Nestled in the plains north of Fukui City lies Maruoka Castle, an elegant reminder of Japan’s feudal past. With its striking white walls and gleaming black roof, the castle’s keep (tenshu) is acclaimed as one of the oldest surviving original castle towers in Japan.
History of Maruoka Castle
Maruoka Castle was built in 1576 by Shibata Katsutoyo, a prominent general under warlord Oda Nobunaga. Its location along major highways connecting the provinces of Echizen, Kaga, and Mino made it an important stronghold. According to legend, the original construction of the castle required a human sacrifice (hitobashira) to stabilize the foundation before the keep could be built.
After Katsutoyo’s death, the castle changed hands several times before coming under the rule of the Honda clan in 1613. The Hondas expanded the castle town and strengthened its fortifications. However, they were dispossessed in 1695 for incompetent leadership. Afterwards, the Arima clan ruled Maruoka for over 150 years until the dissolution of the Han system and feudalism in 1871.
Surviving the Meiji Era
During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), a new modernizing government ordered the destruction of castles across Japan, viewing them as symbols of the outdated feudal system. Remarkably, Maruoka Castle’s keep survived, likely due to its relatively small size and distance from Tokyo. In 1901, the town purchased the castle grounds to create a public park.
Maruoka Castle was designated a National Treasure in 1934. However, in 1948, the tenshu collapsed due to the destruction of its stone foundation during the Fukui Earthquake. In a testament to the keep’s significance, it was painstakingly reconstructed in 1955 using original materials. Today, Maruoka Castle remains one of just twelve castles in Japan with an original wooden keep.
The Mysterious “Mist Castle”
An intriguing nickname for Maruoka Castle is “Mist Castle” (Kasumi-ga-jo). According to legend, whenever enemies approached, a thick mist would suddenly arise and conceal the castle from view. This protective phenomenon led people to believe the castle was guarded by supernatural forces. The mist remains part of local folklore, celebrated through art and poetry.
Design of the Castle
Built atop a small hill, Maruoka Castle exemplifies a hirayama style castle nestled into natural topography. It is surrounded by stone ramparts and a moat. As a late 16th century fortress, the design also incorporates features dating back to earlier samurai eras.
The three-story keep sits upon a high stone base, increasing its height and visibility. The steep base exemplifies an emerging technique during that time period using rough uncut stones. Inside, the keep is unfurnished, with highlights including steep wooden staircases and rope handholds. The top floor offers panoramic views of the plains.
Visiting Maruoka Castle Today
Maruoka Castle is located in Sakai City, northern Fukui Prefecture. The former castle grounds now comprise Kasumigajo Park, encompassing the keep, remnants of ramparts and moats, a museum, and over 400 cherry trees.
The museum displays arms, armor, and artifacts of the lords who once ruled the castle. The sakura creates a sublime scene in spring during the annual cherry blossom festival when they are illuminated by over 300 paper lanterns.
The castle keep is open year-round for exploration. Visitors can climb the precarious stairs to the top floor to enjoy impressive views. As an original wooden 12th-century castle tower, Maruoka offers a rare glimpse into historical Japanese architecture and castle design.
How to Get There
Maruoka Castle is accessible by bus from JR Fukui Station or Awara Onsen Station. The bus ride takes 50 minutes from Fukui and 20 minutes from Awara Onsen. There is also parking available next to the castle grounds.
Significance as an Original Castle Keep
Maruoka Castle holds the distinction as one of just twelve castles in Japan to still have its original wooden tenshu. It contends with Inuyama Castle and Matsumoto Castle over claims to be the oldest surviving castle keep. Regardless of its exact age, Maruoka Castle is an extraordinary historical structure.
The meticulous rebuilding of the keep after its destruction in 1948 highlights its importance. Maruoka Castle stands as a window into 16th-century Japanese fortress architecture and honors a legacy of traditional construction techniques. Visitors can appreciate this living piece of history just as past daimyo once did centuries ago.
You should also try visiting Kumamoto Castle, another famous Japanese castle with an impressive history and striking architecture similar to Maruoka Castle.