5 Castles to Visit in Akita
People know Akita prefecture for its Namahage, beautiful ladies, rice, sake, Akita-inu and bears (no joke, big honkin bears). These are the things people tend to picture when thinking of Akita, and I’ve never heard anyone say "Akita is so awesome because of all them castles!" Except me, kind of saying that, right now. Though not as famous as the gentle "White Egret" Himeji Castle or as opulent as Osaka Castle, the castles in lil ol’ Akita still pull their weight and transport the casual traveller to a time of lords and samurai. Here are the five best castles and castle ruins in Akita, in my opinion.
Akita Castle Ruins
In the Heian period when the capital of Japan was centered in Kyoto (平安京), the north of Japan was not yet incorporated into what we might consider modern day Japan. Back in those days, there were only two cities in Japan, Kyoto and a now destroyed city called Hiraizumi (in modern day Iwate prefecture).
In those days Akita wasn’t even a prefecture, but Akita Castle was built in 733 AD in what was Akita Village. The castle was designed as a fortress by the Yamato (modern Japanese) peoples against the Emishi natives in what the Heian court called Dewa prefecture (modern day Akita and Yamagata Prefectures). In the park today, there are two main attractions, the first being the restored Eastern Gate and wall.
There is another part of the castle that survived though, and it draws in tourists simply on the novelty. In the park, there remains an ancient flush toilet that would have been used in the castle.
The toilet has three stalls, but instead of toilet paper people would use special sticks. These toilets aren’t for public use though, so don't use them.
Kubota Castle Watchtower
The original Kubota Castle, inhabited by the first lord of Akita Kubota Han, was built in 1604 and burned to the ground in 1880. The watchtower was rebuilt in 1989 in what is now Senshu Park.
In addition to the watchtower, the original gate to the castle was rebuilt in 2001 just three years shy of the 400 year anniversary of the founding of Akita City.
Inside the watchtower visitors can see an old model of Akita City, artifacts unearthed nearby, and climb to the top for a 360 degree view of Akita City.
The original Yokote Castle’s founding date is unknown, but like Kubota Castle, Yokote Castle was destroyed. Yokote Castle didn’t just burn down though, no, it was destroyed in part of a campaign of the Boshin War (戊辰戦争) and the end of the Edo period. To appease the souls of the 22 people who died, Akita Shrine was built over the rubble. The original castle didn’t have a tower, but the current castle was rebuilt with one.
Yokote Castle nowadays is most famous as part of the Kamakura festival in Yokote City. A Kamakura (shown below) is kind of like an igloo. People go into a Kamakura to drink, socialize, and enjoy/endure those long winters in Akita.
In winter at night, during the Kamakura Festival, one can see the hill where Yokote Castle sits and the nearby river bursting with orange glowing firelight in Kamakura large and small.
In an itty bitty town 30 minutes walk and 10 minutes by bus from Ugo Kameda station, there are two castles just begging to be explored. The larger castle, Kameda Castle, is a partial recreation of the historic Kameda Castle, and sits on the hill overlooking the village below. The original castle was built in 1623 and presided over by Lord Iwaki (岩城氏).
Like Yokote Castle, Kameda Castle was assaulted and burned down during the Boshin War in 1868. The current castle sits besides Kameda Elementary School and is home to the Satou Hachi Jyuu Hachi Museum (佐藤八十八美術館) which boasts a sizable collection of antique scrolls, artifacts, and a small garden besides a bamboo grove. One exhibit featured regional Tengu masks and a giant carved Tengu mask too.
Entrance to the museum costs 210 yen, but a sign in front asks visitors to please enter from the eastern gate and not the main gate.
This is just fine by me since you get to walk right into the courtyard garden which gives a great vantage point for our final castle on this list and my personal favorite.
Amasagi Castle, part of the Larger Amasagi Village (天鷺村) just has so many things to do and see. Let's start with the obviously stunning Japanese Garden in the central courtyard with a koi pond surrounded by historic homes of villagers from long ago.
The house in the photo belonged to the Suzuki family, a farming family, and inside there is a stable for horses, farming equipment, and things the family would have used in their everyday lives.
Right next to their house are two galleries. One gallery features suits of samurai armor, ancient scrolls, maps, and a cornerstone of the original Kameda Castle. The other gallery is just, well, weird. But in a good way! There are several sculptures of distorted humanoids, and the one that stood out the most to me was Human-bird #4. Makes you wonder where Human-bird One, Two and Three are. Probably hiding in the woods nearby with the Tengu.
Before leaving, you can climb the inside of the central tower and have lunch looking over the garden. For larger groups you can also rent out the second floor for parties and special occasions. How cool is that? Its like, "What did you do last week?" "Oh nothing much, just threw a party in a castle, you?" There are also special events held where participants can enjoy Kiritanpo, a famous rice dish from Akita, and people can also learn how to use a loom to weave.
Amasagi (甘鷺) means Cattle Egret, so Amasagi, Heavenly Egret (天鷺) is probably a play on both that and maybe Shirasagi (白鷺) which is what people call Himeji Castle. I think the name cattle egret is a little bit unfair of a translation in English though, since that particular egret is a radiant gold, like the gold dragonfish on top of Amasagi Castle’s tower. Like those Cattle Egret (Egrets?), the castles of Akita Prefecture might not have the best branding or name recognition, but they are hidden gold each with a special history that I think gives them standing with more famous Japanese Castles and makes them worth the visit.