As most of you know, I’m a “castle hunter“.
I love exploring Japanese castles and I’ve recently cracked the ‘magic 100 mark‘. That means I’ve visited over 100 Japanese castles.
Have I been to all Japanese castles yet? No, surely not.
Have I had enough already? Never!
First of all, you should know that there are “100 Fine Castles of Japan” (日本100名城). One hundred castles have been chosen by the Japanese Castle Foundation in 2006 as the best, most beautiful castles that have cultural or historical value.
For these castles there are special stamps, so you can “catch ’em all” if you want:
This list displays the first 50 castles of the “100 Fine Castles of Japan”. You can find them all displayed inside Kawagoe Castle in Saitama Prefecture.
After I’ve been to 100+ castles, I thought it’s about time to share some of my favorites with you.
Please note that those are my personal picks. In my opinion it’s impossible to say which are the “Top Castles of Japan“, but I hope this list will be a good guide and reference for you.
Also make sure to check out my regularly updated list of Japanese castles I’ve visited. You find all the travel information you’ll need and my personal rating as well. This list is steadily growing as I keep visiting castles.
The 12 Original Japanese Castle Structures
There are only 12 castles left in Japan that are considered as “original”. They’ve survived several earthquakes, fires and wars. All of these castles are therefore special and worth checking out. I know it, because I’ve been to all of them.
Those 12 castles are:
- 01. Bitchu Matsuyama Castle (Okayama)
- 02. Hikone Castle (Shiga)
- 03. Himeji Castle (Hyogo)
- 04. Hirosaki Castle (Aomori)
- 05. Inuyama Castle (Aichi)
- 06. Iyo Matsuyama Castle (Ehime)
- 07. Kochi Castle (Kochi)
- 08. Marugame Castle (Kagawa)
- 09. Maruoka Castle (Fukui)
- 10. Matsue Castle (Shimane)
- 11. Matsumoto Castle (Nagano)
- 12. Uwajima Castle (Ehime)
Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku is the only prefecture in Japan that has two original castle structures, so it’s definitely worth a visit. Shikoku is one of the four main islands of Japan and although it’s rather small with only 4 prefectures, you’ll find FOUR original castle structures there, mainly because it wasn’t targeted during war.
Among those 12 castles I’d particularly recommend the following:
Himeji Castle (Hyogo)
Himeji Castle (姫路城) is without a doubt one of the most beautiful castles in all of Japan. No wonder it’s so popular and famous!
Although 1st-time visitors often have not even heard of Hyogo Prefecture (where the castle is located), many plan a day trip to Himeji just to see the castle.
Himeji Castle is one of the first castles in Japan I’ve ever seen – and it’s also the one that I’ve probably visited most often.
It’s especially beautiful in spring with all the cherry blossoms as well as in autumn. The castle grounds are huge and in the surrounding park you’ll also find a lot of stray cats. Another advantage for cat lovers like me.
Ongoing renovation works until 2015 (they’re done now!)
A lot of people seem to be worried about the ongoing renovation works and keep asking me about it.
The renovation began in April 2010 and will probably take until March 2015. Until August 2014 it will pretty much look like in the photos above. After that the main tower will gradually become visible again.
I don’t know why so many decide not to visit because of that. It’s a chance that only comes every 50 years! You can see the castle tower top from close-up and many other things that you usually wouldn’t. And apart from the main tower everything else is still the way it used to be. So, if you’re close to Himeji (e.g. in Kobe) certainly drop by for a few hours.
Besides, there’s also Engyoji Temple nearby, a shooting location of “The Last Samurai“.
Hikone Castle (Shiga)
This castle is much smaller than Himeji Castle, but is extremely beautiful and the museum has many interesting exhibits to offer.
Hikone can be done as a day trip from various spots in Kansai, e.g. from Nara or Kyoto. I visited nearby Nagahama Castle on the same day.
Matsumoto Castle (Nagano)
Matsumoto Castle (松本城) in Nagano Prefecture is another of my all-time favorites.
I visited in winter when it was extremely cold, but the sky was clear and the surrounding mountains were all covered in snow. I’m a huge fan of black castle structures. Matsumoto Castle has extensive castle grounds, the surrounding park is beautiful.
I went to Takashima Castle in Suwa on the same day. It’s not too far away, so you might want to check it out if you have some extra time.
The Castles of Okinawa
I think it’s not a secret that I’m a huge Okinawa fan, so when two things I really like come together (Okinawa + castles), you can bet I will love it!
The castles of Okinawa are very different from the structures you’ll find on the “main land”. Of course, it has a lot to do with Okinawa’s geographical location and history (Ryukyu Kingdom). You’ll find a lot of Chinese influence in the architecture.
Unfortunately there aren’t many castles left in Okinawa. Mostly you’ll run into ruins. The ones on the main island of Okinawa are well-preserved, but I also like the tiny ruins on Kume Island.
Shuri Castle (首里城) in Naha makes you feel like you’re in China Town.
I love it’s colors and how it’s so different from the “usual” Japanese castle style. The castle is located in Naha on the main island of Okinawa and can easily be reached by monorail from Naha Airport.
Unfortunately the original castle was completely destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. However, it has been reconstructed step by step since 1992. As it’s on a hilltop you’ll also have a great view and you can even see the ocean.
Okinawa’s Castle Ruins
Shuri Castle is the only one that has been reconstructed. All the other castle structures you’ll find in Okinawa are ruins.
However, especially on the main island of Okinawa there are some great ruins you should check out. It might be more challenging to get to them, though. I recommend a rental car, but there are also buses. All of the ruins I mention here are registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
On the left you see Katsuren Castle Ruins (勝連城) located in Uruma.
From the Nakijin Castle Ruins (今帰仁城) you’ll have a particularly nice view and I’d say it’s my favorite among the four ruins.
Zakimi Castle Ruins (座喜味城) are located in Yomitan. Make sure to check out the Yomitan Village History Folklore Museum which is right next to the castle’s entrance.
All those castle ruins have a very special atmosphere that is hard to describe. I didn’t really feel like I was visiting Japanese castles. The landscape, the climate and even the view onto the emerald blue ocean just create a whole new world. Do not miss this opportunity and explore at least some of these ruins in Okinawa.
The Top Japanese Castle Ruins
I hear a lot of people complain that ruins are boring and not worth visiting – or less interesting to take photos of.
Well, I partly agree. There are some extensive castle ruins left in Japan. Especially the mountain castle ruins can be breathtaking and far more exciting than some of the reconstructed towers!
Takeda Castle – “The Castle in The Sky”
My personal favorite castle ruin is by far Takeda Castle (竹田城) – which in recent times became popular as “The Castle in The Sky“. It’s also known as “Machu Picchu of Japan“.
It was promoted on TV and thus an increasing number of tourists has been visiting since then. Unfortunately the state of the ruins has worsened through the masses trampling all over them, so a few months ago they’ve decided to set up an entrance fee.
Just like Himeji Castle this one is located in Hyogo Prefecture. However, it’s on the opposite side of the prefecture in Asago City, so I wouldn’t really recommend visiting those two castles in one day. Instead you could check out Izushi Castle which is very close.
Despite the masses of tourists in recent times, I just can’t hold back and need to recommend this castle to you!
Other Ruins Worth Visiting
There are many castle ruins in Japan. Most tourists don’t know about them, but I want to mention a few that could be worth checking out if you’re nearby.
Takatori Castle Ruins (高取城) in Nara Prefecture are breathtakingly beautiful in autumn (see photo on the right). Mt. Yoshino is not too far from there.
The Top Reconstructed Japanese Castles
The huge majority of Japanese castles nowadays are reconstructed buildings, not always with a castle tower. Personally I prefer those that had their tower reconstructed. Even though they’re concrete reconstruction, some of them look stunning.
A few castles have great surroundings and become especially “photo-worthy” in autumn or spring.
It’s extremely hard for me to choose just a few. I can’t list all the castles I want, so please refer to my “Japanese Castle Index” and check out the castles I’ve rated with 3 or 4 hearts (~). All of them are absolutely worth visiting.
Without further ado, here are the ones I choose:
Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle (Fukushima)
Aizu Wakamatsu Castle (会津若松城) a.k.a. Tsuruga Castle in Fukushima Prefecture has a beautifully reconstructed castle tower. As you can see it even looks great in winter.
It’s said to be the greatest castle in Eastern Japan.
Fushimi Castle (Kyoto)
While the castle tower is closed to the public, the castle grounds are freely accessible.
I’m a huge fan of the architecture and colors of this castle reconstruction. Definitely worth dropping by if you have an extra hour after visiting Fushimi Inari.
Gujo Hachiman Castle (Gifu)
I adore Gujo Hachiman Castle (郡上八幡城).
Why? Because Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture is one of my favorite places in Japan! The fact that there’s a beautiful castle reconstruction on a hilltop that offers a great view of the place I love so much, should be enough reason to put it on the list.
Gujo is famous for “Gujo Odori” during “o-bon” in August. For a few days locals as well as tourists will dance in geta (traditional Japanese shoes) all night long. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had in Japan! So, why don’t you enjoy the dancing AND visit Gujo Castle?
Hamamatsu Castle (Shizuoka)
As for Hamamatsu Castle (浜松城) in Shizuoka Prefecture I think all the little details just match perfectly.
I love the tiny cute castle tower in black, grey and white. I adore the colors of the surrounding walls. And on top of that there are red shrine gates right next to the castle tower. Cherry blossom season in spring provides the whole scenery even more beauty.
Imabari Castle (Ehime)
Imabari Castle (今治城) in Ehime Prefecture is one of my favorite reconstructed castles. There are so many buildings on the huge castle grounds.
Extensive moats and an absolutely awesome view onto the ocean from the top floor of the tower are things I like a lot.
You can see a part of the Seto Inland Sea – and Imabari is also the place from where you can start a cycle tour all the way to Onomichi (Hiroshima).
When you are in Ehime Prefecture, you might also want to visit the following castles: Iyo Matsuyama and Uwajima Castles (originals), Ozu Castle.
Kumamoto Castle (熊本城) is one of the largest castle reconstructions I’ve seen. At first, I thought it’s an original structure.
Kyushu has a lot of great castles, but if I had to choose only one, it would be Kumamoto Castle!
Okayama Castle (岡山城) is also known as the “Crow Castle“. The black exterior is a contrast to nearby Himeji Castle (Egret Castle) which is white.
The inside of Okayama Castle is rather boring, but the surroundings are great. Right next to the castle is one of Japan’s most beautiful Japanese gardens, Korakuen Garden. If you’re short on time you can just visit the garden and take photos of the castle from there.
Matsumae Castle (Hokkaido)
Matsumae Castle (松前城) is located in Hokkaido. It’s said to be the only traditional Edo-style castle you’ll find there. It’s also the northernmost castle of Japan, so that makes it kind of special, don’t you think?
The castle tower has an interesting, “compact” architecture. It’s a bit far out, but can be reached by bus from Hakodate.
Nagoya Castle (Aichi)
Nagoya Castle (名古屋城) is another popular castle reconstruction that can be easily visited by foreign tourists. Nagoya is somewhat between Tokyo and Kyoto, so many people drop by.
For me, Nagoya Castle’s tower is just insanely beautiful. Probably one of the most beautiful in existence! The style is similar to the one of Osaka Castle, but Nagoya Castle is just so much more impressive! I could stand in front of the tower and stare at it for hours.
Compared to Osaka Castle’s interior I find Nagoya Castle’s rather interesting. Various exhibitions, even a huge collection of dead insects, can be found on several floors.
If you’re in Nagoya already, you should also visit Kiyosu Castle.
Odawara Castle (Kanagawa)
When I visited Odawara Castle (小田原城) in Kanagawa Prefecture, I was impressed by how majestic the tower seemed to be. What a great reconstruction!
Inside is a museum with interesting exhibits on several floors. I spent a long time in there.
The castle is just a few minutes away from JR Odawara Station – which can be reached by local train or Shinkansen. If you’re traveling between Yokohama and Shizuoka, I’d certainly consider visiting.
There are a few castles that don’t really fit into any of the previous categories, but that absolutely deserve to be mentioned.
Goryokaku Fort (Hokkaido)
Goryokaku Fort (五稜郭) is a Western-style fort in Hakodate, Hokkaido.
The castle moat is shaped like a star. You get the best view from the top floor of a nearby tower.
As you can see in the photo above, spring is one of the best times to visit. Please note that cherry blossoms bloom later in Hokkaido (early May) than in the rest of Japan!
Nijo Castle (Kyoto)
Nijo Castle (二条城) is one of the very few castles left with a palace-style building.
It’s probably the most visited castle by foreign tourists, simply because it’s in Kyoto City. And although it’s such a “typical tourist spot”, I can highly recommend it!
I especially love the “nightingale floors“. When you walk on the floor inside the castle, it sounds like thousands of birds. Old-fashioned “security systems” rule!
Kinojo Castle (Okayama)
Kinojo Castle (鬼ノ城) also known as “Demon’s Castle” is located in Soja City, Okayama Prefecture.
If you’re planning to stay longer in Okayama, especially if you want to explore the Kibi plain, then you should also check out this nearby castle.
Only the west gate has been fully reconstructed (see photo above). You’ll mainly find ruins, but as the castle is on a mountaintop, it offers a breathtaking view!
With its connection to Japanese folklore (Momotaro) it’s a popular tourist spot for Japanese people. Yet you don’t have to worry that it gets crowded.
What are your favorite Japanese castles?
After showing you some of my favorites, I’d love to hear which castles you consider worth visiting.
Oh, and just because I’ve been to 100+ castles, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to hear your recommendation for castles I haven’t been to yet. As you can tell I always love to explore new things here in Japan.