Castles in Japan
When most Westerners think of castles, they naturally think of their own in places like England and France, but Japan was also a nation of castle builders. In its feudal days, you could find several castles in almost every prefecture.
Due to World War II bombings, fires, decrees to demolish castles, etc., only twelve of Japan’s castles are considered to have original donjons (天守閣 tenshūkaku), which date back to when they were still in use. Four of them are on Shikoku Island, two further north in the Chugoku region, two in Kansai, three in the Chubu region and one in the northern Tohoku region. There are no original castles in Kyushu, Kanto, Hokkaido or Okinawa.
- Uwajima Castle
- Matsuyama Castle
- Kochi Castle
- Marugame Castle
- Matsue Castle
- Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
- Himeji Castle
- Hikone Castle
- Inuyama Castle
- Maruoka Castle
- Matsumoto Castle
- Hirosaki Castle
Reconstructions and ruins
Japan has many reconstructed castles, many of which receive more visitors than the originals. A reconstructed castle means that the keep has been rebuilt in modern times, but many of them still have other original structures within the castle grounds. For example, three of the towers of Nagoya Castle are authentic. The structures of Nijo Castle are also authentic, but they are palace buildings, with the donjon having burnt down and not been rebuilt, so it is not listed as original. Reconstructions nevertheless offer a glimpse into the past and many, like Osaka Castle, are also museums housing important artefacts. Kumamoto Castle is considered one of the best reconstructions because most of the structures have been reconstructed, not just the donjon. The only reconstructed castle in Hokkaido is Matsumae Castle. Shuri Castle on Okinawa is unique among Japan’s castles in that it is not a “Japanese” castle; it was the royal palace of the Ryukyuan Kingdom and was built in a distinctive Ryukyuan architectural style, with a much stronger Chinese influence than Japanese-style castles.
With ruins, typically only the castle walls or parts of the original complex are visible. Although they lack the structures of reconstructed castles, ruins often feel more authentic without the concrete reconstructions that sometimes feel too commercial and touristy. Many ruins retain their historical significance, such as Tsuyama Castle, which was so large and impressive that it was considered the best in the country. Today, only the castle walls remain, but the grounds are filled with thousands of cherry blossoms. This is common with many ruins, but also with reconstructions. Takeda Castle is famous for the magnificent view of the surrounding area from the ruins, earning it the nickname “castle in the sky”.
Gardens in Japan
Japan is famous for its gardens, known for their unique aesthetics in both landscape gardens and Zen stone/sand gardens. The nation has named an official “Top Three Gardens” based on their beauty, size, authenticity (gardens that have not been drastically altered) and historical significance. These gardens are Kairakuen in Mito, Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, and Korakuen in Okayama. The largest garden, and the favourite of many travellers, is Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu.
Rock and sand gardens are typically found in temples, especially those of Zen Buddhism. The most famous of these is the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, but such temples can be found all over Japan. Moss gardens are also popular in Japan and Koke-dera, also in Kyoto, has one of the best in the country. Reservations are required for a visit to ensure that the moss is always in bloom and not trampled.
Spiritual sites in Japan
Whatever your travel interests, it is difficult to visit Japan without seeing at least a few shrines and temples. Buddhist and Shinto sites are the most common, although there are also some notable spiritual sites of other religions.
Buddhism has profoundly influenced Japan since its introduction in the 6th century. Like shrines, temples can be found in every city and there are many different sects.
Some of the holiest sites consist of large complexes on mountain peaks and include Mount Koya (Japan’s most prestigious burial site and the main temple of Shingon Buddhism), Mount Hiei (built here when Kyoto became the capital to keep Buddhism out of politics, the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism) and Mount Osore (considered the “gateway to hell” and featuring many monuments and tombs in a volcanic wasteland).
Many of the nation’s main temples are located in Kyoto, such as the Honganji temples and the Chion-in temple. Kyoto also has five of the top Zen temples called in the “Five Mountain System” (Tenryuji, Shokokuji, Kenninji, Tofukuji and Manjuji), along with the Nanzenji Temple, which towers over all the temples outside the mountain system. Although there are “five” temples, Kyoto and Kamakura each have their own five. The Kamakura temples are the Kenchoji, the Engakuji, the Jufukuji, the Jochiji and the Jomyoji temples. The Eiheiji temple is also a prominent Zen temple, although it was never part of the mountain system.
The Todaiji Temple in Nara and the Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura are famous for their large Buddhist statues. That of Todaiji is the largest in the nation, while that of the Kamakura Daibutsu is the second largest and meditates in the open air.
The Horyuji Temple in Horyuji, just south of Nara, is the oldest wooden structure in the world. The beautiful Phoenix Hall in Uji is what most visitors to Japan see on the back of the ¥10 coin, though not in real life.
Shintoism is the “native” religion of Japan. So if you want to experience things that are “quintessentially Japanese”, you should especially enjoy them, as they truly embody the Japanese aesthetic. The holiest Shinto shrine is the Great Ise Shrine, while the second holiest is the Izumo Shrine, where the gods gather for an annual assembly. Other famous sacred shrines include Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Kumano Sanzan and Dewa Sanzan, Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, and Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine and Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
Japan’s introduction to Christianity came in 1549 through the Portuguese and Saint Francis Xavier. He founded the first Christian church in Yamaguchi at the Daidoji Temple, whose ruins are now part of the Xavier Memorial Park and in whose honour the Xavier Memorial Church was built.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power, Christianity was banned and Christians were persecuted. Nagasaki is the most famous place of persecution, where 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. They are now saints and you can visit the memorial to these martyrs in the city. The Shimabara Uprising is the most famous Christian uprising in Japan, and it was this uprising that led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan (although Christianity was already banned by this time), along with some 37,000 beheadings of Christians and peasants. In Shimabara you can visit the ruins of Hara Castle, where Christians gathered and were attacked, see old Portuguese tombstones, and the samurai houses, some of which were inhabited by Christian samurai. The Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall in Oyano contains videos about the Shimabara Uprising and great displays about the persecution of Christians. Lesser-known sites may be off the beaten track, such as the Martyrs’ Museum and Memorial Park in Fujisawa. When the nation opened up again, some Christians assumed this meant they could practice Christianity freely and openly, so they came out after 200 years of clandestine practice. Unfortunately, it was still not legal and these Christians were rounded up and tortured in different parts of the country. You can see one of these sites in the Cathedral of Mary in Tsuwano, which was built at Otome Pass in the area where Christians were put in tiny cages and tortured.
In addition to the martyrdom site, Nagasaki is also home to Oura Church, the nation’s oldest surviving church, built in 1864. As Nagasaki was for many years one of the country’s only ports of entry for outsiders, the city is rich in Japan’s Christian history, so much so that even museums here display artefacts and information about the Christian community.
Strangely enough, Christian objects are often found in temples and shrines all over the country. This is because many of these objects were hidden in temples and shrines when Christianity was still forbidden.
Japan has a handful of well-known Confucian temples. As Japan’s gateway to the world for many centuries, the Confucian temple in Nagasaki is the only Confucian temple in the world built by Chinese outside China. Yushima Seido in Tokyo was a Confucian school and one of the country’s first institutions of higher learning. The country’s first integrated school, Shizutani School in Bizen, also taught on the basis of Confucian teachings and principles. The school building itself was even modelled on Chinese architectural styles. The first public school in Okinawa was a Confucian school, which was given to the Ryukyuan Kingdom along with the Confucian Shiseibyo Temple.
The Okinawan religion also has its own spiritual sites. Seta Utaki, a World Heritage Site, is one of the most famous. Many Okinawan spiritual ceremonies have been held here. Asumui in Kongo Sekirinzan Park is a large rock formation believed to be the oldest in the area. As a religious site, shamans used to come here to talk to the gods.
World War II Sites in Japan
The three must-visit places for World War II fans are Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the main island of Okinawa. Okinawa is where some of the most brutal battles between Japan and the United States took place, and the area is full of remnants of the dark past. The Peace Park, the Prefectural Peace Museum, the Himeyuri Peace Museum and the Peace Memorial Hall are some of the best places to learn more, see artefacts and hear accounts of the battles that took place here.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important places in many ways. Hiroshima is the first city ever to be attacked by an atomic bomb, and also the deadliest. After Hiroshima was devastated, the bombing of Nagasaki days later led to the surrender of the Japanese and ended the Second World War. Even those who are not particularly interested in World War II may find the atomic bomb sites interesting, as the issues surrounding nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war are still an issue today. These sites show how powerful, devastating and damaging atomic bombs can be, not only to the country and those who die, but also to the survivors.
Many people are curious about the possibility of visiting Iwo Jima. Currently, the Military Historic Tours Company has exclusive rights to conduct tours on the island.
Pilgrimage routes in Japan
- 88 Temple Pilgrimage – a strenuous 1,647 km walk around the island of Shikoku
- Chugoku 33 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage
- Narrow Road to the Deep North – a route through northern Japan immortalised by Japan’s most famous haiku poet.
Industrial heritage in Japan
The UNESCO World Heritage Site “Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution in Japan: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining” consists of 23 individual sites across the country, most of them in Chugoku and Kyushu. These are sites such as mines, railways, ironworks and ports from the Meiji era, which are among the most notable of Japan’s first Western-style industrial sites. Listed separately is the Tomioka Silk Factory.