Magnificent castle towers, massive stone walls, gilded decorations…. There are many fascinating castles in Kansai that are unique to Japan. From World Heritage sites to the “Machu Picchu of Japan” and recently restored castles, we introduce Kansai’s castles that can be enjoyed both as architectural structures and as historical and cultural museums.
１．【Osaka】"Osaka Castle Museum", a symbol of unification of Japan
Osaka Castle Museum is one of the three most famous castles in Japan and a landmark of Osaka. Known as the base of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified the country, the castle has a tumultuous history.
The predecessor of Osaka Castle was Ishiyama Honganji Temple, built by Rennyo, a member of the Honganji sect of the Jodo Shinshu sect, which boasted great power during the Warring States period. Oda Nobunaga invaded the castle, and after many years of warfare, it belonged to the Oda clan. After his death, it took the Toyotomi clan 15 years to complete the castle. After the Toyotomi family fell, the castle came under the direct control of the Tokugawa family, and was enlarged and rebuilt. In other words, it is a castle that has evolved each time it has passed through the hands of the three heroes of the Warring States period.
Most of the castle was destroyed by fire during the upheavals of the Meiji Restoration, but the keep was rebuilt in 1931, and the present appearance is the third after the Toyotomi and Tokugawa periods. Most of the existing remains are from the Tokugawa period, but the castle tower is a replica of the one from the Hideyoshi Toyotomi period, which laid the foundation for Osaka’s prosperity. It is approximately 55 meters high and of grand scale. It is decorated with gold ornaments, tigers, cranes, and other ornaments, giving it a luxurious appearance that is typical of the Toyotomi clan, which was known for its “love of showiness”.
Inside the building is a history museum with exhibits related to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Osaka Castle. There is a corner that explains the “Osaka Summer Battle” with video and miniature models, a “Golden Tea Room” with gold leaf on all four sides, a corner where visitors can try on helmets and battle helmets, and much more.
The museum store is located on the first floor, so be sure to stop by for souvenirs and gifts.
The top floor, the 8th floor, is an observatory where you can enjoy a panoramic view of Osaka Castle Park and the Osaka cityscape below.
After touring the castle tower, we recommend taking a short boat trip on the Osaka Castle Gozabune that circles the inner moat of Osaka Castle!
Osaka Castle is said to have been built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi with the aim of making it the “greatest castle in Japan”. Why not relive the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and feel as if you were a prince of Japan?
1-1, Osakajo, Chuo-ku, Osaka
17-minute walk from Osaka Metro Tanimachi Line or Chuo Line Tanimachi 4-chome Station
２．【Kyoto】"Nijo-jo Castle", which has witnessed the rise and fall of the Tokugawa family
Nijo Castle is known as the place where the last shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, announced his intention to return to the Grand Council of State. It was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, to protect the Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the emperor resided, and as a place to stay when the shogun went to Kyoto, it has become an indispensable place for the story of the prosperity and demise of the Tokugawa family, which lasted for about 260 years. In 1994, it was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site.
Of the many buildings within the castle that have been designated Important Cultural Properties or National Treasures, the most notable is the Ninomaru-goten Palace, a typical example of the samurai shoin-zukuri style. It is a typical example of the samurai shoin-zukuri style, with six wings stretching from Kurumayose, the entranceway, to the rear, a structure that shows the dignity of the Tokugawa family. It is a large building with 33 rooms and a total of 800 tatami mats.
In particular, the “Great Hall,” where the Shogun meets officially with the lords and court nobles, is the most prestigious room in the Goten, and is decorated with gorgeous features such as a double fold-down coffered ceiling and barrier paintings by Kano Tanyu.
The approximately 3,600 paintings decorating the interior of the Ninomaru-goten Palace are said to be the largest in the history of Japanese art, and were created by the Kano school of painters. Many visitors may have been overwhelmed by the dynamic paintings depicting giant pine trees and ferocious-looking tigers, which seemed to play a role in expressing the dignity of the Tokugawa family.
Kara-mon Gate, the main gate of the Ninomaru-goten Palace. The gate is filled with colorful carvings, and the gorgeous decorations of cranes, turtles, pine trees, bamboo, and plum trees, as if to show off the Tokugawa family’s wealth and prosperity, in addition to sacred animals, will overwhelm you.
“Seiryuen” is a garden that blends Japanese and Western styles, consisting of a Western-style garden with lawns and a Japanese-style garden called “Chisen-kaiyu-shiki teien” (a garden with a circular path around a pond).
The prestigious architectural style and glittering decorations. Why don’t you recall the history of the Tokugawa family in this castle where traces of their glory still remain?
541 Nijojo-cho, Nijo-dori Horikawa Nishi-iru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto [MAP]
From Hankyu Kyoto Line Karasuma Station,
transfer over to the Kyoto Municipal Subway and go to Nijojo-mae Station.
It's a short walk away.
３．【Hyogo】World Cultural Heritage (UNESCO) "Himeji Castle", the pride of Japan's beautiful white castle
The castle has four castle towers, one large and one small, and walls covered in white plaster. Himeji Castle is also known as “Shirasagi Castle” because it looks like a flock of egrets spreading their wings. When asked “What is the most beautiful castle in Japan? Many people would probably think of Himeji Castle first.
Its history dates back to the Kamakura and Nanbokucho periods when Akamatsu Norimura, a warlord of the time, set up a rope line on Himeyama in Hyogo Prefecture. Since then, the castle has been repeatedly repaired and expanded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and other famous military commanders in Japanese history to its present form. Since its construction, the castle has been spared from major war damage, and most of the buildings, including the main and minor towers and turrets, are still in existence, which is why it is also known as “the castle of the indestructible.
Another feature of the castle is its high fortification capability. There are many defensive devices in the vast grounds, such as narrow, winding passages that confuse the enemy, and narrow gun and archery pits set up here and there! It is fun to tour around the castle as if you are sneaking into the enemy camp.
The exterior is beautiful from all angles and is called “eight sides of the front”.
If you want to see the entire castle from a distance, a tour around the castle’s inner moat is recommended! It is a wonderful experience to look up at the graceful castle while swaying on a traditional Japanese-style boat. Enjoy the elegant cruising time as if you were the lord of the castle.
In winter, you may be able to see a rare snow-covered sight!
More than 400 years after its construction, Himeji Castle still rises beautifully. When you visit Hyogo Prefecture, please come and see this talented castle that is the pride of Japan.
68, Honmachi, Himeji-shi, Hyogo [MAP]
20-minute walk from JR Sanyo Main Line Himeji Station
20-minute walk from Sanyo Main Line Himeji Station
４．【Hyogo】"Takeda Castle Ruins", a Castle in the Sky Appearing in a Sea of Clouds
“Takeda Castle Ruins” is a mountain castle perched on top of a 353.7-meter-high mountain. Although only the stonewalls remain, it is a popular spot that attracts many visitors every day who want to catch a glimpse of its photogenic appearance floating in the sea of clouds.
It is said that construction of the castle began in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) by Yamana Souzen, a Tajima feudal lord who made his name during the Onin War. More than ten years after the last lord of the castle, Akamatsu Hirohide, built a magnificent stone wall, the castle was abandoned, leaving only the stone wall, after his defeat in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The castle was silenced in history for a long time, but began to come into the limelight in the 2000s when it was introduced in various media and used as a film location.
The huge stone walls, which have remained in almost the same condition as they were before the Edo period, were built by a technique called “Nozura-zumi”, in which natural stones of various sizes were piled up without processing. The Anou-shu, a group of stone masons who are said to have built the stonewalls, were taught to “listen to the stones and place them where they want to go”, which reminds us of the craftsmanship of the time.
From September to December, the difference in temperature between day and night tends to create a sea of clouds, and Takeda Castle can be seen shrouded in thick fog. The mysterious appearance of the castle, which seems out of this world, will make you understand why it is called “the castle in the sky”. The best time to visit is from dawn to around 8 am. Since several natural conditions are necessary, it depends on your luck whether you can see the sea of clouds or not!
Climb up to the highest point, “Tenshudai,” and the view toward “Minami-Senjo,” which stretches to the south, is a must-see spot to take pictures.
The trail leading to the summit is not short, but once you reach the top, you will be rewarded with a view that will blow away your fatigue.
169, takeda-kojoyama, Wadayama-cho, Asago-shi, Hyogo [MAP]
Take the Tenku bus from JR Bantan Line Takeda Station
and alight at Takedajo-ato. It's a 20-minute walk from there.
Take the Tenku bus from JR Bantan Line Takeda Station
and alight at Yamashironosato. It's a 20-minute walk from there.
４．【Hyogo】"Amagasaki Castle" revived in modern times
Amagasaki Castle was built by order of the shogunate in the early Edo period as a “western defense of Osaka”. At the time, the castle was a majestic symbol of Amagasaki, but it was regrettably abandoned during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). After a long period of disappearance, the castle tower was reconstructed in 2018 with donations from local volunteers and citizens, and opened to the public in March 2019. Over time, it was revived once again.
Originally, it was a huge castle with a three-layered moat and a four-story castle tower, covering an area about 3.5 times the size of the Koshien Stadium. Although the reconstructed version is smaller at approximately 24 meters in height including the stone walls, the exterior is a faithful reproduction of the original appearance. It is now a new sightseeing destination for local residents and tourists alike.
Inside the building is a museum: the “Amagasaki Castle Zone” on the second floor features panel displays explaining the history of the Amagasaki Clan, a “Samurai Dojo” where visitors can try their hand at swordsmanship and guns, and a corner where visitors can experience the weight of spears, swords, bows and arrows, and guns.
At the “Become experience space” on the third floor, visitors can dress up in samurai or princess costumes and take a commemorative photo with the gold fusuma in the background!
Also, in the “My Town Observation Zonee” on the top five floors, there are tablet terminals showing the castle town in the Edo period, so it is fun to compare the old and new scenery.
Enjoy the feeling of going back in time at Amagasaki Castle, which has reappeared after many years.
27, Kitajonai, Amagasaki-shi, Hyogo [MAP]
5-minute walk from Hanshin Main Line Amagasaki Station
Castles are important spots for learning about Japanese history and culture. You will surely discover many things about Japan that you have never known before. Each of the castles introduced here has its own unique attractions and charms, so be sure to visit them all!