Those who have visited Japan in the past are likely already aware that the country is home to a great many medieval-style fortresses. Alas, only a few of the structures in this collection are actually historic buildings. In fact, just twelve of the numerous castles are originals. The remaining ones are ferroconcrete reconstructions that were assembled in later years to recapture the losses Japan endured following the shift to modernity during the late 1800s. While these newer buildings often housed an impressive collection of historical artifacts, there’s just something special about experiencing the real McCoy.
Though there are indeed a variety of more convenient options for exploring Japanese castles, those on the hunt for authenticity are encouraged to visit one of the twelve originals. Here, there are few spots better than Aichi Prefecture’s Inuyama Castle. Widely considered to be the oldest of the surviving medieval strongholds, this national treasure was erected as far back as the year 1537. Moreover, the castle also stands atop a small hill next to the Kiso River meaning that it has a commanding view of the surrounding land. While there have certainly been some modern additions for the purpose of preservation, the main keep’s wood-and-rock facade has been left largely intact.
Now, unlike some of the other surviving dozen, Inuyama Castle actually did see some action during Japan’s Warring States period (1467–1603). The fort was the final obstacle the fiery warlord Oda Nobunaga had to overcome to solidify his dominion over his home province. After smashing the Imagawa clan at the Battle of Okehazama, Oda Nobunaga set his sights on capturing the strategic stronghold of Inuyama Castle. While I will always be a Hikone Castle fanboy, it’s a history buff’s dream-come-true to explore one that actually withstood several fierce battles.
How to Get There
Before I end up nerding out on Japanese history on you again, let’s make a detour and cover some key logistics. Though Inuyama City isn’t exactly found far off of the beaten path, it’s not as easy to access as the reconstructed Osaka Castle is . To get there, you’ll want to first make your way to Nagoya via the bullet train. Now, I harp on this a lot but Nagoya is a city that many foreign tourists completely skip. Given the wealth of attractions in the vicinity, this is such a tragedy. I really wish more JR rail pass holders would take advantage of the fact that they can easily hop off at Nagoya and explore.
Anyway, once you’re in Nagoya, you’ll want to switch to the Meitetsu Inuyama Line and take this from the Meitetsu Nagoya Station to Inuyama Yuen Station. As always, you’d be wise to reference Jorudan or a similar service to make calculating the connections easier. Alternatively, you can take the train to Inuyama Station instead. Once there, you can either opt for the 20-minute walk or try to figure out the buses (this might be hard if you don’t speak the local language though).
Even for first time visitors to Japan, Inuyama Castle should be relatively straightforward to get to. That said, if you want to dive deeper into the historical legacy of this 400-year-old structure and the nearby area, I highly suggest booking a tour like this one from my friends at Nagoya is not boring. In addition to learning all about Inuyama Castle, you’ll also get the chance to educate yourself about the age of the samurai in this central part of Japan.
Exploring Inuyama Castle
While Inuyama Castle is the reason you come to this part of Aichi Prefecture, it’s not the only game in town. In fact, there are enough attractions scattered about the fortress’s vicinity to keep you busy for the better part of a day. The following is a list of allures that I found to my liking…
- Inuyama Castle Town
Japanese castles often gave birth to so-called castle towns that resided at their bases. Here, commoners and other individuals related to the economy of the domain would reside. Though there are many keeps that no longer show any traces of their castle towns, Inuyama Castle is a rare exception. Today, the main approach to the stronghold is lined with all sorts of shops that invest an effort to recreate a facade of medieval Japan.
- Sanko Inari Shrine
Found at the base of Inuyama castle, this shrine holds a rich backstory. Over the years, both locals and travelers from far away have come to Sanko Inari Shrine to make their obeisance. Perhaps the biggest reason for overseas visitors to check out this location is not about legacy but the Shinto sanctuary’s photogenic set of torii gates. With a little bit of patience and luck, you can get a great shot for the Gram.
- Haritsuna Shrine
Found directly adjacent to Sanko Inari Shrine, Haritsuna Shrine is another easy add-on to your time at Inuyama Castle. This location is considered to be the place where the spectacular Inuyama Festival originated back in the 1600s. Haritsuna Shrine is definitely worth a few minutes of your time. While en route to the main keep of Inuyama Castle, be sure to make a quick pit stop here!
- Inuyama Cultural History Museum
If you read some Japanese, I highly encourage you to pop into the Inuyama Cultural History Museum. This facility chronicles the area around Inuyama Castle across the ages. Unfortunately, while the access may be extremely convenient, there’s little to no English accompanying the displays. I guess this is yet another reason why one might consider booking a tour with Nagoya is not boring?
- Karakuri Exhibition Museum
For those not in the know, understand that karakuri ningyo are a type of medieval automaton that are able to move of their own accord. Powered by weights, cogs, and other such devices, I had my first ever encounter with these oddities years back while learning about Aichi’s industrial tourism. It was quite the surprise to learn that the very same master who introduced me to his collection also has a workshop at the Karakuri Exhibition Museum. The facility is located directly next to the Inuyama Cultural History Museum so be sure to stop in and check out these truly amazing creations.
- Inuyama’s Uraku-en
Found just outside of the castle’s main sections, this traditional Japanese garden belies some amazing allures. Those who venture inside will be treated to a teahouse known as Jo-an that is considered to be one of the top three of its kind in all of Japan. Like with Inuyama’s ever-imposing fortress, Jo-an is considered to be a national treasure. Note that the solemn garden grounds are also home to a number of other aesthetically pleasing structures too. All in all, a quiet walk through Uraku-en is a great contrast to the military style of the nearby keep.
- Meiji Village Museum
While somewhat inconveniently located away from the castle grounds this facility is an open-air architectural museum. The property preserves historic buildings from the Meiji (1867–1912), Taisho (1912–1926), and early Showa (1926–1989) periods. While not necessarily a must see in my mind, you can consider checking out the Meiji Village Museum compound if you have extra time in Inuyama.
In addition to the section present above, you really ought to spend an ample amount of time savoring Inuyama Castle. While you’ll need to scale some rather steep stairs to reach the upper echelons of this fort, the panoramic views from the top floor of the surrounding area are more than worth the effort. All in all, I think I spent a solid hour dreamily gazing out at the grounds below while imagining what it would have been like to attack a mountaintop bastion like Inuyama Castle in the days of yesteryear.
By the way, if you really want to maximize your time with this national treasure of a castle, consider staying at Hotel Indigo Inuyama Uraku-en Garden. While a night or two here will indeed set you back a pretty penny, I can’t think of any lodging that I’ve come across that affords a view of a castle in Japan that can surpass Hotel Indigo Inuyama Uraku-en Garden’s. What’s more, the staff have gone to great lengths to infuse the culture of Inuyama Castle into every floor of the facility. I really cannot more highly recommend it!
Note that Uraku-en and Hotel Indigo Inuyama Uraku-en are essentially a set. The garden was closed for a while during the pandemic but recently reopened alongside the posh boutique hotel. Thanks to their shared connection, guests of Hotel Indigo Inuyama Uraku-en Garden can access the garden completely free of charge. I guess that is just one of the perks of staying at this amazing property in Inuyama City.
Other Nearby Attractions
In addition to Inuyama Castle, know that Aichi Prefecture (and indeed all of central Japan) has a ton of additional hidden allures to enjoy. When I did a day trip down to the region to source this guide on Inuyama Castle, I also made a point to sneak in a visit to Atsuta Shrine. Largely unknown to overseas visitors, this antediluvian site allegedly houses the sword which is part of the imperial regalia. Known as the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, this blade of legend has often been hailed as the “Excalibur of Japan” and was used by the storm god Susanoo to defeat the eight-headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi.
If you’re interested in checking out this truly amazing hidden gem, you’ll want to take the Meitetsu Inuyama Line all the way to Jingumae Station. From there, Atsuta Jingu can be easily reached in just a few minutes on foot. Unfortunately, the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi is not on display. In fact, no one has unboxed the blade for hundreds of years. Allegedly, the last cohort to witness the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi all suffered horrible, horrible deaths. As a result, the legendary sword remains concealed at all times.
Until next time travelers…