The most easily-accessible castles you might get a chance to see during a quick visit to urban Japan—Osaka castle or Nagoya castle perhaps—are enjoyable destinations and worth a look but they are air-conditioned modern museums. Because of their modern amenities, they give the distinct impression that you are missing something critical. Alas, ferroconcrete castle replicas don’t give the look and feel (or smell) of the original wood-framed, plaster-walled structures, do they?
Sadly, nearly all of Japan’s castles were either dismantled after the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century or reduced to rubble in the Second World War. There are still twelve structures around the country which manage to retain the original materials of the unique feudal past but, with a few exceptions, these treasures lurk off the beaten track. For the visitor with limited time and limited energy, these may be a bit out of the way. But they do have a certain charm to them; the original castles can audibly creak when you pad-around their interiors in slippers.
But if you have time in Nagoya, that big and under-appreciated metropolis on the Tokaido shinkansen line, you can use the opportunity to do a quick jaunt up to Inuyama Castle (犬山城, Inuyamajō), the smallest (and supposedly oldest) original castle of them all.
Getting there and away
After riding northward from the Meitetsu terminal (but not the JR terminal!) of Nagoya Station for roughly 30 minutes, you can exit Inuyama Station through the west exit. There, you will be provided with a window to catch a tantalizing glimpse of the diminutive white tenshu (天守), the castle tower, off in the distance.
The castle and its modest park are a mere 15 – 20 minute walk through Inuyama city; free maps and visitor information can be obtained at the station’s tourism office. On the way, there is a short street of shops leading-up to the main spectacle. Architecturally, many of the shops of Inuyama Castle Town attempt to emulate the appearance of the Edo period; if you happen to be there for first Saturday and Sunday of April, you might even catch the crowded Inuyama Festival.
Inuyama Castle itself dates back to the 1500s; it is one of five such castle towers to be designated a national treasure. Until 2004, it was a (uniquely) privately-owned castle but was turned-over to a public body. (At the time of writing, the entrance fee is ¥550.)
After entering the Momoyama-period tower, you can climb your way up wooden stairs which have been rubbed-smooth and are a bit too steep to make the ascent very easy. “This,” you might say to yourself “is what the real thing must’ve felt like.” When you get to the top of the donjon on a clear day, you can walk around the outside balcony to get a decent view of the narrow Kiso River which forms the boundary between Aichi and Gifu prefectures. There are also framed images of the castle’s owners throughout the years lining the walls of the topmost level.
Next door to the castle compound is the Urakuen garden (有楽苑) which contains the quaint historic Jo-an (如庵) tea-house which was transplanted to the park from Kyoto. If you have more time in town, your trip to Inuyama can be combined with a visit to the nearby Meiji-Mura Museum (明治村), an open-air collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture, which includes a portion of a Frank Lloyd-Wright building.
Take a break!
If you want to relax by the station, there are a number of nearby shops where you can cool your heels. One possible option is M’s Café, located by the east exit of Inuyama Station building. You can sample their array of excellent baked goods and decently-sized mugs of tea and coffee in a cozy room. Their “krone” (custard-filled pastry) is our favorite!
Address: 65-2 Kitakoken, Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture
Website: http://inuyama-castle.jp (in Japanese only)
Address: 1 Gomonsaki, Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture
Meiji Mura Museum:
Address: 1, Uchiyama, Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture
Address: 14 Fujimicho, Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture