An often used device in explaining how crowded major Japanese cities are is to point out that the country has roughly half the population of the U.S. crammed into an area about the same size as California. But there’s another important statistic Japan also exceeds America’s most populous state in. While the Golden State can claim only one castle (and that’s if you’re being generous enough to count the Hearst estate as such), Japan has dozens of suitable samurai strongholds.
Travel website TripAdvisor recently announced its ranking of Japan’s top 20 castles, based on feedback from domestic travelers during the past year. Strap on your swords and do up your topknots as we go through the list.
All four of Japan’s castles which are designated as national treasures made the cut, as well as eight of the 12 which still have their original keeps. In their judgments, travelers seemed to take into account the castle’s historic and cultural value, as well as the ambiance of the surrounding scenery, which explains the appearance of a few sets of castle ruins in the top 20.
1. Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto City, Kumamoto Prefecture)
Taking the top spot was Kumamoto Castle. Oddly enough, Kumamoto was the only member of the group traditionally referred to as “Japan’s Three Great Castles” in the top 20, as neither Osaka nor Nagoya Castle were chosen for the honor.
Visitors ranked Kumamoto highly for its watchtowers and sweeping stone foundation created by master castle designer Kato Kiyomasa. One visitor remarked that the building’s low ceilings and squeaking wooden nightingale floors, designed to alert guards to the presence of an intruder, made hum feel like he had slipped back in time to when the structure was first built, 400 years ago.
2. Inuyama Castle (Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture)
Located less than 40 minutes from Nagoya, tiny, unassuming Inuyama Castle jumped up to second place in this year’s list. Perched atop a riverside hill, Inuyama is one of Japan’s few remaining original castles, and is designated by the government as a national treasure. While lacking the flair of some of the more recently rebuilt entries on the list, Inuyama more than makes up for it with the palpable sense of history that comes from being an authentic fortress.
3. Matsue Castle (Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture)
Another original, Matsue Castle was constructed at the beginning of the 17th century, at the close of Japan’s warring states period, which along with its location in remote Shimane meant the castle was never attacked, allowing much of it to be preserved ot this day.
4. Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture)
The second national treasure in the top 20, Matsumoto Castle is located in the center of its city, surrounded by a reflecting pond.
5. Takeda Castle Ruins (Asago City, Hyogo Prefecture)
Although the castle itself no longer remains, the Takeda ruins were the highest ranked on the list, and are often referred to as the Machu Picchu of Japan.
6. Matsuyama Castle (Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture)
Another city center castle, Matsuyama Castle is serviced by a chairlift that spares visitors the walk to its hilltop perch while providing a view of Ehime’s prefectural capital.
7. Nijo Castle (Kyoto)
Nijo Castle’s sprawling design reflects its peacetime construction and purpose to communicate its lord’s prestige rather than shield him from military attacks.
8. Takato Castle Ruins (Ina City, Nagano Prefecture)
Number eight on the list takes us back to Nagano where we find the ruins of Takato Castle and its accompanying park.
9. Katsuren Castle Ruins (Uruma City, Okinawa)
The remains of Katsuren Castle scored highly, bolstered by their seaside location in tropical Okinawa.
10. Hirosaki Castle (Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture)
It’s worth the trip to the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island to visit Hirosaki Castle during cherry blossom season, especially if you get there before the street vendors run out of their signature apple ice cream.
11. Himeji Castle (Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture)
One hour by train from Kobe, national treasure Himeji routinely tops lists as the castle to see in Japan. However, the last year has seen it undergo extensive renovations and repairs, which knocked it down all the way to the number 10 spot. Still, one TripAdvisor commentator mentioned that being able to see craftsmen working on the building gives visitors a special insight into its construction, and urges others to go before the remaining work is completed.
12. Fukuoka Castle Ruins (Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture)
The largest city on the island of Kyushu has also lost its castle to time, but the remaining structures and accompanying park make for a pleasant stroll for tourists making their way through the heart of town.
13. Nakagusu Castle Ruins (Kitanakagusa Village, Okinawa)
Okinawa’s second appearance on the list comes courtesy of the Nakagusu ruins.
14. Goyokaku (Hakodate, Hokkaido)
The youngest castle in the top 20 is Goyokaku, built in 1855.
15. Kochi Castle (Kochi City, Kochi Prefecture)
The second fortress representing the island of Shikoku, Kochi Castle is a short walk from the city’s bustling fish market.
16. Ueda Castle (Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture)
Nagano shows up again at number 16 with Ueda Castle, home of charismatic and fabled crimson-armored samurai Sanada Yukimura.
17. Edo Castle / Imperial Palace (Tokyo)
Japan’s capital city manages to wrangle a slot in the list through a slight technicality, as Edo Castle was long ago absorbed into the Imperial Palace.
18. Hikone Castle (Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture)
The final national treasure in the top 20 is Hikone Castle, situated near Like Biwa, Japan’s largest lake.
19. Aizuwakamatsu Castle (Aizuwakamtasu City, Fukushima Prefecture)
Also known as Tsuruga Castle, Aizuwakamatsu may be enjoying a boost in popularity due to its connection with local hero Nijima Yae and the currently-airing NHK historical drama based on her life.
20. Kakegawa Castle (Kakegawa City, Shizuoka
And rounding out the list is Kakegawa, a somewhat lesser-known castle that we’d still like to visit and admire while drinking a cup of Shizuoka’s renowned green tea while admiring.
How many of these monolithic masterpieces have you visited?