Inuyama Castle: Japan’s Oldest Surviving Castle

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By Cher

Inuyama Castle is considered one of Japan’s oldest surviving castles, with a history dating back over 400 years. Perched on a small hill overlooking the Kiso River in Aichi Prefecture, this National Treasure provides a window into feudal Japan and the samurai warlords who once inhabited its mighty walls.

Inuyama Castle

History of Inuyama Castle

Inuyama Castle was originally built in 1537 by Oda Nobunaga’s uncle, Oda Nobuyasu. It served as the seat of power for the Oda clan during Japan’s Warring States period. After Nobunaga’s death, the castle changed hands several times before coming under the control of the Naruse clan in 1617.

The Naruse transformed Inuyama into a formidable fortress to defend their territory. They added tall walls, a three-story watchtower, and other defensive structures around the original donjon, or keep. However, the centuries took their toll, and a strong earthquake in 1891 severely damaged the castle.

In 1895, ownership passed back to the founders, the Naruse family, under the condition that they repair and maintain this important historical monument. Thanks to their stewardship, Inuyama Castle remains one of the oldest wooden fortresses in Japan. The donjon received designation as a National Treasure in 1952.

Exploring Inuyama Castle

Inuyama Castle sits majestically atop a small hill on the southern bank of the Kiso River, overlooking the quaint castle town that surrounds it. Visitors can reach the castle grounds in a 15-20 minute walk from Inuyama Station or Inuyama-Yuen Station.

The interior of the donjon provides a glimpse into how samurai lords lived during the 1500s. The first floor served as an arsenal, packed with weapons and ammunition. Narrow staircases wind up past booby traps and hidden floors to the top level, where the daimyo would meet with his warriors. From the watchtower, sentries kept vigil against surprise attacks.

While the donjon is relatively small compared to later castles, its complex form and intricate details reflect the emerging Momoyama architectural style, a transition between the austerity of early castles and the artistic sophistication seen later in the Edo period. Dark wooden beams contrast beautifully with the white plaster walls, accented by fine carvings and metal ornamentation.

In addition to the soaring main keep, visitors can explore the sprawling castle grounds. A pine grove leads up to the castle’s entryway, marked by traditional samurai gates. The park area contains partial reconstructions of the original multi-layered fortifications. Placards explain the purpose and history behind each part of the castle.

From the top floors of the donjon, panoramic views open up over the town, the Kiso River, and the surrounding countryside. It’s easy to imagine feudal lords of the past scanning the horizon for approaching enemies. The strategic location allowed defenders to control river traffic and land routes.

Cultural Significance

Inuyama Castle holds the distinction of being one of just twelve surviving castles in Japan with its original tenshu, or donjon, intact. This makes it a crucial link to Japan’s feudal history and pre-modern architecture. The elegant Momoyama style also contrasts with the superb decorative designs of later castles.

In addition to Inuyama, the castles of Himeji, Matsumoto, Hikone, and Matsue all have keeps designated as National Treasures for their cultural and historical value. However, at over 400 years old, Inuyama’s donjon remains the oldest original castle tower in Japan.

The need for extensive wooden reconstruction over the centuries makes fully original keeps extremely rare. Inuyama Castle stands as one of the few castles to escape destruction by war, earthquake, or neglect over its long lifetime, making it truly a national treasure.

Visiting the Castle Town

Inuyama Castle not only preserves centuries of history, it remains an anchor for the surrounding community. The streets and canals of the castle town hark back to earlier times when samurai, merchants, and craftsmen lived in its shadow.

Just below the castle is the picturesque Inuyama-Jo Park on the Kiso River. Beautiful gardens and remnants of the old castle walls create a peaceful oasis in the city. Visitors can stroll along pedestrian walkways lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops selling local crafts.

A short walk north is the Inuyama Artifacts Museum, housed in a former samurai residence. Its collection includes armor, weapons, and artifacts uncovered from the castle and surrounding region. Nearby, the Karakuri Exhibition Room displays Edo period robots and mechanical dolls known as karakuri ningyo.

In early April, the Inuyama Festival takes place in the streets around the castle. This celebration features a parade of enormous 10 meter tall floats adorned with lanterns and drawn by costumed participants. Locals also open food stalls to showcase regional delicacies. With the pink cherry blossoms as a backdrop, it is a memorable time to experience Inuyama and its heritage.

From Nagoya to Gifu

Inuyama’s location near Nagoya and Gifu makes it an easy side trip for visitors. Located 35 km north of Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture, it sits directly across the Kiso River from Gifu City in Gifu Prefecture. The two cities are connected by bridge and rail service.

Most tourists access Inuyama via Meitetsu Railways from Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city and transportation hub. The castle and historic district are within walking distance of Inuyama Station or Inuyama-Yuen Station, only 15-20 minutes from Meitetsu Nagoya.

Gifu’s picturesque castle town and surrounding mountains also make it worth adding to an Inuyama itinerary. The direct train between Inuyama and Gifu takes just 20 minutes, making it easy to visit both famous castle towns in one day.

Whether you’re looking to dig into Japanese history or stroll beautifully preserved streets lined with Edo period buildings, Inuyama Castle provides the perfect gateway. As Japan’s oldest surviving original castle, it offers an authentic glimpse into the world of feudal warlords and the towering fortresses they built over 400 years ago.

Much like the majestic white tower of Inuyama Castle, the iconic Hirosaki Castle offers an enchanting glimpse into Japan’s feudal past, making it a must-see destination for history buffs looking to complement their visit to Aichi’s famous castle with a journey further north to Aomori.

FAQ

1. What is Inuyama Castle?

Inuyama Castle is an ancient Japanese castle located in the city of Inuyama. It is considered the oldest surviving castle in Japan.

2. Where is Inuyama Castle located?

Inuyama Castle is situated in the city of Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, Japan.

3. How old is Inuyama Castle?

Inuyama Castle is believed to have been built in the late 15th century, making it over 500 years old.

4. Was Inuyama Castle privately owned?

Yes, Inuyama Castle has been privately owned by the Naruse family for over four centuries.

5. Can you climb to the top floor of the castle?

Yes, visitors can climb to the top floor of Inuyama Castle and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding area.

6. How do I get to Inuyama Castle from Nagoya Station?

You can take the Meitetsu Inuyama Line from Nagoya Station to Meitetsu Inuyama Station, which is the nearest train station to the castle. From there, it is a short walk to the entrance of the castle.

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