The first foreigner to tour a Japanese castle was nearly as astonished as I was. In 1580, Luis Frois, a Jesuit priest, visited Azuchi Castle in the company of its lord. Afterward, Frois wrote in a letter: "As regards architecture, strength, wealth, and grandeur [it] may well be compared with the greatest buildings of Europe. ... In the middle there is a sort of tower which they call tenshu and it indeed has a far more noble and splendid appearance than our towers. It consists of seven floors, all of which, both inside and out, have been fashioned to a wonderful architectural design. ... In a word, the whole edifice is beautiful, excellent, and brilliant."
This "noble, splendid" castle, along with the thousands of others that stood guard over medieval Japan, was made entirely of wood. A dozen of them have endured into the twenty-first century, and last year my husband and I visited three of the most celebrated.
Why build wooden castles? In a word: earthquakes. Tremors rock Japan virtually every day, some barely noticeable, others killing thousands, as in Kobe in 1995. A falling stone wall is lethal. For this reason, traditional Japanese architecture has always used light materials such as wood, paper, and plaster. This makes for easy rebuilding after disasters--and some very vulnerable castles.
White heron castle
After over a century of nonstop civil war, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan's first shogun, finally succeeded in uniting the country in a.d. 1600. He immediately ordered his rivals' castles demolished; more than four hundred were torn down within days. Ieyasu then began building his own fortresses, to impress lords and commoners alike with his might. The largest and most magnificent of all was Himeji Castle, fifty miles west of Osaka. It was there that we started our castle tour on a crisp fall day.
As we approached on the shinkansen bullet train, it was easy to see why Himeji had received its Japanese nickname, Shirasagi-jo, or "white heron castle." With its sprawling layout and dazzling white walls, it resembled a huge bird landing on a hilltop. A Japanese castle makes a totally different impression from its European counterpart. Instead of a hulking mass of stone, Himeji Castle is a confection of delicate roofs and gables.
Of Japan's dozen original castles, only Himeji has preserved its walls and turrets, its keeps and courtyards. The town's citizens are tremendously proud of their castle, considered a crowning achievement of Japanese architecture and proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. English-speaking volunteers wait at the ticket booth offering free tours to foreigners. Masahisa Yoshida generously gave us a minicourse in castle architecture as he showed us around.
Every element of the castle, we learned, had a practical purpose, right down to its color. The white plaster was fireproof, and the wooden walls were so thoroughly coated that in the entire complex, only a single window frame was left uncovered. The tiniest construction detail was carefully planned. Wooden window bars were wrapped in metal sheets, to prevent ninja spies from sawing through them. Then, to confuse the ninja, the bars were disguised with plaster.
Inside Himeji Castle's ponderous main gate, the modern world vanishes. Leaf shadows tremble on old stone, a mason's hammer rings on tile, and the wind rushes through ancient pines. I was rather startled, though, when a samurai warrior in full regalia ambled around the corner. It turned out that a Kyoto studio was filming a historical drama for TV. As the hero, splendid in green brocade, strutted down a gravel path, female fans cooed behind their digital cameras. Himeji Castle is a favorite with Japanese filmmakers, including Akira Kurosawa, who shot his masterpiece Ran there.
The castle's layout is a maze in stone and plaster. You turn right to go left, head down a steep flight of stairs to climb to the tower-- which never seems to get any closer. Every time I thought we'd found the tower entrance, the gate led us into another obscure courtyard.
Such labyrinthine design compensates for the frailty of a wooden castle. Enemies who managed to cross three moats and penetrate the outer gates would quickly get lost. The route to the main tower twists and doubles back, thoroughly disorienting invaders (and tourists). Gates open onto blank walls, forcing impossibly sharp turns. Buildings bristle with gun slots and chutes for dropping rocks and boiling oil, and intruders would soon find themselves corralled in a narrow courtyard, under fire from all four sides.
The hodgepodge of stonework in the foundations shows how castle building strained the resources of the entire nation. Himeji's inner moat alone required more than three miles of stone. When quarries were exhausted, builders confiscated every stone they found. Within the foundations, Yoshida pointed out temple lanterns, Buddhist sculptures, stone coffins from prehistoric burial mounds, and small millstones called ubagaishi, or "old-woman stones." These foundations were laid without mortar, allowing them to flex during tremors, and their graceful, flaring curves add stability. Each wall was signed by those who built it, so they could be summoned quickly to make repairs.
Entering the main tower, we traded our shoes for soft slippers, and the cold floor quickly numbed my feet. Overhead, the dark wooden chambers thundered with footsteps and echoed with little-boy yells of "Sugoi!" (wow!). Architects still study the tower's ingenious design, which has kept it standing through four centuries of earthquakes. Two massive wooden pillars run from the stone foundation through seven stories to the roof, adding strength and flexibility to the structure. The east pillar, 250 feet tall and a yard thick at the bottom, was hewed from a single trunk of fir. Its deep, swirling grain looks like immense fingerprints.
Every inch of the tower was designed with war in mind. Though it appears to be five stories tall from outside, two hidden floors could conceal more soldiers. Steep, treacherous staircases end in heavy defensive trapdoors. In the corners of each floor lurk hidden guardrooms. If the enemy penetrated this far, all was lost, but honor required samurai to fight to the death to gain their lord time for a proper suicide.
Centuries later, Himeji Castle still guards its secrets, and Yoshida shared one with me. Behind an opened gate, he removed a loose foundation stone and pulled out a battered pair of straw sandals, trimmed with tatters of blue fabric. Some nameless worker, centuries ago, had hidden his shoes to save the trouble of carrying them home-- then never returned. Suddenly, the castle around me was filled with ghosts.
Our next stop was in the heart of the Japanese Alps, 220 miles northeast of Himeji. Here Matsumoto Castle stands in stark contrast to Himeji's white elegance. It was built not as a symbol of power but as a functional war machine. Even on a brilliantly sunny day, the "Black Crow Castle" is stark and severe. A mass of black woodwork and sooty dark roof tiles, the tower sits perched on its stone foundations. As we entered its main gate, an elderly Japanese pilgrim gazed openmouthed, pausing from his round of temples.
We were fortunate to meet another volunteer guide here, and Tsunaichi Sato filled us in on the castle's history. Matsumoto Castle, he explained, was never used for a residence; it was intended strictly as a military headquarters. Its complex pillar system left no space for accommodation. The lord made do with a screened-off room for his own use and a chamber on the fourth floor for his war council. Gun racks lined the walls, and hundreds of pegs once held leather pouches of gunpowder.
Inside the tower, a fascinating display showed how the Japanese had developed firearms--and changed the course of their history. Guns were first brought to Japan in 1543 by the Portuguese, but gunsmithing remained a closely guarded secret. Over time, the lords worked out their own designs, displaying great variety and imagination. Some resemble European weapons, while others are barely recognizable as guns. Bullets were made at home by samurai women and children.
Suits of samurai armor were also on display, clearly the inspiration for Darth Vader of Star Wars. Sato explained that each weighed more than sixty pounds and could only be worn on horseback. Low-ranking samurai had to fight on foot, without benefit of armor.
The tower's top floor served as an observation post, giving a commanding view of the valley and any enemies approaching from the surrounding mountains. I was surprised to see a tiny Shinto altar tucked high in the rafters, and Sato told us the legend behind it. In 1618, a mysterious shining woman appeared before a watchman, saying that if the castle made an annual offering of a thousand pounds of rice, it would be protected. The offering was made, and the castle remained safe. To this day, rice is offered every eight years.
Though some Japanese castles were destroyed in battle, their main enemy was fire. The roof peaks of Matsumoto Castle, like many others, are ornamented with tile images called shachi, half fish and half tiger, which were believed to call down rain. Ironically, these protectors were actually a major cause of fire. Their fins were bound onto their bodies with broad iron bands, which attracted lightning during storms. The Japanese didn't understand the connection.
Three concentric stone moats once defended the castle. The first circle enclosed the tower itself, while the second circle protected palaces, a granary, and gunpowder storehouses. The wide area between the second and third moats was a residential quarter, filled with the homes of ninety high-ranking samurai families. Humbler families lived beyond the outer moat, alongside the fields.
Matsumoto Castle survived into the new era of peace enforced by the shogun and later received a most unusual annex. Thirty-five years after the fortress was built, its lord ordered the addition of a "moon- viewing wing," an attached pavilion where he and his friends could write poetry and sip sake by moonlight. It was airy and pleasant, with a high vaulted ceiling and a vermilion-laquered balcony out over the moat. The monstrous black carp circling below looked ancient enough to have eavesdropped on samurai parties.
Far to the north, near the snowy tip of Honshu, is one of Japan's most atmospheric towns. The castle in Hirosaki was the smallest that we visited, but within the modern city, we could easily trace the outline of an old castle town.
Of Hirosaki Castle's original structures, only three minor towers and several gates remain. Its main tower was rebuilt in 1810 after a fire. Now, swans glide along the castle moat, and the park encircled in its sweep serves citizens as an outdoor living room. Every spring, five thousand cherry trees explode into bloom, and during our visit the autumn maple leaves were at their flaming peak. It was Culture Day, a minor national holiday, and kids pedaled tricycles through the gates, while their parents admired the winning blossoms in a chrysanthemum competition.
North of the castle, a district called Naka-cho shows how samurai neighborhoods looked. The dense cypress hedges that lined the narrow streets were too thick to see through but loose enough for defenders to stab through. Several samurai family homes have been restored and are open to visitors.
Wandering through the Iwata House, I was struck by its elegant simplicity. Walls of old, brown wood rose to a high thatched roof. The interior was beautifully spare, its tatami-matted rooms centered on small open hearths and furnished with graceful wooden chests, but the ceiling was high and drafty, with no chimney. Life here must have been miserably cold, dark, and smoky.
In feudal Japan, everything had its assigned place, including religion. Though the shogun's lords were nominal Buddhists, they mistrusted the clergy as potential rivals for power, and all temples were forced to relocate in teramachi, or temple quarters, where the lord could keep a watchful eye on them. Hirosaki has two such districts, one for the austere Zen temples of the samurai, the other for the devotional sects of the commoners.
Zenrin-gai, the Zen district, is solidly lined on both sides with a score of temples. But as we peered into one courtyard after another, all were deserted. The temples' most prominent features were their cemeteries, forests of small black or gray marble columns. Only a little shrine to Jizo, the protector of children and travelers, showed any signs of worship: a peculiar collection of weathered dolls, ceramic figurines, and toys stood there as silent offerings.
Isolated in the far north, Hirosaki developed many distinctive cultural traditions. The most dramatic is the Neputa Festival, in which glowing, thirty-foot-high lanterns of painted paper are paraded through the streets every August. An old painting in the town's Neputa Village Museum shows how the lanterns were originally carried as standards in battle.
Many traditional Hirosaki crafts have samurai roots. Despite their warlike mystique, samurai were basically civil servants, and the lowest ranks struggled to supplement their meager stipends. Some produced baka-nuri, or "fool's lacquerware," using an insanely complex technique with forty separate steps. After viewing samples of each stage, I still couldn't fathom the process, but the result was lovely: a minute honeycomb of red, green, and gold. Other samurai painted paper kites in bright designs. These activities are still carried out, and at a craft center we watched a master kite painter at work, the colors swirling off his brush in quick, sure strokes.
Shaping modern japan
Despite their warlike appearance, few Japanese castles were ever attacked. Their formidable construction made the odds too overwhelming. After a century of civil war in the 1500s, Japan finally emerged into 250 years of peace under the uncontested power of the shogun, and the castles turned into administrative centers--and ever-present reminders of the shogun's might. Castle towns grew up around their feet, some of them the largest cities in the world, then as now: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya.
When feudalism finally collapsed in 1867, mobs destroyed scores of the shogun's castles as hated symbols of oppression. One was even sold for fifty dollars and made into barrels. World War II incinerated six more. Though many concrete replicas have been built since 1947, the dozen remaining authentic castles are among the most evocative and elegant sights in Japan.
In our travels, I discovered that looking out from the top floor of a castle invariably spoils its magic. Beyond the sculptured elegance of the roof tiles, Japanese cities sprawl out ugly and functional--a tight-packed jam of apartment blocks, office towers, and train stations, crawling with traffic, simmering in smog, and smug with prosperity. The tile monsters at the roof peaks seem to be snarling at the twenty-first century.
But this is the world that the castles made. By finally damping down the threat of civil war, they permitted Japan to turn its formidable energy to more constructive purposes and become a powerful player on the world stage. These fragile wooden castles proved strong enough to shape the future of a nation.n
Kristin Johannsen is a freelance writer based in Berea, Kentucky. She writes frequently about Asian cultures and travel.