History

Setouchi Castle and Samurai Highlights

Setouchi Castle and Samurai Highlights

Thanks in part to legendary film directors like Akira Kurosawa and countless manga and anime that have been translated and distributed across the globe, the mystique of Japan's samurai era is a continuous source of fascination for many visitors to Japan. Although you can find some aspects of samurai history in nearly every part of Japan, Setouchi's strategic location made it an area of particular prominence during the age of the samurai.
It is in Setouchi that you'll find Himeji Castle, Japan's grandest castle, the city of Osafune, where 40% of swords ever made in the history of Japan were forged, and Takamatsu's Ritsurin Park, one the finest examples of samurai-era gardens in the world.
With so many incredible locations to choose from, we've created a short list of castle and samurai-related highlights to visit in Setouchi, starting with the one attraction that cannot be missed: the UNESCO World Heritage Himeji Castle.

Himeji Castle and Kokoen Garden

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Himeji Castle is one of the most visited of all the Japanese castles, and it's easy to understand why. From the moment you step out of Himeji Station and see the visage of its magnificent architecture at the end of the main street, you will be captivated by its beauty.

Ironically, one of the reasons the castle remains as glorious as it appears is that it was never involved in any battles. The castle's five-story (inside seven floors) main keep appears as it did when it was completed in 1609 (although Himeji Castle existed in less grand forms nearly 300 years earlier). As such, visitors to the castle can truly appreciate the engineering genius that went into its construction. Several renovations have been carried out over the centuries, but each has used construction techniques and materials faithful to the original plans.

Perhaps the castle's intimidating appearance and well-planned defenses contributed to its never being attacked. Twenty-one gates provided substantial choke points for would-be attackers, and the maze-like approach to the keep is framed with high walls lined with loopholes through which defenders could fire muskets and arrows.

Inside the mighty keep, you can see and feel the two great main pillars responsible for bearing the weight of the 48-meter tall castle, made from centuries-old cypress trees from other areas of Japan. Your respect for the engineers who built the castle will grow when you consider how the castle sustained virtually no damage in the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which caused considerable damage to modern buildings in nearby Kobe.

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After enjoying the engineering marvels and military might of Himeji Castle, take a short stroll over to Koko-en Garden to enjoy a different type of traditional Japanese beauty. Koko-en was constructed in 1992 on the site of the former West Residence of the castle lord using Edo Period gardening techniques that complement the appearance of the nearby castle. Koko-en was designed not only as a stand-alone garden but also as one that would provide visitors with breathtaking views of Himeji Castle.

Koko-en consists of nine different gardens separated by beautifully designed walls made from bamboo. Each wall has a design that complements the garden it frames. Although each garden is beautiful year-round, some gardens feature designs and flora that make them particularly beautiful during specific seasons. For example, the Lord's residence's garden is brilliant with autumn colors, perhaps best enjoyed over a traditional meal at the Kassui-ken restaurant overlooking the garden's pond.

As the Koko-en is quite large and should be enjoyed leisurely, be sure to stop for Japanese green tea and traditional sweets at Souju-an. A former Urasenke Grand Tea Master designed this teahouse in the style of an Edo Period samurai residence. The teahouse has its own beautiful garden, but it was also designed so that visitors face the main keep of Himeji Castle as they enjoy their tea.

Bizen Osafune Sword Museum

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You may wonder if visiting a sword museum is worth a trip off the beaten path to the relatively unknown town of Osafune. However, if you were a samurai in ancient Japan there was a good chance that the sword at your hip was forged within walking distance of where the museum now stands.Incredibly, about 40% of all of the swords forged in the history of Japan were made right here in this little town, now a part of the larger Setouchi City .

Osafune's proximity to first-rate sources of tamahagane steeland easy trade access to the capital city of Kyoto made it a perfect location for swordsmiths to set up shop. Even today,a great many skilled sword craftsmen continue to ply their trade in Osafune.

The museum's collection is not vast, yet it contains a remarkable number of blades produced in Osafune that are well-known in Japanese history, alongside other examples from across the whole length and breadth of Japan.Time your visit right, and you can catch their English-speaking staff available to explain the detailed history of Osafune as a sword-making town and interesting stories of individual swords and their owners. Make sure to inquire with the museum directly if you would like to guarantee an English language tour!.

If looking at these historical works of art up close is not enough for you, the museum offers an array of other activities and events to fulfill your sword-making fantasies. A professional swordsmith will teach you how to make your own "paper knife" (basically a letter opener), and depending on the day, you can watch expert swordsmiths and other craftsmen as they work on various aspects of sword production, from forging to sword guard making to blade polishing.

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle and Takahashi Castle Town

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Deep in the mountains of Okayama Prefecture and high atop a mountain, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle watches over a narrow valley containing the former castle town of Takahashi. And the current lord of the castle is a cat named Sanjuro.

Of course, the castle's lord hasn't always been feline, and Bitchu Matsuyama Castle has been around for a while. It is one of the 12 remaining original castles and is considered the only mountain castle remaining in Japan. Its original construction dates back to 1240, when castles were built strictly for defensive purposes, and the challenging approach to the castle, which takes anywhere from 20 minutes to nearly an hour, depending on where you start, attests to that.

As you make your ascent to the keep, you'll pass through and along the castle's formidable stone walls and foundations. Imagine being an attacker in full armor assaulting the castle and you will realize that in your exhausted state, you'd become an easy target for archer's arrows, boiling oil, or large rocks being hurled down by defenders.

Fortunately, modern visitors will receive a less hostile greeting at the castle in the form of Sanjuro, a stray cat found living on the castle grounds in 2018 and subsequently promoted to Lord of Bitchu Matsuyama Castle. He can often be found patrolling the castle grounds between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, but you might also spot him napping in Honmaru at other times of the day. Sanjuro takes his role quite seriously and poses for hundreds of photos for and with visitors each day. Walk around the castle grounds, and you might even spot the small statue already erected for him. 

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is the perfect size for a cat lord. Just two-stories high, it relied mainly on its position atop a steep mountain and its tall stone walls for defenses. But it does have another unusual attribute that makes visitors swoon; at certain times, it floats on the clouds.

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Not literally, of course, but the valley below the castle fills with a dense fog in the early morning hours from late September through early April, making the castle appear to be floating on a "sea of clouds." This breathtaking view can be seen from an observation deck about a kilometer from the castle itself. Although you can never perfectly predict the conditions for the "sea of clouds," adventurous travelers who rise early might be rewarded with the photo opportunity of a lifetime.

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A visit to the castle wouldn't be complete without exploring the castle town of Takahashi, which the castle once protected. At the base of the mountain below the castle, Ishibiya-cho, the former residential area of the samurai, has been preserved for visitors to enjoy. Two former high-ranking samurai residences of the Haibara and Orii families are open to the public. Original furnishings and decor have also been preserved to give visitors a feel for the daily life of a samurai several centuries ago.

Takahashi also has several tourist spots which use preserved historic buildings to house them. At The Takahashi Merchant House Museum, visitors can tour a merchant house that once operated a soy sauce-making business.The Takahashi Local History Museum is housed in a wooden Western-style building from the early 20th century that used to be a school.

Two other attractions in and near Takahashi were designed by two famous Japanese designers from entirely different eras. Raikyuji Temple features a dry garden designed by Enshu Kobori, a high-ranking samurai known for designing many castles, palaces and gardens in the early Edo Period around the 17th century. About 20 minutes outside of Takahashi in Nariwa is the Nariwa Art Museum, a classic piece of Tadao Ando architecture using his trademark minimalist concrete design and reflecting pools.

Marugame Castle

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Hopping over to Shikoku Island using the Great Seto Bridge, we continue our tour of samurai history in Kagawa Prefecture. Once arriving in Kagawa, the little hilltop castle of Marugame stands proudly above its city, another of the 12 original castles still existing in Japan. What it lacks in stature, it more than makes up for in beauty. The castle is visible from many parts of Marugame City and even cruising on the Seto Inland Sea, thanks to its high position on a small mountain.The size of the castle can also be deceiving due to the massive stone wall leading up to the keep, which stands 60 meters tall in total, the tallest in Japan. The height of the wall necessitates the elegant curve of its construction which only enhances its graceful beauty.

Some say Marugame Castle is best admired from a distance, at city level, surrounded by its wide moat and perched atop its high stone wall. Indeed, ascending the mountain to reach the castle keep is no small undertaking and might require a rest break or two, especially in the heat of summer. However, those who make the effort will be rewarded with an outstanding panoramic view of the city and nearby Inland Sea, as well as a view of the unusually conical Mt. Iino in the distance.

Takamatsu Bonsai no Sato

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Thanks to its temperate climate, low rainfall, and relatively consistent yearly temperatures, Takamatsu City is the perfect environment for cultivating the matsu pine trees that are commonly used in making bonsai. Using pruning techniques perfected in Takamatsu's fruit-growing industry, Takamatsu became the de facto capital of bonsai cultivation for nearly two centuries.

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Takamatsu Bonsai no Sato opened in 2020 and quickly rose to become the must-visit destination for bonsai lovers. Visitors can browse its extensive bonsai collection pruned to all different shapes and sizes. Beyond the typical matsu pine trees, Bonsai no Sato has many examples of other varieties of trees that have been pruned into miniature versions of themselves, from evergreen conifers to seasonal Japanese maples.

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Occasional events where you can attend lectures and workshops (with reservation) on bonsai cultivation are announced on their homepage.

Ritsurin Garden

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We started the tour with Japan's grandest castle, so it's only natural that we want to finish the tour on an equally grand scale, at Ritsurin Garden, arguably one of Japan's most magnificent traditional gardens. Many visitors to Japan have never heard of Ritsurin, for the simple reason that many visitors to Japan never make their way to Shikoku Island. But those who know of Ritsurin usually agree that it is an exquisite beauty among beauties, with nearly 400 years of preserved history in Japan's largest Cultural Property Garden.

What likely started as a modest garden created by the Sato clan in the late 16th century was inherited by a succession of influential clans who continued to expand it. The powerful Matsudaira clan owned Ritsurin for most of that time and used it as their private retreat for over two centuries and 11 generations. When the Edo Period ended, and the samurai clans no longer held power, Ritsurin was opened to the public as a government-owned garden.

As Takamatsu's climate is highly suitable for matsu pine trees, beautifully pruned and stylized examples of these trees, many hundreds of years old, are highlights of the garden. As the garden was created for strolling, a popular form of entertainment for high-class samurai, natural scenic viewpoints are part of the garden's design. The most famous of these views is atop Hiraiho Hill, an artificial hill constructed to represent Mt. Fuji. From here, Ritsurin's graceful Engetsukyo Bridge is framed perfectly over Nanko Pond, with Mt. Shuin looming large in the background.

Nanko Pond is a central point of focus of the garden, and one that visitors can enjoy in various ways. Flat boats propelled along the pond by boatmen in traditional clothing can be hired for a leisurely tour, taking visitors close to the pond's small islands, some of which have their own little gardens. The Kikugetsu-tei tea house sits at the pond's edge, offering visitors a warm (or cool) place to rest while enjoying green tea and a small dessert. It's advisable to sit far in the back of the teahouse, where you can admire both the vast tatami-mat room and the iconic pond view outside the windows.

As you walk along the pond, the koi and turtles who make their home in the water may pop their heads up to greet you. This is because they are hoping you have purchased some food pellets from the teahouse to share with them, not because they are curious about you personally.

This sampling of castles and samurai-era attractions in Setouchi is just one of many options for those interested in Japanese history, but it is undoubtedly a great place to start your adventures. We have developed other castle and samurai-themed itineraries for visitors to experience in our 23 itinerary section, so be sure to check those out for more ideas to enjoy Setouchi!

Photographs and text by Todd Fong

You can get more information about the route followed in this article by checking out our itineraries in the "Plan Your Trip" section of this website.

https://www.setouchi.travel/en/plan-your-trip/itineraries/ph2-sta-st-021/

RELATED DESTINATION

Hyogo

Hyogo Prefecture is roughly in the center of the Japanese archipelago. It has the Port of Kobe, which plays an important role as the gateway of Japan. It also is home to plentiful tourist attractions such as Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and several hot spring areas. Kobe beef, one of the three major brands of wagyu beef, is a delicacy.