The Most Popular Castles in Japan Among Tourists

The Most Popular Castles in Japan Among Tourists

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Osaka Castle in Osaka
Picture: でじたるらぶ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Which castles in Japan have the most fans among incoming tourists? One company ran the numbers to find out.

Japanese landscapes, celebrated for their vibrant shifts from spring’s delicate pinks to autumn’s fiery reds, never fail to mesmerize tourists. Amidst these ever-changing scenes, one constant remains — the timeless allure of Japanese architecture.

Castles, among the many magnificent structures, emerge as iconic landmarks, echoing the spirit of the samurai era. Though some may boast greater fame, they all share a beauty that invites visitors to step into a nostalgic past.

Which castles are most popular among tourists right now? One company ran the numbers to find out.

Osaka excels in foreign audience verdict

Mov Co., Ltd just revealed the 2024 hottest tourist destination, backed by a robust collection of over 1,000 Google Maps reviews.

This year, the spotlight was on everyone’s castle favorites, and Osaka Castle snagged the crown, with Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture’s Himeji City trailing in a close second. This standout destination etched an indelible mark on international travelers, amassing over 100 foreign language reviews in just two weeks. Remarkably, this acclaim flooded in during the early weeks of January – not your typical peak time for Japan exploration.

Which castles in Japan have the most fans among incoming tourists? One company ran the numbers to find out.

Truth be told, Osaka Castle may have scored a solid 4.6 in international reviews, but it’s not the unanimous crowd-pleaser. The survey breaks it down – English and Korean speakers lean towards Osaka, while Chinese and Thai communities favor Kumamoto Castle.

Castle beauty amid ruin and renewal

Ise Azuchi Castle, Ise, Mie Prefecture
Ise Azuchi Castle, a re-creation of Oda Nobunaga’s castle in Ninja Kingdom, Mie Prefecture. (Picture: Rise / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

In Japan, as in many other lands, the history of castles stretches back to ancient times, particularly the Yayoi period (300 BCE to 250 CE). Settlements strategically dotted on hilltops or encircled by moats, forming formidable defenses against outside threats.

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This primitive concept morphed into mountain-based castles, pioneered by Oda Nobunaga‘s Azuchi Castle. These architectural marvels set the stage for the grand fortresses we admire today, boasting sturdy stone walls and majestic towers.

Japan was rumored to be the home of tens of thousands of castles, a legacy of the prolific “Keicho castle construction rush” (慶長の築城ラッシュ) under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868). In this era, over 3,000 castles blossomed nationwide, tactically crafted to shield the ruling family from potential uprisings by feudal lords (daimyo).

This castle boom sculpted the Japanese landscape, infusing it with a renewed sense of grandeur and power. That was, of course, until the Meiji period came along.

Once grand fortresses and thriving economic hubs, castles began to lose their luster during the Meiji Restoration, marking the end of the Boshin War (1868-1869) and the samurai era. As their significance dwindled, so did the upkeep, leading to a swift and relentless decay. Some found new life as military bases, while others faced the auction block. Take, for instance, the renowned Himeji Castle, acquired by a private buyer for a mere $1,900 – quite a bargain for a future UNESCO heritage site.

Sadly, even those spared from Meiji deterioration couldn’t escape the devastation of World War II bombings, as witnessed with Osaka Castle and Shuri Castle.

Two favorites neck-and-neck for the lead

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle. (Picture: shimanto / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

In the realm of stunning castles, Osaka stole the spotlight, winning the hearts of foreign visitors. Recognized as a National Tangible Cultural Property, this castle is not only a historical gem but also offers an incredible cityscape from its 8th-floor observatory.

Constructed in 1583 under the command of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s second great unifier, Osaka Castle was initially meant to outshine Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. After a 15-year construction period, it witnessed both opulence and adversity. The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 left it in ruins, but it rose again in 1620, enduring subsequent cycles of restoration. This has led historians, like Toshibi Kohara, to ponder its historical value and connection to Hideyoshi, especially since the last 20th-century renovation can’t trace a single stone of its grand structures back to him.

Funny enough, a castle that does have a direct connection to Hideyoshi is none other than Osaka Castle’s main competitor. Originally founded by Akamatsu Sadanori in 1346, Himeji Castle fell under Hideyoshi’s ownership and renovation in 1580 – even before Osaka Castle. What sets Himeji apart is its remarkable preservation, gracefully maintaining its structure through ages of renovations and expansions. Its resilience to direct air raids in the Pacific War proudly earned it the title of the “castle of non-battle” (不戦の城).

With over 650 years of rich history, Himeji Castle claims a close second spot among tourists’ favorites.
Its graceful appearance, akin to a white spreading egret, has granted it the famous nickname “Shirasagi Castle.” Perched on Himeyama – the highest point in the vicinity – this towering structure proudly secured Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage recognition in 1993, alongside Horyu-ji in Nara.

Domestic audience: On the same page?

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle. (Picture: kazukiatuko / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Now, armed with such an impressive history, it might come as a surprise that Himeji didn’t grab the top spot. Well, chances are the local crowd would have likely picked it over Osaka Castle. In the survey at hand, Himeji raked in 53.2% of reviews in foreign languages, leaving a hefty half for the Japanese comments.

In other local surveys, like the “2024 Nationwide Top 20 Castles You Want to Visit in Japan” ranking, Himeji seized the crown, with Osaka and Nagoya Castle following suit. And here’s a fun fact from the archives: back in 2010, when Osaka aimed to amp up its castle’s appeal, their own surveys revealed that a whopping majority of visitors tilted towards Himeji. Among almost all domestic respondents, an astounding 72.9% favored Himeji as superior.

Then what makes Osaka Castle more appealing to foreign audiences? Well, one thing is for sure: its strategic location. It’s not just anywhere, but right in the heart of the second most visited Japanese prefecture by foreign tourists. From January to October 2023, Osaka Prefecture welcomed 1,704,020 international travelers, trailing only Tokyo in the top rankings.

The prefecture is home to some of Japan’s most beloved landmarks, like Universal Studios and the bustling food haven of Dotonburi. Adding to its appeal, the frequently purchased Osaka Sightseeing Pass grants free access to the entire castle, providing an extra incentive for city explorers to include Osaka Castle in their itinerary.

By contrast, Himeji grapples with distinct challenges due to its less convenient and more demanding location in Hyogo Prefecture. Although accessible from Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and other neighboring cities, Himeji Castle isn’t a spur-of-the-moment addition to your plans. The lengthier train journey and an extra 20-minute walk to the castle’s main entrance demand planning. This could be a key reason why it lags in the eyes of foreign visitors.

When in doubt, explore both!

To be fair, every game needs a winner, even rankings. Yet, both contenders have such profound historical and cultural significance that they’re a must-visit for any traveler. When exploring Osaka City, don’t miss out on the crowned favorite of 2024. And for those with extra time, keep in mind there’s another breathtaking castle just a 30-minute train ride away — and it’s UNESCO-listed, no less.

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Sources

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