CASTLES & CHERRY BLOSSOMS
NOBLE KEEPS AMID A FLURRY OF PINK PETALS
Among Japan’s many historic treasures, there are none quite as iconic as Japan’s castles, the towering buildings and impressive baileys of which captivate visitors year-round. They appear especially majestic in early spring, when cherry blossoms bloom in and around the castle grounds, striking a marvelous contrast between soft, pink cherry blossoms and bold, awe-inspiring keeps. With around 100 extant castles, Japan offers many opportunities for travelers to visit these architectural marvels of feudal Japan.
① Himeji Castle
Japan has many noteworthy castles, but Himeji Castle stands in a league of its own. Never besieged nor destroyed by war or natural disasters, Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture retains its original form, with multiple baileys and 80 buildings connected by a series of gates and twisting paths.
A UNESCO World Heritage site and a National Treasure of Japan, Himeji Castle is anchored in pivotal moments in Japanese history. Construction of the castle’s current infrastructure began in 1581 under the orders of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the preeminent samurai leader who rose to power at the end of the Sengoku Period (1454–1573). The castle was later expanded under Ikeda Terumasa, who was awarded the castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu for his efforts in the Battle of Sekigahara, the conclusion of which ushered in the Edo Period (1603–1868).
Himeji Castle’s architects designed it to be an impregnable fortress, as many of the castle’s walls and moats still remain. The approach to the 46-meter-tall keep consists of multiple gates and walled paths meant to delay and expose attackers, and the top of the main keep provided strategic views of what is now the city of Himeji and its surrounding landscape.
In early spring, cherry blossoms within the castle grounds bloom and complement the distinct white exterior of the castle buildings. The most popular cherry blossom spot is the outer Sannomaru bailey, which is lined with many large cherry blossom trees and can be entered free of charge.
Himeji Castle is easily accessible from Tokyo via the Tokaido and Sanyo bullet trains, with a one-way trip taking approximately three hours.
② Nagoya Castle
Many of Japan’s prominent samurai hailed from Aichi Prefecture, and therefore it comes as no surprise that Nagoya — the prefectural capital — sports one of Japan’s most noteworthy castles. The castle’s main keep is currently closed for reconstruction and is scheduled to reopen in 2022, but visitors can still visit the recently opened palace, which contains rooms that were reserved for visiting shogun and sliding doors with beautifully replicated paintings. With its many cherry blossom trees, the park surrounding the castle is a popular hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) spot in early spring.
③ Matsumoto Castle
Sometimes referred to as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior, Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture has several features that distinguish it from its counterparts. Unlike most castles, Matsumoto Castle is built on a plain rather than on a hill, and has a turret adjoined to its main keep. With hundreds of Somei-Yoshino — Japan’s most common variety of cherry tree — along the outer moat, the castle attracts many visitors in early spring. The castle is easily accessible from Tokyo via bullet train and express train and only a 15-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station.
④ Kumamoto Castle
Located in Kumamoto Prefecture, the impressive Kumamoto Castle is one of Japan’s best castles. Originally constructed in the early 1600s, the castle features impressive stone walls and moats with several turrets and storehouses. Unfortunately, the castle sustained significant damage during a series of earthquakes that struck the region in April 2016, and as a result, the castle’s interior has been closed and is set to reopen in 2021. It is home to around 800 cherry trees, making it a popular destination in early spring.
⑤ Hirosaki Castle
Hirosaki Castle is Tohoku’s premier castle and one of the best cherry blossom spots in Japan. Constructed in 1611 in Aomori Prefecture, the castle contains six concentric baileys originally separated by moats. The current three-story keep was built in 1810 after the original five-story keep was struck by lightning and destroyed, and is the only keep in Tohoku that has not been rebuilt in the modern era. The nearby Hirosaki Park is arguably Japan’s best cherry blossom spot, with over 2,500 cherry trees, a petal-filled moat and pleasant picnic areas.
⑥ Aizuwakamatsu Castle
Every spring, flocks of travelers visit Aizuwakamatsu Castle, also known as Tsuruga Castle, to witness the blooming cherry trees that populate the surrounding park. Originally constructed in 1384, the castle was captured in 1589 by Tohoku’s most famous samurai, Date Masamune, and stands out among its counterparts due to its unique red roof tiles. The keep contains a museum that details the history of the castle and the region, and the observation deck offers stunning panoramic views. Another unique feature of the castle is the beautiful Rinkaku Tea House, which has been designated as an Important Cultural Property.
⑦ Osaka Castle
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