If you hear the word ‘castle’ what images pop into your head? As an Englishman, who as a child, was a keen reader of knightly stories of chivalry and also held a fascination with the Crusades, I have a very definite set of images: I see thick heavy stone walls, topped with sturdy crenulations that form a perimeter around a tall central Norman Keep. There are imposing arched gates protected by deep moats, drawbridges, massive portcullises and towers. Arrow slits scar these outer fortifications at regular intervals and, behind them, medieval men wearing leather jerkins and domed helmets brandish “bastard swords”, longbows and quivers of arrows.
Any fan of the movies of Akira Kurosawa will likewise have a very definite set of images of what a ‘Japanese castle’ looks like: Japanese castles tended to be primarily made of wood and built upon high stone mounds. Their overall shape resembles a mountain with sloped walls and tiled roofs made from plaster that were surprisingly fire resistant. Alas! The wooden structures beneath them did not share this trait. These castles, like their European counterparts above, sported large outer perimeter walls with arrow slits and these were also frequently surrounded by moats as part of their tactical defences.
Now that I have built up your expectations, it is time to scupper them. What I want to talk about is Chiba Castle or Chiba-jo in Japanese. If you come here expecting to see the imposing fortifications seen in those classic samurai movies as I described above, you will be disappointed. Chiba Castle is not a castle. Sure, it may wear the façade of a castle, it certainly bears the distinctive shape and outward accoutrements of a castle, but it is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a faithful recreation of a historical castle. Herein lays its quixotic charm, for it is, in fact, a museum.
So, why on earth is there what looks like a castle here at all? A fair question! Well, there was a castle here long ago but it was not quite the edifice you see today. If we journey back through the murky mire of time to the 11th century, the answer to our question has its seed.
Now, before we proceed, a quick note about Japanese history: The great epochs of Japan are named after the location of the capitol city at that time; in the 8th century the capitol was the city of Nara and thus we have the Nara period; as they moved into the 9th century, the capitol had been relocated to Heian (modern day Kyoto) so we have the Heian period; following the Gempei War, the Shogunate had wrested de facto control from the Emperor and the capitol was moved to Kamakura, thus we have the Kamakura period. It is directly before this last, particularly turbulent transitional period that the figure of Tsuneshige Taira enters our story.
Tsuneshige was a powerful samurai warlord of the Taira Clan. This family claimed to descend from the Heian Emperor Kammu who had actually ushered in the Heian period by moving his capitol there. This period of time was dogged by internecine strife and inter-family politicking as the four major clans of the time, the Minamoto clan, the Fujiwara clan, the Tachibana clan and Taira clan vied with each other for ascendency. During a time when the Taira star was rising, Tsuneshige secured himself a position as an administrator for the area we now know as Chiba city. Here, he established Inohana Castle upon the site of what is now Chiba Castle. From this powerbase he was able to become the governor of the whole of the Shimosa province, which includes the northern part of Chiba prefecture and the southern portion of Ibaraki. At this time he renamed himself Tsuneshige Chiba and began to accrue further military power. With these forces, he took control of the Kazusa province to his south and became a major power player in the Kanto region (the very large area in and around modern-day Tokyo). He was succeeded by his son Tsunetane Chiba who was an influential supporter of Yoritomo Minamoto, who would go on to become the first Shogun of the Kamakura period. In 1455, Inohana Castle itself was taken, dismantled and abandoned by Yasutane Makuwari when he dislodged his rival Tanenao Chiba and, thus was Inohana Castle consigned to the annals of history.
Tsuneshige’s Inohana Castle was so named because it was built upon Mount Inohana. The castle stood upon a cliff and had a river running along its northern boundary; the perfect spot for fortifications. You can still see the remains of some of the earthworks and a portion of the dried-out moat today. This area is still called Inohana but it is park and is far less wild than it was in former years. The park is a well kept space that slowly leads the visitor up to the castle at its zenith. It is particularly beautiful during April, the cherry blossom period, and swathes of pink petals wreath the park’s flora. Thus framed by this cornucopia of blooming splendour, spring is probably the best time of year to go.
Upon reaching the highest point of the park we are faced with the dynamic Tsuneshige Chiba himself, sculpted in cast bronze. Tsuneshige is atop his mount, staring off into the distance, his bow ready to unleash an arrow at an unseen foe. This sets the tone. This monument and the reconstructed castle were part of Chiba’s first opportunity to lionise its past and forge itself a new, powerful identity in a new world, much as their forebear had done.
After World War II, so much of the World had changed about the people of Japan. Even though the slaughter had abated, it was about to undergo another wave of drastic metamorphoses that would again leave much of the populace spiritually up anchored: The occupation by America finished in 1952 and the 1960s had subsequently seen a rapid increase in economic prosperity for Japan, commonly known as the “economic miracle”. This hard fought wealth brought with it a desire to both heal and reaffirm the ancient heritage of Japan as the country bounced back from its darkest hour. Emperor Hirohito (or Showa as he is now referred to since his death in 1989) had reigned since 1926 but was still only in the 42nd year of his lengthy tenure when the reconstruction of Chiba-jo was completed. Chiba castle was one many such projects during this time that, like mollycoddled trees of hope, bore fruit. This is simply another part of that undeniable drive that many people have for a feeling of identity, a backdrop of heritage and to look back upon a ‘golden period’ in their history.
Behind the pedestal mounted figure of Tsuneshige is the entrance to the castle/museum. You ascend a short set of stairs and then there is a ticket office. To get into this museum it is only 60Yen. This is unbelievably cheap; more often that not, you cannot even buy a bottle of water for under 60Yen in Japan. They do have English pamphlets available and on certain weekends volunteer guides are also on hand. Although I have yet to meet one who speaks English, those I have had the pleasure of talking with are brimming with knowledge, enthusiasm and warmth.
The museum is on five floors. The first three floors contain historical artefacts pertaining to the castle itself, the Chiba clan and the Buddhist Sects that were supported by, and supported, the ruling family. As an aside, the remains of various heads of the Chiba Clan can still be found in Buddhist temples dotted around Chiba. These are arguably the most fascinating floors of the castle as you can samurai armour, Katana blades, helmets, arquebuses, artefacts recovered from the original castle, scrolls and statues. The fourth floor is given over to Chiba in the 20th Century and there is a reconstruction of some period rooms from the pre-war era, some memorabilia from the War period itself and a fascinating case about an ancient lotus seed. The top floor is an Observation floor and you can see out over the city of Chiba.
There is more: Some of the more impressive artefacts in the museum are the arquebuses. Every August there is a demonstration of how these firearms were used outside the castle by enthusiasts in period costume. Also, every second Saturday of the month (except January and August) the museum organises an event whereby visitors can dress up in either a traditional kimono or samurai armour. It is limited to 15 people so you will need to e-mail ([email protected]) the organiser beforehand if you wish to participate. This event runs from 13:30 to 15:00 hours.
In order to get to the castle, you first need to make your way to Chiba City. From the bus station outside the JR station get on the keisei bus 千３ heading to Chiba Daigaku Byo or the 千４ that goes to Minami Yahagi. Get off at Kyodo Hakubutsukan or Chibaken Bunka Kaikan. You can see the castle from the bus stop and it only takes a couple of minute to walk to it.
So to summarise, yes, the castle is made of concrete. If you come here expecting something on the scale of Osaka Castle then you will be disappointed. However, if you come to see a fascinating local museum in a beautifully made period design, for an extremely reasonable price, you will be very happy you came.
Official website : http://www.city.chiba.jp/kyoiku/shogaigakushu/bunkazai/kyodo/kyodo_top.html