There are only 12 castles in Japan that have the original structure – meaning the main building wasn’t rebuilt through time.
Hirosaki Castle, Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture
Hirosaki Castle, built in 1611, is one of the most famous among tourists for the many events hosted here. The park of the castle is home to beautiful cherry trees that bloom in choreographic pink waterfalls. You can celebrate Sakura matsuri during the Golden Week or choose among many other festivals; if you have planned a trip nearby in another season, check if there’s a festival on those days. For example, the largest fireworks show in the prefecture is held in summer, and the festival of lanterns in winter.
Matsumoto Castle, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture
Built in 1504, Matsumoto Castle is the oldest still standing, and for its particular color, the castle is also called Karasu-jo, or the castle of the crow. Here you can do hanami in the night when cherry trees are lit, and maybe sip a nice cup of tea. In July, Matsumoto hosts the Taiko drum festival: groups of musicians from every part of Japan gather to play in the scenic location offered by the castle, starting from late afternoon, when light begins to change shades and evening is approaching. If you are interested in traditional Japanese music, Matsumoto is famous as the city of music, hosting several festivals throughout the year.
Inuyama Castle, Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture
Built in 1537, Inuyama Castle had several owners, but it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century and an earthquake that the then-owner family carried out a complete restoration. Even today, Inuyama castle is a private property, the only one among the castles. From the top floor of the castle you can admire stunning views of the river below and surrounding towns and mountains. In spring, you can get on a boat on the river in its path around the castle and enjoy cherry blossoms.
Maruoka Castle, Maruoka, Fukui Prefecture
Another castle passed through several owners, Maruoka castle was built in 1576. Although it was damaged by an earthquake in the 1950s, it was rebuilt using most of the original material. In spring, there are festivals around cherry flowers, with the particularity of hanging lanterns to the branches of the trees. The town of Maruoka is also known as the Town of Fog, so the castle is called Kasumiga-jo, as fog should appear every time an enemy approach. Maruoka Castle is one of the many examples of hitobashira (人 柱), along with the Matsue Castle.
Hikone Castle, Hikone, Shiga Prefecture
Built in 1622 using materials from Sawayama Castle, and surrounded by cherry trees, Hikone Castle offers magnificent views of the city and Lake Biwa. However, cherries aren’t the only attraction. Inside the castle area, there is a traditional Japanese garden, the Genkyuuen (玄 宮 園), and a small building near the pond, where you can relax while sipping a nice cup of tea. If you like mascots, don’t miss Hikonyan (ひこにゃん), created for the fiftieth anniversary of the castle, based on a story about one of the lord of the castle.
Himeji Castle, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture
Himeji Castle is perhaps the most well known. Originally known as Himeyama Castle, it had a tormented history: it was restored twice, before and after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600); during the Meiji period, after its occupants were expelled, it was auctioned; during the Second World War was bombed, fortunately without substantial damage, and later restored two more times, post-war and more recently. For its grace and architectural elegance and color, Himeji Castle is also known as Shirasagi-jo, or the White Heron Castle.
Matsuyama Castle (Bitchuu), Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture
Also known as Takahashi Castle, not to be confused with the Matsuyama Castle in Ehime Prefecture, the castle was built in the highest area above sea level; for the same reason, it is also the lowest building. Although the original castle dates back to 1331, most of the buildings date back to 1683. Matsuyama Castle also saw a succession of owners until the Meiji period. Subsequently, it was partially destroyed and restored in the 1930s. If you decide to visit it, it is advisable to bring comfortable shoes and everything you need for a real hike.
Matsue Castle, Matsue, Shimane Prefecture
Built in 1611, the Matsue Castle stands out for being on a number of charts: it is the second largest castle, the third tallest and the sixth by elevation from the sea level. For more than two hundred years, it has also been owned by the same family. From the top floor you can enjoy the view of the city and the surrounding area. Between March and April, the castle grounds host Oshiro Matsuri, with several attractions and activities, including cherry blossoms, live concerts, tea ceremonies with tasting of typical Japanese desserts. Matsue Castle is also known as Chidori-jo, or the castle of the plover, and black castle, for its particular colors.
Marugame Castle, Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture
Built for the first time in the sixteenth century, Marugame Castle was destroyed only a few years after its completion, due to the Tokugawa shogunate policy that limited the number of castles to one per prefecture. Marugame Castle was then rebuilt in 1640, after the prefecture was divided into two. During the Meiji Restoration, some buildings were damaged or destroyed as a result of fires and government policies. The most interesting part of Marugame castle is perhaps its 60 meter wall, whose shape resembles a fan; walking to reach the main tower, you will find that many of the stones that make up the wall are engraved with the name of the place of origin or of the people who placed them. The castle is a hirayama shiro, a castle built on a hill, so that reaching it can be a nice walk, but the sight of the city repays every effort.
Matsuyama Castle, Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture
After various vicissitudes, the castle was under the control of the Matsudaira family until 1923, when it was donated to the city. The main tower and other buildings were damaged or destroyed during the bombings of World War II; although some buildings were rebuilt in concrete, almost all of them were rebuilt in the exact same location and using traditional woodworking techniques. Matsuyama Castle can be reached by cable car and is particularly popular for hanami.
Kochi Castle, Kochi, Kochi Prefecture
Built in 1601 by the Yamanouchi family, Kochi Castle was destroyed by fire in 1727, and rebuilt about 25 years later. The peculiarity of the castle is that the main tower was used not only as a defence and observation tower, but also as a residence: it was quite unusual, as families usually lived in a separate building. The castle was never involved in battles, although it was heavily damaged by fire and was restored twice, in the eighteenth century and after the World War II.
Uwajima Castle, Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture
Built in 1595, the castle was conquered a few years later by Date Masahide, who transformed the area into a cultural and industrial center. The Date family maintained control of the castle until the Meiji Restoration. As with most of the other castles, the main tower underwent restorations throughout its history, the last one in 1962. Uwajima Castle has an elegant white structure and stands in a beautiful park with a view of the city, but it is quite difficult to reach – many believe this is the reason why no one has yet decided to demolish it.