The Castles of Inuyama & Nagoya

About half an hour apart as the crow flies lie the ancient castle towns of Inuyama and Nagoya. Built in the early fifteenth century — and then heavily strengthened and otherwise improved in the sixteenth and seventeenth — Inuyama is often (and probably inaccurately) said to be the oldest castle in Japan. But we know for a fact that this castle is one of only twelve still left standing in the country following a post-1867 combination of wars and natural disasters. And Inuyama Castle is lovely, rising high on a hill over the wide Kiso River:

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My mom, sister, Prescott and I visited just at the beginning of cherry blossom season …

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… and we very much enjoyed the walk up from the river to the castle …

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… which runs along a small and charming canal:

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Before you reach the castle gate, you pass through a large area devoted to the Sanko Inari Shrine. The first thing you’ll see are red-orange torii, gates that mark the transition from the earthly to the scared:

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The torii run on and on in waves up the hill …

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… with dozens of people (ourselves included) taking selfies beneath their squared-off arches.IMG_2892

Vermillion lanterns also line the way:

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The shrines themselves come in all sizes, both large and small …

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… and inari (the Japanese fox spirit who is the protector of rice and agriculture) are everywhere:

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The walk to Inuyama Castle continues on up, up, up a set of stone stairs. Eventually you reach the  gate to the castle; the original was destroyed in a giant fire in 1871, but there’s now a wonderful reconstruction in its place …

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… with a beautiful cherry tree just bursting into bloom outside:

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The castle itself is a perfect jewel up at the top.

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It looks small at first glance, almost like a toy castle from a gift shop, but the building becomes much grander as you draw closer. You can still see the stone and wood of the original tower.

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The best part of this castle is that you can follow steep stairs (ladders, really) through the small, dark castle rooms all the way up to the top floor. This is not an easy climb — Inuyama has the dubious distinction of housing the longest straight staircase of any castle tower in Japan. But once you reach the top, you have views out over the castle’s outbuildings and the city in one direction …

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… and the river in the other:

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This vantage point gives you a really good sense of how easy it would have been to defend the castle from attackers over the centuries. Inside hang paintings of all of the past lords who did exactly that — amazingly, only twelve different men ruled the castle from the early 1600s until the the building was turned over to a national foundation in 2004. So you can see pictures of all of them in one room, including this guy from the early 1700s:

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Inuyama Castle was more crowded than we’d expected, but it is a National Treasure (one of only five castles in Japan with this designation), and it’s only been open for public viewing for about fifteen years. If it’s not too far out of your way, I strongly recommend paying a visit to this lovely spot.

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Venture south through blighted industrial landscapes on busy streets for a little over half an hour, and you’ll find yourself in the enormous parking lot that serves the thousands of visitors streaming in to visit Nagoya Castle.

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This castle was originally built in the early 1600s, about a hundred years after the main tower of Inuyama. At the time, it had the distinction of being one of the largest castles in Japan built on a flat expanse rather than high up on a hill. But air raids in 1945 burned down the main castle and several of the outbuildings, leaving only some corner towers (below, the southwest turret, also known as the goat-monkey turret) and the main gate still standing.

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Fortunately, rebuilding efforts in both 1959 and 2013 restored much of the castle and palace complex, which are now open to visitors. And people turn out in throngs during sakura (cherry blossom) season!

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Everyone stopped in front of the line of trees that runs just across from the main castle moat:

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There are actually multiple moats running along and around the castle. Some hold water, others are beautiful and lush with grass …

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… and others still play home to sika deer in the summer season:

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We especially loved this one …

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… while being amused by the signage on the bridge just in front:

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Nagoya Castle itself, known for having two donjons connected by a bridge, is quite stunning:

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If you walk closer, you can see the bridge itself, known as the “Wall of Swords” for the spearheads that would have run along the inside:

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The highlight of a trip to Nagoya Castle is probably a visit to Hommaru Palace, once the residence and audience hall of the city’s shoguns. The hall and its golden screens have been faithfully created inside the castle walls by highly skilled artisans, so you can see tigers as they would have entertained and intimidated guests in the shoguns’ outside waiting room …

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… pheasants and cherry blossoms in the “waiting room for even more important people” (with the lord’s audience chamber, featuring a pine tree, just behind)…

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… and scenes of the daily lives of commoners in the ministers’ reception hall:

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The detail in these paintings is striking:

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It’s worth going to Nagoya Castle just for a trip through these rooms, but if that’s not enough, you can also see a “samurai show” (which appeared to me to be no more than a costumed man giving a very long speech in Japanese) …

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… take a picture with the giant golden carp (the symbol of the castle) …

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… or visit the formal gardens just next door:

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We were also big fans of the manhole covers (not something you’d usually notice on a trip to a major tourist destination, but in Japan, they stand out):

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In late March and early April, of course, you can just stop and smell the cherry blossoms:

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