Castles of the Warring States Come with us on a journey through pre-modern Japan - one castle at a time.
The Sengoku Jidai (戦国時代, “Warring State Period”) began in 1467 CE and lasted until the Tokugawa Shogunate took power in 1603. Through this period, we can trace the origins of many figures in Japanese popular culture, such as stories of Ninja clans, and even the emergence of one of the most feared Samurai of all time, Lord Oda Nobunaga - who in fact attempted to wipe out the Ninja. By continuing below, you will embark on your own ‘virtual’ journey, through both time and space, by visiting some of the castles over which many battles were once fought, which still stand to this day.
1. Matsumoto Castle (松本城, “Matsumoto Jo”)
Matsumoto Castle, found in Matsumoto City, Nagano, is one of Japan's oldest and most iconic castles. The castle was built in 1504 CE, which was also the first year of the Eisho period (1504 - 1521 CE). Aside from its history and antiquity, Matsumoto Castle stands out in striking contrast to the mountainous nature that surrounds it. The castle is painted an intimidating black with white highlights, which really makes it stand out against its lush surroundings. This is even more apparent from beginning to mid April - the flower viewing (花見, “Hanami”) season. At this time every year, all the Sakura (cherry blossom) trees surrounding the castle bloom in shades of pinks and whites, giving the majesty of the old castle a soft, serene atmosphere. The part of the castle called the “Moon Viewing Tower” (月見櫓, “Tsuki Mi Yagura”) is also known for being a venue for the near-ancient form of Japanese music called “Gagaku”, as well as traditional Japanese chamber music involving instruments like the stringed Koto and the Shakuhachi flute. As you approach or depart the castle you can also follow the bold black and white color scheme through Matsumoto Castle’s shopping district, which is called a Jokamachi (城下町). The walls of the shopping district have a distinct diamond pattern and are built using sea cucumber, because of its ability to protect the store houses from both water damage and fire alike. The district is well known for selling tools, arts and crafts, and also sweets - so there’s something for everyone.
2. Nagoya Castle (名古屋城, “Nagoya Jo”)
It is said that Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, stole Nagoya Castle from the heavens. One of the many striking features of Nagoya Castle is the 215 kilogram (474 pounds) solid gold Shachihoko at the roof of the castle. Shachihoko are an animal from Japanese mythology with the body of a carp and the head of a tiger, the statues of which can often be seen resting upon historic Japanese structures such as these. This particular one is known as Kinshachi, literally ‘Golden Shachi.’ The estimated cost of this golden statue is around ￥50,000,000,000 (roughly $500,000,000 USD at the time of writing).
3. Inuyama Castle (犬山城, “Inuyama Jo”)
The oldest castle in Japan is Inuyama Castle, located in Aichi. Originally built in 1440 CE, the castle has been passed down by warlords and clans for centuries. Despite having survived countless wars and earthquakes, the castle has been maintained with tedious care to tradition over the ages. Those who visit usually walk away with a sense of profound majesty after soaking in its vibrant history.
Unlike other castles, which are usually owned by foundations or communities, Inuyama Castle was owned privately by the Naruse family until upkeep persuaded them to transfer the property to the public in 2004.
A special feature of the castle is that its interior is made of wood. There are also very narrow staircases, which can be tricky to traverse.
Inuyama Castle town, like the one before Matsumoto Castle, is also worth checking out. The rustic streets of the district capture a timeless feeling nestled in the modern world. There are numerous shops and restaurants that help maintain the old-time market feel of the area.
Additionally, Oda Nagamasu, brother to famed Daimyo Oda Nobunaga, constructed a tea ceremony room on the castle grounds. After apprenticing in the art of tea ceremony (茶道, "Sado") under the famous tea master, Nagamasu received the honorary name Urakusai, under which he began his own school of tea ceremony. In honor of the history of the castle, once a month a free public viewing is held, showcasing the tea ceremony which has been practiced in this space for hundreds of years.
4. Maruoka Castle (丸岡城, “Maruoka Jo”)
While Japan's castles are famous for their moats and stone walls, the Maruoka Castle in Fukui is also famous for its cherry blossoms.
The scene is breathtaking, as the castle is surrounded at sunset by the blossoms and the tree-hung illuminations, which shine every year, from the first to the twentieth of April.
The cherry blossom viewing season captivates visitors up to the very end as the blossoms fall, dancing in the wind, scattering them across the reaching stones of the castle's foundation. There have been more than four hundred cherry trees planted, encircling the castle. They stand as stewards, ushering in all those who wish to visit these relic grounds.
The castle is very intricately decorated, and even the trim lining where the walls meet the ceiling can take one’s breath away.
Aside from aesthetics, the castle was also built with wartime practicality in mind. The imposing stone walls the castle is built upon were specifically constructed to repel potential invaders. The first structure that can be seen above the stone walls is the Ishi Otoshi (石落とし, "Stone Dropping") from where defenders of the keep would roll out large stones to dissuade potential invaders.
Though the large stature of the castles remain as time has passed, their meaning has evolved. In the Warring States, period castles were built largely to protect the valuables within. However, once the Edo Period began their size became an icon of grandeur and status.
The identity of Maruoka Castle is found in its fusion of soft, delicate beauty and its commanding, stoic stature.