The celebration of Spring
Every spring in Japan people follow the Sakura Zensen – the cherry blossom forecast. Every local and many, many tourists as well carefully plan those few magical days when flowers are in full bloom. The goal is to see it in the most charming corners of the country. This moment is very elusive as it takes only a week from the appearance of the flowers till the petals start to fall. If you are planning your “Sakura Chase” it is worth considering a visit to one of the famous Japanese castles. This structures are very intriguing, especially to us – Europeans who are used to a very different look of historical defensive structures. Most of the castles were built during the chaotic era of Warring States. The typical castle consists of main, multi-leveled keep, a labyrinth of walls and alleys, and a moat.
Unfortunately, only as few as a dozen original castles built before 1868 remained to the present days. Therefore, most of the castles that you can see are modern reconstructions, often made with steel and concrete, instead of traditional materials.
You can see these reconstructions in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuyama, among others. Many of the originals were destroyed during the earthquakes and World War II. Just like the castle in Hiroshima which was wiped off the face of the Earth with the entire city by the nuclear bomb in 1945.
The Castle in Hiroshima
The reconstruction of the castle began 13 years after the city was turned into dust. Today, people can see five-storied keep resembling the historical building from XVI century. It is surrounded by walls and moat and, around all this, there is plenty of cherry trees blooming picturesquely in the spring time. Another place to visit is the nearby Memorial Park, where you can learn more about the doom of the city. When you plan your trip to Hiroshima, bear in mind that the cherries bloom here faster than in Kyoto and Tokyo. It is convenient to get here with the Shinkansen bullet train.
Original Japanese Castles
Traditionally, a castle is surrounded by the 3 rings of walls. The smallest one, in the middle was called honmuaru and surrounded the main keep. Most of these castle towers have two to five stories on the outside, but there might be more on the inside. Four out of twelve original castles still standing today were listed as the National Treasure of Japan and on UNESCO World Heritage List. These are castles in Himeji, Matsumoto, Inuyama and Hikone. We were fortunate enough to visit two of them, known as the White Heron and the Black Crow.
The Himeji Castle
The structure is known as the White Heron Castle due to its elegant, white appearance. It is considered the most beautiful and best preserved castle in Japan. We could not agree more. This was one of the most spectacular spots that we visited in this country. What is more, we got there at the perfect time to see the cherry blossoms in full swing. It could not be better. The castle is located in historically strategic place on the west approach to former capital – Kyoto. Himeji is definitely worth stopping by ,for day or two. It is easily accessible and you can do it on your way to Hiroshima using JR Pass. From the train platform you can already see the Castle towering above the city. You can get pass the moat and within the first ring of walls for free. There is the huge open space with hundreds of blooming cherry trees around. The view is magical and incredibly photogenic.
The White Heron Castle inside
After paying 1000-yen admission fee (9,5 USD), we walked towards the main keep. As the path was getting narrower and narrower we were getting closer and closer to the main tower. The inside of the tower is made from wood and….completely empty. We expected it to be a sort of a museum but there were no artifacts to see. Together with a thick crowd of both tourists and locals celebrating sakura, we were pushed all the way up to the top floor.
It was an exhausting experience as it was very busy, quite cold and you had to take your shoes off. There was not enough time to marvel at the view from the top because everybody was trying to force their way to one of the few windows. In the end, we think that the Himeji Castle is best viewed from the outside, where you can fully enjoy its architecture, blooming flowers and fresh air.
The Matsumoto Castle
On our way from Kyoto to Nagano, we stopped in Matsumoto. An original, well preserved castle is just a 15-minute walk away from the Japan Rail station. We decided to visit it and even though we had to carry our luggage it was not far, at all. The outside of the castle is painted black and because of that it was nicknamed – the Black Crow Castle. On a clear day, you can see the mountain peaks around the valley. The main keep is surrounded by the wide moat and the cherry trees. It is worth knowing that the further north you go, the later the spring arrives. We found the red bridge leading to the castle especially neat, as its red color stood out from the calm waters of the moat.