Azuchi Castle used to be a luxurious castle changing the Japanese castle architecture forever.
Unfortunately it only existed for a very short time. It burned down and now you can only visit the Azuchi Castle ruins.
The ruins are quite impressive and give you a good idea about how vast the castle must have been.
How to Get to Azuchi Castle Ruins
The Azuchi Castle Ruins (安土城跡) are located in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture (map). It makes a nice day trip from Kyoto, but can also be combined with trips to nearby Lake Biwa or Otsu.
Just get off at Azuchi Station. From there it’s about 25 mins if you walk, but you can also rent a bicycle at the station – which is what I did. I found a 100 yen discount ticket for the rental cycle shop at the station here.
History of Azuchi Castle
Oda Nobunaga was one of the most powerful samurai in 1575. He was fighting for a unified Japan. In order to achieve this goal he wanted to build a new castle. Nobunaga chose a strategic location near Lake Biwa to control the traffic to Kyoto via the nearby Tokaida and Nakasendo roads.
However, he didn’t just want to build the usual military structure. He wanted something so vast and revolutionary that it would intimidate his numerous enemies.
Oda Nobunaga started building the castle in 1576 and completed it 3,5 years later.
Unfortunately there aren’t many documents left from that time, but it seems like the outer wall up to the third level was black, the fourth level vermilion and the top level golden. The tiles were painted in red, blue and gold.
This was completely different from previous castle designs where mainly black and white were used.
Azuchi Castle was one of the first castles that had a tower keep (“tenshu”).
The castle keep consisted of 7-stories – and was most likely the world’s largest wooden building at that time.
The high tower led to increased visibility of opponents.
The shape of the floors was also unique. The 5th floor was octagonal, representing heaven, the 6th floor quadrangular, based on ideas of Taoism and Confucianism.
The inner citadels were formed irregularly, giving defenders an advantage over approaching enemies.
Azuchi Castle was the first castle to make use of huge stones to build a very thick and high wall. This became an important feature of later Japanese castle design.
While the defence was strong, Azuchi Castle was different from previous castles that were solely used as fortresses. It was also used for daily life, so it housed a treasury, an audience hall as well as private chambers and offices.
Although the castle was only completed in 1579, it was burned down shortly after that in 1582 after Nobunaga’s death at Honnoji Temple.
There are many theories who might have burned down the castle. A fact is that Nobunaga’s betrayer, Akechi Mitsuhide, couldn’t occupy Azuchi Castle once only ruins were left. Some suggest that Nobunaga’s son ordered to set the castles on fire.
While Azuchi Castle had a rather short life span, it had some important guests (Tokugawa Ieyasu, Niwa Nagahide) as well as some meaningful events (Azuchi Religious Debate, 安土宗論).
It later became a nationally designated Special Historic Site.
With all these significant changes in standard castle design, Azuchi Castle led to a new type of castle.
Until then, there were mostly mountaintop structures used as lookout – that were otherwise abandoned. Now there were larger, luxurious structures where people would actually live and not just fight.
This new castle architecture had so much impact, that it gave its name to a new era.
The Azuchi-Momoyama Period got its name from two impressive castles, one being Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, the other one being Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s Momoyama Castle in Kyoto.
Where to Get Information About Azuchi Castle
If there are only ruins left, then where can you find information about the original Azuchi Castle?
First of all, I highly recommend having a look at a 1:1 replica of the original castle keep as it’s really impressive. Just visit the “Azuchi Momoyama Bunkamura” in Ise (Mie Prefecture).
While in Omihachiman and on your way to the actual ruins, you’ll have access to a few places that will give you more information about Azuchi Castle.
One is the Azuchijokaku Museum (安土城郭資料館) that has a miniature replica of the tenshu. You saw photos of this in the beginning of this blog post.
Another one is really close to the ruins itself. It’s the “Nobunaga no Kan” (信長の館). It has various photos, exhibits and also an impressive replica of the tenshu.
Last but not least there’s the Shiga Prefectural Azuchi Castle Archeological Museum (安土城考古博物館) which is just a few steps from the “Nobunaga no Kan”.
I recommend visiting all those before approaching the ruins.
Visiting the Actual Azuchi Castle Ruins
Once you arrive at the Ote-mon gate, there’s a map awaiting you.
Be prepared to climb up many, many stone steps. This is obviously not barrier-free and there’s no other way up!
The stone steps will eventually lead up to the remains of the castle keep.
There are several small stone statues lined up along the way.
After a while you’ll come across Sokenji Temple (摠見寺) which has been responsible for maintaining Azuchi Castle for over 400 years.
You should definitely enter the temple if you have the time!
It’s extremely rare to find a temple consisting of a hall, pagoda and a garan on castle grounds.
The temple has very beautiful sliding doors.
Please note that you can only enter on weekends and national holidays. I visited on June 8, 2013 which was a Saturday.
After all the stone steps, you should treat yourself to wagashi and matcha. It was about 500 yen, but it’s totally worth it.
You’ll sit on the tatami mats inside the temple with a lovely view outside. Very relaxing.
This tells us we’re close to the ruins of the tower keep.
I have to admit it’s really impressive to see how many stones there are still left.
I love the emblems on the side of tiles. :)
Close to the top, you’ll find a gravestone of Oda Nobunaga.
However, his ashes are not there as Nobunaga’s body was never found.
Some foundation stones of the main keep remain.
From the top nearby the castle keep ruins, you’ll have a great panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and Lake Biwa.
Not too far from there is the earlier mentioned 3-storied pagoda.
From there you’ll also have a lovely view, although you’re not as high up anymore.
If you like castles, visiting the Azuchi Castle ruins is a must. I’ve been to many ruins and those were really impressive.
Needless to mention the panoramic scenery that you’ll get to see in Omihachiman. If you always wanted to experience the Japanese countryside, there you go! It’s also nice to get away from the crowds in Kyoto, Nara or Osaka.