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Bitchu Matsuyama Castle: Japan’s Mountain Top Castle

Perched atop Mount Gagyu in Takahashi City, Okayama Prefecture, is the magnificent Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, also known as Takahashi Castle. This ancient fortress is notable for being the oldest surviving original castle tower in Japan. First constructed in 1240, the castle has stood proudly atop the mountain for over 780 years.

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Bitchu Matsuyama Castle

The Majestic Bitchu Matsuyama Castle

Unlike many of Japan’s other famous castles which were built later during times of peace, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle was constructed solely for defensive purposes. During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), Japan saw the rise of the samurai class and increasing military conflict. Bitchu Matsuyama Castle was originally built by the lord Akiba Shigenobu as a fortress to guard against attack.

The castle was strategically positioned high atop Mount Gagyu, at an elevation of 430 meters (1410 feet) above sea level. This made it the highest castle in Japan, giving it a major defensive advantage. Invaders would have to climb the steep mountain paths, leaving them vulnerable to attack from above.

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle stands as an excellent example of early Japanese castles called “yamajiro” – castles built atop mountains for defensive functions. The towering height and precipitous natural slopes provided protection, with steep climb deterring attacks.

The Castle Layout

When first built, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle consisted of a small main keep and attached three-story turret, surrounded by basic wooden fortifications and stone walls. As a purely defensive fortress, the original buildings were relatively simple in design and construction. The towering height of the mountain provided the main defense.

Over the centuries, the castle buildings were damaged by war, fires, earthquakes and typhoons. They were repaired and expanded in 1642 and 1757. The current castle complex follows the layout established in the Edo Period.

Visitors must hike up the mountain via a steep stone pathway that passes through multiple baileys, or courtyards. This pathway was designed to provide additional defenses, with attackers forced through narrow, winding spaces exposed to the castle above.

At the summit is the innermost bailey containing the two-story castle keep and attached three-story turret. Though small, the castle keep contains displays explaining the history of the castle and restoration efforts. The turret provides excellent views of the surrounding valley below.

A Castle Shrouded in Clouds

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is often shrouded in mist and clouds, especially during the colder months of late fall and winter. This transports visitors back centuries, to a time when the fortress stood solitary above the clouds.

The sea of clouds phenomenon is particularly stunning just after sunrise, with the castle emerging dramatically from the misty ocean below. An observation deck on a nearby peak provides an excellent vantage point for photographers and sightseers to admire the castle floating in the clouds.

The otherworldly views of Bitchu Matsuyama Castle inspire comparisons to the mythical floating castles depicted in Studio Ghibli’s famous anime film “Castle in the Sky”. Photographs of the castle floating in the clouds are surreal, seeming to show a fortress suspended in the heavens.

Restoration Efforts

By the late Edo Period, most of Japan’s castles had fallen into disuse and disrepair. After the Meiji Restoration and the end of the feudal era, many castles were destroyed or left to ruin. However, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle was recognized for its historical significance and restoration efforts were undertaken.

In the 1930s major restoration work was done to repair the castle buildings. In the 1950s the castle was designated a National Treasures of Japan, beginning a new age of preservation. Further restorations done in 2003 carefully recreated the look of the castle keep’s exterior using traditional techniques and materials.

Ongoing restoration ensures that this priceless remnant of medieval defensive architecture continues standing tall in the clouds, just as it has for over seven centuries. The castle remains an iconic symbol of Japanese history, now preserved for future generations.

Visiting Information

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is located in Takahashi City, about 75 minutes by train from Okayama Station. The closest train station is Bitchu-Takahashi Station on the JR Hakubi Line.

From the station, visitors can take a taxi or local bus to the castle entrance. However, private vehicles are only allowed partway on weekends, holidays, and peak seasons. Expect to hike the last 20-45 minutes through the forest to reach the castle bailey.

The castle grounds are open daily from 9:00 to 17:00, with entry costing around 500 yen. Note that access to the interior of the castle keep is limited to guided tours (in Japanese only). Flash photography and tripods are prohibited inside the keep.

Proper footwear and clothing are recommended, as the climb can be steep and strenuous in parts. Visiting early in the day maximizes your chances of seeing the castle floating dramatically in the clouds above the mountain mists.

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle stands as one of the great surviving medieval castles of Japan. The scenic mountaintop setting and panoramic views make it a beautiful destination for history buffs and sightseers alike.

Another great castle to visit in Japan is the magnificent Uwajima Castle. Step back in time and experience the majesty of feudal Japan at Uwajima Castle, a magnificent historic site overlooking the city of Uwajima.

FAQ

What is Bitchu Matsuyama Castle?

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, also known as Bicchu Matsuyama Castle, is a mountain castle located in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. It is one of the top 100 castles in Japan and is known for its impressive mountaintop location.

How can I get to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle?

The closest station to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is Bitchu Takahashi Station. From there, you can either walk to the castle or take a shared taxi or shuttle bus. The castle is about a 20-minute walk from Bitchu Takahashi Station.

What is special about Bitchu Matsuyama Castle’s location?

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is unique because it is one of the few mountain castles in Japan. It offers breathtaking views of the surrounding area and gives visitors a sense of floating in the sky. Its mountaintop location also served as a strategic advantage during its original use.

Is Bitchu Matsuyama Castle an important cultural property?

Yes, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is designated as an important cultural property in Japan. It is recognized for its historical and architectural significance.

What can I see at Bitchu Matsuyama Castle?

At Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, you can explore the existing castle tower, walk across the Shiromibashi (a wooden bridge leading to the castle), and visit the Matsuyama Castle Observatory, which offers panoramic views of the surrounding area.

What is the best time to visit Bitchu Matsuyama Castle?

The best time to visit Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is during the months of October to March when the weather is cooler and the scenery is stunning. However, the castle is open year-round and can be visited at any time.

What other attractions are there in the city of Takahashi?

In addition to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, the city of Takahashi offers other attractions, such as Mizunoya, a traditional Japanese inn, and the Castle Town area with its charming streets and shops, showcasing the local history and culture.

How high is Bitchu Matsuyama Castle above sea level in Japan?

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is situated at an elevation of approximately sea level in Japan, providing visitors with stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

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