It’s impossible to resist the allure of a Japanese castle. New and old, their architecture produces daydreams of moonlit ninjas and samurai sieges of centuries long past.
With more than a hundred still scattered around the country, twelve of which have lasted through ages of civil war and carpet bombing, it’s a wonder why these special sites are not at the very top of most tourists’ lists. The most obvious problem, however, is their proximity to metropolitan hubs and their ease of access to Japan’s ever-convenient train lines.
So, we’ve compiled a list of the must-sees that are short, very doable distances from shinkansen (bullet train) stops. Some with great views, some in city centres, some with stories of resilience, and some that have stood the test of vicious Japanese time. See what you can relative to where you stay, or take the whole tour! Every fortress on this list is worth a stop.
Let’s break it down!
Our Top 5 Castle Stops Along the Shinkansen Line
5. Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto City, Kumamoto)
A short street car ride from the main station, this one has seen it’s share of challenges even in recent history. A victim of the Kumamoto earthquakes of 2016, two of the strongest earthquakes to ever reach the Japanese mainland, the castle grounds were gutted. Walls, turrets; even some of the main keep was being held up by what looked like the first few block offers from the start of a Tetris game.
The keep, rebuilt in 1960, was designated as one of the 100 Fine Castles of Japan, and its recent reconstruction reopening has locals and tourists alike steadily flocking to get a taste of that pre-quake top floor view. Now nearly fully restored, the castle grounds can be extensively explored.
The castle tenshu (main keep) consists of two towers – one taller than the other, but large outer turrets can confuse the eye at some angles. From the sizeable green area, Kumamoto Castle can be seen to have several stacked towers. Catch an event here sometime and you may just run into the internationally recognized curious bear character, Kumamon.
Even recently rebuilt, Kumamoto Castle is a wonder to behold. It’s an extraordinary hilltop landmark of the city and is a must-visit when in Kyushu. Distance from shinkansen station to grounds: 14-minute street car ride + 3-minute walk / 10-minute bus ride + 5-minute walk
4. Hikone Castle (Hikone, Shiga)
Hikone Castle is a real gem. Immediately recognized from the JR station exit, Hikone Castle is one of the twelve original remaining castles and is a National Historic Site of Japan. Over 400 years old, Hikone Castle is lifted by a central hill that allows it to observe the surrounding town as well as Lake Biwa, the largest lake of Japan, and the adjacent Hira Mountains of western Shiga prefecture. The castle grounds are accompanied by Genkyuen, a Japanese garden, and a gokoku shrine (shrines dedicated to war causalities) that’s popular for leaf viewing in the fall.
The hilltop area will have your attention for some time. On these grounds, gate observatories and turrets can be entered as well as the castle. Given its nature, everything that can be entered here requires not only for shoes to be removed but to also be placed in a plastic bag (which is offered at the grounds entrance).
The architecture of this castle is particularly unique. The windows, for example, are framed in a bell shape that is unlike any other castle we’ve seen. The inside, with its steep stairs and smells of centuries old wood, is a walk through Edo-period history. The old iron joints of the gates, the nails holding down the roof tiles, and the window locks are reminders of times past.
The successful preservation of Hikone Castle makes it a top spot for castle lovers, and it’s no wonder why this one is so special.
Distance from shinkansen station to grounds: 5-minute local JR ride + 15-minute walk
3. Kakegawa Castle (Kakegawa, Shizuoka)
Kakegawa is a special spot. A town located between Hamamatsu and Shizuoka City, its small hilltop castle can be spotted from the train window before arriving at Kakegawa Station. While not an original castle, Kakegawa Castle was rebuilt in the 1990’s in the likeness of the original and with a similar method – made entirely of wood (not reinforced with concrete like most modern reconstructions). This is the only reconstructed castle in Japan like this.
While a reconstruction, parts of the main gate and flower-garnished moat are, indeed, original. The grounds offer ideal views of the downward gazing main keep. The Ninomaru Palace offers a particularly unique view of the castle through paper windows and from the comfort of tatami floors littered with castle artifacts.
The castle takes little effort to tour, and the view from the top, offering a 360-degree view of Kakegawa, is a lovely spot to unwind. Explore the innerworkings of the castle and its unique reconstruction concept without the hassle of dangerously steep staircases.
Visiting Kakegawa Castle makes for a wonderful little trip. Given its proximity to Mt. Fuji, there’s no reason not to stop by.
Distance from shinkansen station to grounds: 10-minute walk
2. Osaka Castle (Osaka City, Osaka)
This city needs no introduction. One of the most populous cities in the nation, Osaka City is home to some of the country’s best entertainment, eateries, and history. It’s an exceptional hub for the top two castles on our list. Let’s start with the city’s own Osaka Castle.
Osaka Castle is the biggest castle structure (no hill included) in Japan at just over forty-one meters tall. Its grounds are enormous, with impressively high moat walls, and act as an essential green area for this metropolitan city. The castle is rebuilt, as has been many times throughout history, and full of modern amenities – including elevators (ideal for a castle this size). TV’s and hologram models depict the history of the castle and its important role in the unification of Japan.
The view from the top is stunning. The panoramic view of Osaka City and ease of access to the top keeps the outer deck full of skyline gazers. At night, its façade is lit up by electric window torches and spotlights – accentuating its green roof and gold inlays. It’s a peaceful place to be in such an often rowdy city.
As the most modern of the five, Osaka Castle could fit comfortably on anyone’s museum list. Distance from shinkansen station to grounds: 4-minute JR ride + 10-minute JR ride
1. Himeji Castle (Himeji, Hyogo)
At number one on our list, Himeji Castle is the definition of iconic. As the only castle in Japan to make the UNESCO list, it’s worth traveling just about any distance to see.
One of the original twelve and most famous of them all, Himeji Castle’s immaculate white keep against a blue sky is a scene commonly found in travel brochures. As the city’s biggest tourist attraction, it can be seen from Himeji Station, and it’s a straight shot.
The grounds themselves are stunning. Koko Garden is a particular wonder – full of shallow ponds, fantastical stepping stones, and autumnal beauty. The path from gate to castle can be quite the hike, however. Like many original castles, the inner floors are led into with steep steps, and there are several of them. The view from the top is a great reward, however. Overlooking a rather populous Himeji City from an over 400-year-old fortress is something truly remarkable – seen as the original castle inhabitants saw it (minus a 7-Eleven or two).
Take your time wandering through the main towers and perusing the descriptions of original artifacts. Don’t forget to stop by Himeji Castle’s well – Okiku. With a gruesome legend of its own, it became the influence of the popular horror film The Ring.
Oh, and should you buy a ninja star from the gift shop? That answer is always yes. Distance from shinkansen station to grounds: 15-minute walk or a 3-minute bus ride and a 2-minute walk.