National | Regional voices: Chubu

Japan’s ancient castle walls drawing tourists but not enough masons to keep them up

Chunichi Shimbun

Castle walls have recently become popular with tourists, especially rekijo (female history buffs) who like to view them even when the castle itself is no longer there.

Since the Meiji Era, however, the number of masons who repair and preserve the stone walls has been on the decline, and many walls have collapsed during disasters.

The government has set on fostering young masons and introducing cutting-edge technology to conserve castle walls, which are regarded as cultural assets.

In late October, several visitors were seen climbing a long flight of stone steps leading to the ruins of Iwamura Castle in Ena, Gifu Prefecture, known for a tragic female castle lord.

Although the castle keep was razed in the Meiji Era and only the moss-covered stone walls remain, the site has been attracting many tourists.

“It is interesting to imagine how such massive stone walls were built so high up on the mountain and what kind of lives people led there,” said Fumiho Hagino, 44, who came from the city of Gifu.

The place was ranked 10th in TripAdvisor’s top 20 best castles to visit in Japan this year, higher than more famous castles in the neighboring prefectures, including Nagoya Castle and Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture.

“After World War II, the place was full of weeds and nobody paid attention to it,” said Yasuo Sasaki, 78, who works at a historical museum at the foot of the castle, adding it is quite surprising that the place has become so popular.

Castle ruins grew popular after the Takeda Castle ruins in Asago, Hyogo Prefecture, became known as tenku no shiro (castle floating in the sky) because of the way it appears over a sea of clouds on foggy autumn mornings. Thanks to its appearance in TV commercials and other media, visitors to the ruins skyrocketed to 224,000 in fiscal 2017, from around 33,000 in fiscal 2005.

Visitors to the Naegi Castle ruins in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture, known for its scenic view, increased 5.5 times last year to 77,000, compared to those logged four years ago.

The Sawayama Castle ruins in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, which had been the residence of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s right-hand man, Ishida Mitsunari, attracts many history fans although only a couple of stones remain of the castle.

“More people are beginning to think they can better feel the atmosphere of the times (at castle ruins) rather than seeing reproduced castle towers and buildings,” said Yoshihiro Senda, 55, an archaeologist specializing in castles.

However, many castle walls nationwide are becoming fragile due to the lack of masons to manage them properly. The walls of Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto Prefecture collapsed following a major earthquake and those of Marugame Castle in Kagawa Prefecture were damaged by heavy rain.

In 2009, the Cultural Affairs Agency designated castle wall-building as a traditional skill that needs to be preserved, and created a manual for stone wall conservation in 2015 to support the fostering of young masons.

Cutting-edge technology was also adopted to restore damaged walls, using computers to analyze the photographs of the walls before collapse and putting back stones within an error range of a few millimeters.

As for Nagoya Castle, the Nagoya Municipal Government plans to build a wooden castle tower to replace the concrete tower built after World War II, but the project is at a stalemate, as experts are voicing strong opposition to the prioritization of castle tower construction over preservation of the stone walls.

The stone walls of Nagoya Castle are regarded as having high cultural value, being in relatively good condition. But 400 years after the completion of the castle, the walls have started deteriorating, with the north side swelling.

The city checked the walls and submitted a report to an expert panel in July saying they “are more or less stable.” But the report was met with strong criticism from the panel, forcing the city to postpone submission of the construction plan to the Cultural Affairs Agency that was scheduled for this fall.

The city is seeking advice from masons to come up with a convincing plan to restore both the castle tower and the stone walls, which is likely to become a model for restoring other aging castles nationwide.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Nov. 4.