Japanese Castles are not really castles. They are so much more.
Elegance in the Clouds
True, like their European counterparts, they were meant to impress and they were heavily fortified, set up high usually on a hill in a strategic location or a false facade of stone. They were just wood and stone which made them incredibly vulnerable to fire during attack. The tiniest spark and they went up in flames, in fact most of the buildings of the Edo period were built of wood. Don’t underestimate these tigers. From the outside, they look silent-simmering bastions, standing testament over the brutal history of samurai clans.
After years of warring, in 1603 the Tokagawa emerged as the first shogun to rule over the carpet that was Japan. He set up his capital in a little known swamp, and a great city rose up around Edo castle, in what we know today as Tokyo.
A small city, a Castle Town, soon sprung up like mushrooms around the fortification, which would house the shogunate’s retainers, his concubines, the samurai, or hatamoto who served him, and from there outward, merchants set up trade, vendor stalls were thrown up and Edo was born.
All of this was repeated by the lords or daimyo, who served the shogun. They had their households and retainers, concubines, family and samurai armies to house and feed.The castle town was a staple in feudal Japan. Though some were grander and larger in scale than others, they all had the basic components, some of which still stand today.
The Great Gate
One enters the castle bulwark first through an impressive central gate. The gate was to impress, to announce the might and great wealth to all who entered. A guard would be here and no one would get in, if he did his job right. Or he might have been bribed. Or he might be ninja.
The main tower or Donjon, is a five or six layer wooden straight structure with a beautiful tiled roof, shaped like the corners of a pie crust, often times adorned with koi fish and decorative tiles.
While the outside maybe imposing, soaring into the sky, with lovely understated gardens, the inside is deceiving. Barely no ornamentation graced the the walls, nothing but wood and narrow passages, this made for fast escape at night or when taken by surprise. It was much easier for startled feet to scurry along without thick rugs in the way.
In fact by European standards, it looks like a skeleton. No tufted furniture, no long lost ancestors hung on the wall, no priceless treasures to get in the way of an enemy assault. And while the accommodations were quite sumptuous, in comparison to how ordinary people lived, time and speed were necessary, for a lord and his samurai lived with only what was necessary to sustain life.
And More Wood
The rooms were sparse, simple and could be easily expended or slid for privacy.
Here the daimyo would kneel in front of his minions and hold court. No one would speak until spoken to, and no one dared raise their eyes lest they wanted immediate death.
The floors were the secret weapon. Outfitted with spikes hammered through the boards underneath, an ingenious method to warn intruders at night, they were a samurai’s best defense against the stealth of enemies or the dreaded ninja.
Check this out to hear the sound its amazing.
The existence of murder holes is something similar to European castles, slits in the wall where hot oil, arrows or water could be poured down on top of assaulting enemies.
The next important place is the daimyo’s armory. Samurai armor was complex and intricate and quite frightening to behold, as it was truly beautiful. This is the armor of the Matsumae, the ruling clan in my novel, The Secret Life of Concubines. They ruled over modern-day Hokkaido. Their kamon were four black diamonds encircled, in this way they show they were descended from the mighty Takeda clan.
The castle would have a shrine and temple where the daimyo family would pray and ask for victory before battle.
And that’s it, that’s the castle!