeda and others besides. Nijo Castle was where the 15th Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa returned political power to the emperor in 1867, during the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate. As you can see, castles watched over important days that became turning points in history, and to this day continue to teach us the weight of that history.

The "castle of promotion" that led its daimyo to glory

Kakegawa Castle, called "the castle of Tokai" in ancient times. When after the death of Hideyoshi he was questioned as to whether he would side with Ieyasu or Mitsunari (Ishida), Kazutoyo Yamauchi, who had been a vassal of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, swore his loyalty to Ieyasu and declared that he would give up his castle at Kakegawa. Kazutoyo won the favor of Ieyasu by his declaration, and rose to become a daimyo of 200,000 koku (where koku was a measure of income in feudal Japan). Hamamatsu Castle, which is known for having been a castle residence of Ieyasu Tokugawa, saw the birth of 25 generations of lords within its walls over 260 years of clan administration. Many of the lords assumed vital positions in the shogunate government during their reign, and so the place came to be called the "castle of promotion".

A rare castle ruin loved as a park

Castle ruins often have only mounds and moats remaining, but they still allow us to feel the vicissitudes of history and have been common motifs in songs and poems since ancient times. Today, Yamanaka Castle lives on in harmony with nature as "Yamanaka Castle Ruin Park", located where you can view magnificent Mt. Fuji. In particular, the water moat, called "Shoji-bori" because of its resemblance to a shoji frame, is a very rare feature for a mountain castle. We can honor the memory of Ieyasu Tokugawa at Sunpu Castle, also now a popular public park. The site features a reconstructed Higashigomon (great east gate) and Tatsumi Yagura (south east tower), and a partially reconstructed Honmaru moat.

There is no greater castle

In Azuchi Castle Nobunaga Oda is said to have built the first great castle tower to soar up to the sky,and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, his self-proclaimed successor, modeled his Osaka Castle after the great fortress of the former. It took approximately one and a half years to build the main keep alone, and construction of the whole castle took 15 years, at the end of which the site had become an impregnable stronghold.On the other hand, Nagoya Castle, which was built at the command of Ieyasu Tokugawa, was praised highly as "the keystone of Owari Nagoya", and is famous for replacing Kiyosu Castle as the center of the province of Owari . This was the same Ieyasu who would eventually rise to become the great lord of the eight provinces of Kanto and master of Edo Castle. Because the castle was small and simple, Ieyasu built a Nishinomaru (west citadel), a Sannomaru (third citadel) and an artificial canal called the Dosan-bori, in order to transform it into a great castle worthy of the shogunate government. The castles which stand in Osaka and Nagoya today are reconstructions, while at Edo Castle, which serves as the Imperial Palace, the moat, stone walls, gates and towers still show traces of the original structure.

updated on Mar 11, 2015