Despite Himeji castle being hidden in a tent we still saw a lot of beautiful castles.
Japan was incredible, we could have spent months traipsing from town to town examining the castles and temples. There are plenty of modern reconstructions to explore but a great many of those left me cold. However, these three castles in particular blew me away. All are designated national treasures, and I could certainly see why.
You’ve probably never heard of Inuyama
I’d never heard of Inuyama until I started looking for day trips from Nagoya. It’s a small town northeast from Nagoya, in Aichi prefecture. About an hour from Nagoya by JR trains you can reach Inuyama with the fantastic JR Rail Pass. However, you can’t get to the centre of Inuyama this way. You have to catch a train from Nagoya to Gifu and then head to Unuma by the JR Takayama railway. It’s a very easy journey though so don’t be dismayed. When you get off the train at Unuma you can see the castle across the Kiso River, imperious on its little hill, with fantastic views over the river gorge to the north and the expanding plain to the south. Walk along the river to the base of the castle’s hill and you might be lucky enough to see Kingfishers in the reeds of the riverbank, that’s what the photographers there will be looking for – flashes of blue zipping between branches and knolls. Follow the road as it curves up the hill and you’ll pop out at the top of Inuyama town’s main road, you’ll be below the castle now. Just walk further up the hill and you can’t miss the entrance.
This is one of the only 12 remaining Japanese castles to survive natural disasters, war, and neglect. It was originally built in 1537 so it’s quite a special place for Japanese people. We visited a Japanese friend’s family on the same trip and her father was astounded that we had taken the time to go and see Inuyama, clearly most tourists just don’t get here. The four storeys of the donjon are linked with very steep and cramped staircases but remarkably there weren’t really that many visitors beside ourselves so it wasn’t too arduous to get to the top. My backpack was the most difficult thing to navigate through the hatches, purely because I’m 6’2″ and the geometry of getting me up these stairs just doesn’t fit when I have a large lump on my back…
But who cares about this trifling awkwardness this is the view when you get to the top?
Inuyama castle is open 9:00 to 17:00 and costs 500 Yen to enter.
If you have another hour to spare after the castle then the Bunraku Museum just down the main road is well worth a look. That’s free and you get a real taste for the immense art that goes into Japanese puppet theatre. Plus it can be a bit unnerving how realistically they move, so that’s great!
Also unnerving was the lecture, entirely in Japanese, by an old man who kept talking about Hiroshima. He clearly thought we were American and had a 6 decade axe to grind. Poor chap. He wasn’t aggressive but he did want to make his point, whatever that was.
Base of the pine tree (Matsumoto)
Much more famous than Inuyama is Matsumoto. This castle is a real tourist draw as it’s widely publicised. We took a day trip from Tokyo to Matsumoto by shinkansen to Nagano and then a limited express service to Matsumoto. That took about 2.5 hours and was completely included in the JR Pass so make the most of it!
Upon reaching the city of Matsumoto you find a fairly quiet place. The altitude leaves the air with a lovely chill and the whole town feels quite laid back. It’s about a ten minute walk to the castle and I just used intuition as there didn’t seem to be any signage anywhere. As soon as you reach the moat of Matsumotojo you realise why it’s so famous.
This castle has ‘WOW!’ pouring from almost every angle. The moat reflected the walls and the donjon beautifully and unlike Inuyama this castle looked like it could put up a bloody fight to the death.
As I stood there admiring the glistening moat and the birds swooping over the walls I was hailed by a scruffy Japanese man. He jabbered away at me for a minute or so in his native language before looking closely at me and proudly announcing ‘Red hair, big nose!’ in English. With that he smiled his crazy grin and wandered off leaving me perplexed. The second castle visit where interactions with locals managed to produce that effect!
Aaaannnyyway… Back to the castle – if Matsumoto could have taken a location like Inuyama’s then the castle would be pretty much perfect but as it is the vista from the top of this donjon is a little more reserved. Although blossoms always sprinkle magic into a scene.
Completed in 1614 this is the second oldest donjon after Himeji (Inuyama was built in 1537 but the current donjon is later). The crowds were more evident here, even though I’ve artfully avoided them in my photography. The sense of it being that much more touristed made the feel of the place a bit less special than Inuyama but you just cannot argue with the views of the castle itself.
I wasn’t that taken with Tokyo so this day trip made for an excellent escape back into a less frenetic Japan. It costs 800 Yen to enter the castle, which is open 08:30-16:30 daily.
Another excellent castle day-trip – Hikone
I didn’t expect much from Hikone. We were headed from Kyoto to Kanazawa and had heard that Hikone was quite a nice place to stop off on the way, having one of these national treasure castles. This was the first such castle we experienced, unless you count being able to see Himeji in its tent from the shinkansen whizzing off to Hiroshima? I don’t.
Another JR Pass train ride took us to Hikone. The fastest way of reaching Hikone with the rail pass takes 46 minutes and runs as follows: Board the shinkansen Kodama at Kyoto and ride to Maibara, you will pass through Hikone on the way but it doesn’t stop there. Then ride the JR Special Rapid service back down the line from Maibara to Hikone. A quick tip – either Hikone or Maibara has luggage lockers available for a few Yen so save yourself the hassle of carrying a load as you move around the town. Unfortunately I can’t remember which station we left our bags in…
Hikone castle was completed in 1622 and in the main is intact from that era. There are some reconstructions and you get a good feel for this type of castle. The route up to the donjon has a spiraling path with a wooden bridge passing over the approach path before it doubles back on itself and enters the gate. The donjon overlooks this design and you can imagine just how difficult a frontal assault would have been.
The cherry blossoms in this part of Shiga prefecture appear about a week later than in Kyoto so if they’re beginning to fall in that city you can expect them to be in full display in Hikone. People flock here to enjoy the moat with blossoms as a backdrop, and I don’t blame them – it’s lovely indeed.
And I think that last picture is what completely sold Hikone for me. The donjon is one of the smaller ones I visited but the situation and the way that the Japanese pull the castle into their everyday lives endeared it to me.
Hikonejo is open 08:30-17:30 and costs 600 Yen to enter the castle and the gardens, which at the time I visited I didn’t realise I was allowed into… Oops…