Japanese Castle: Black or White? Residence or Fortress?

The Japanese castles are characterized by a tower keep, multi-layered tiled roofs, watchtowers, stone walls, and water moats. More than 100 Japanese castles remain today, 12 still hold the original tower keeps, and five are designated as a National Treasure.

(The Matsumoto Castle, the photo taken by Jin)

The Matsumoto Castle (the photo above) is the nearest “National Treasure” castle from Tokyo. It is located near JR Matsumoto Station (2.5 hour train ride from Shinjuku, Tokyo). Its tower keep was constructed in 1594, thus being the oldest among the existing towers in Japan. The walls are black in color as they are coated with black lacquer which has resistance to humidity. For its black exterior, the castle is called “Black Crow Castle”.

Do you want to see a white castle, too? If you visit Kyoto, please extend your legs to the Himeji Castle located near JR Himeji Station (1 hour train ride by Shinkansen from JR Kyoto Station). It is another National Treasure castle and designated a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO. It has been nicknamed “White Heron Castle” for its exterior being white in color (the photo below). The white plaster or mortar is widely used as a construction material for it being water-and-fire-resistant.

(The Himeji Castle, the photo by the courtesy of Himeji City)

Why black vs. white?  It is said that the feudal load who built the Matsumoto Castle (Crow Castle) was a follower of Toyotomi Hideyoshi who loved black castles, while the feudal load who built the Himeji Castle (White Heron Castle) was a follower of Tokugawa Iyeyasu who loved white castles. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the leader of Samurai who united Japan in the late 16th century after the 100-year-long warring state. Tokugawa Iyeyasu overthrew the Toyotomi government and became the next ruler, establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for 260 years until the middle of 19th century.

Besides exterior and history, there is another way to enjoy Japanese castles: find “traps”. There are many traps built into the castles to defeat the attacking enemy. This is why Japanese castles are often called a “fortress”. The first trap which you encounter at most of the Japanese castles is built into gates to the castle, called “Masu”. Masu literally means a cubic container and the main gates are constructed in the Masu shape. Even if the enemy soldiers managed to get through the gate, they would find themselves trapped in the Masu shut off on all four sides. The defenders could launch arrows or fire guns on the enemy from small windows on the gate tower (loopholes, called “Sama”). Besides Masu, there are many of other types of traps built into the Japanese castles you visit.

Oh, you don’t have enough time to visit either the Matsumoto or the Himeji Castle? No worry: please visit the Ohtemon Gate of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo which now acts as a gate to the Higashi Gyoen Park. The imperial palace is actually built on the remains of the Edo Castle, the seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Ohtemon Gate is a typical Masu gate. Crossing the gate, you can enter the Higashi Gyoen Park where the very high stone walls of the castle tower remain although the tower itself was burnt down in the 17th century. Enjoy your visit!

By Jin Shibata




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