Himeji Castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture

SINGAPORE (Feb 28): A landmark of Osaka city, Osaka Castle evokes images of shoguns and samurais. The image is appropriate, as it is historically associated with an important feudal period in the country’s history. Osaka could have become the capital of Japan —with the castle as its centre — instead of Tokyo.

 

What isn’t apparent however is that Osaka Castle is a recreation and a museum with a thoroughly modern interior, complete with elevators. This museum revolves around the life of one man who rose from obscurity to become the most powerful person in Japan. He played a central role in the history of the country.

Close-up of miniature figures depicting the Summer War in Osaka 

His name was Hideyoshi Toyotomi and he lived in the 16th century. He was the driving force behind several historical events that would shape the Japan that we know. These include the consolidation of warring fiefdoms into a unified Japan, the land survey of the country, the confiscation of weapons from farmers, the stratification of Japanese society — which distinguished the farmer class from the warrior class — and the disastrous invasion of Korea as a prelude to an attempted invasion of China.

The mighty moats and graceful curved moat walls 

Lowly born, Hideyoshi turned to the arts by refining the tea ceremony and taking up Noh opera, even as he subjugated his political rivals as the daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) through battles, alliances and  subterfuge. In 1583, Hideyoshi ordered the construction of Osaka Castle as the greatest fort ever built in Japan, on the site once occupied by a temple. He unified Japan in 1591 but died in 1598.

His legacy would be short-lived: By 1615, his lineage ended with the defeat and suicide of his surviving son during the siege of Osaka. Osaka Castle was then captured by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established the Tokugawa shogunate.

Enormous blocks of stone were used in the defensive walls 

The fortress was destroyed in the siege of 1615 but the Tokugawa clan rebuilt an even mightier castle five years later (but that was razed in a fire caused by lightning in 1665). In the ensuing centuries, the castle was partially rebuilt, but conflicts destroyed much 
of the structure and ancillary buildings.

The present-day castle tower was reconstructed in 1931 (although some of the surrounding structures date back to much-earlier periods). What is seen today of the main castle tower is largely the result of a restoration carried out in 1995 and completed in 1997.

Although the main tower is a reconstruction, Osaka Castle is a magnificent sight against the skyline of the city. Thousands of visitors throng the castle complex and the 100ha Castle Park, which is home to over 600 cherry trees that bloom in spring. Much of the castle grounds are historically important and are centuries old, with 13 structures deemed Important Cultural Properties by the government. The most striking of these is the extensive moat built during the Tokugawa period, with a width of between 70 and 90 metres. The walls on both sides of the moat are said to be the mightiest in Japan — their graceful fan-shaped curves were more than an aesthetic feature, as scaling them was extremely difficult.

With a height of more than 20m, the walls were constructed from interlocking blocks of stone without the use of mortar. Boulders were quarried from distant sites and transported over long distances, including by barge, over the Seto Inland Sea. Massive stone blocks are also seen in the walls of the historical Otemon (western) gate outside the castle, with some smooth-faced blocks estimated to weigh several hundred tons.

The approach to Himeji Castle, with cut-outs in the walls for defence

Inside the castle is a modern climate-controlled museum with galleries and a museum shop. Visitors can opt for a guided tour, an audio-tour or wander through the various levels on their own. The recommended approach is to take the elevator to the observation deck on the eighth floor, where an outdoor balcony provides a 360° view of Osaka city.

Working downwards, there is an engaging miniature animated diorama of the main chapters in the life of Hideyoshi, artefacts from the period, a folding screen depicting the Summer War in Osaka, display panels, models and information about the castle. Also on site is a kitschy but popular wear-and-photograph samurai helmet and surcoat (a loose robe worn over armour) and a series of videos that provide further insights into the castle and the life and family of Hideyoshi.

Japanese castles emerged in the 15th century during the period of the warring states, with the larger ones built as administrative and military centres. Towns often grew around these strongholds. Of the many that were built, only a dozen from the feudal age remain. The rest having been destroyed as relics of the past or during wars.

The most spectacular and best preserved of these is Himeji Castle — located in Himeji city, an hour away from Osaka by train. It is also the only Unesco World Heritage-listed one in Japan.

When first seen, this castle on the hill is surreal. It presents a strikingly elegant vision, deserving of its name — the White Heron or White Egret Castle — with its white walls and flared grey roofs rising above the surrounding modern city. Although a fortification has stood on the site from the early 14th century, the castle as it appears today is some 400 years old.

The gleaming appearance of this structure is due in no small part to restoration works carried out between 2009 and 2015, which removed decades of grime. This followed earlier restoration efforts in the 20th century. The castle was not always so highly valued, however. In fact, it was earmarked for demolition about 150 years ago.

But the approach to the castle is long and confusing, even with modern signs. With detours, twists and narrow pathways, it was designed to be bewildering, so that invading soldiers would be disoriented and could be attacked by defenders. It is just one of many defences built into the castle, including extensive moats.

There are other feudal-era defences, such as loopholes in many of the walls. Called sama, these oblong, round, triangular and square holes were for mounting bows and guns to be deployed against attackers. There are 997 of these in the walls of the castle and towers.

Before entering the main castle, visitors are required to remove their shoes and walk in plastic foot-covers, provided to prevent damage to the ageold wooden floors. Within, the castle is vast with floorboards polished from centuries of use, wooden walls and robust wooden ceilings.

Attendants guide the crowds of visitors, shuffling slowly in a circular pattern, with a bottleneck forming at the steep, narrow staircases connecting the floors. There are six floors in all, each smaller than the one below, with a small shrine to the guardian deity of Himeji castle on the topmost floor.

There are interesting details throughout the castle. Racks on walls are for mounting weapons such as spears and matchlocks. There are also hidden compartments where defending soldiers could hide to ambush invaders. Angled chutes or “stone drop windows” were set in the castle walls from which stones and spears could be flung onto attackers below. The main doorways were double-protected with inner and outer doors. Decorative metal covers on wooden pillars concealed nail heads while thick latticed windows foiled enemy arrows and gunshots.

From the topmost floor, there is a splendid view of the surrounding castle grounds and the city beyond. Up close, the grey roof tiles — which contribute to the overall beauty of the castle — can be seen to be a combination of flat and round tiles with plaster to seal the joints.

Hideyoshi Toyotomi lived briefly in the castle before moving to Osaka Castle in 1583. The current castle was built from 1601 to 1609 by Ikeda Terumasa, who was awarded the fortress by his fatherin-law Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Himeji Castle is also the largest castle in Japan. It was never attacked or destroyed by war or natural disasters such as earthquakes or fire. In the late 19th century, the city of Himeji developed around the castle, which miraculously survived the air raids of World War II.

It is said that people were reduced to tears when they saw the castle intact amid the rubble of Himeji town after the air raid. In fact, a bomb did strike the castle but failed to explode.

Himeji Castle and Osaka Castle have different beginnings and histories, but both are closely linked by the common narrative of war, family conflicts and power struggles and even romance, providing retrospectives into feudal-era Japan. 

Where to stop by

In case you are planning a visit to Osaka, also known as Japan’s kitchen, here are some insights on where to eat, play and stay in the city

 

STAY

•  The St. Regis Osaka (pictured) is the epitome of luxury with serene views of the city’s skyline and state-of-the-art amenities that see to your every need. The hotel’s  signature Bloody Mary provides an unforgettable, locally inspired interpretation of this classic cocktail with traditional yuzu fruit that blends perfectly with the slight citrus notes of dry gin, followed by an enlivening finish from the signature zest of wasabi.

•  Located on the highest floors of Nakanoshima Festival West Tower, Conrad Osaka is your “address in the sky” with its stunning views of the Dojima and Tosabori rivers. Boasting four restaurants and lounges, this hotel  is home to an impressive contemporary art collection, with over 380 pieces displayed all over the property.

•  Bringing together the best of British flair and Japanese aesthetics, the Ritz-Carlton Osaka is pure old-fashioned glamour and luxury. Apart from its two Michelin-starred restaurants, La Baie and Tempura by Hanagatami, this lush property has a dedicated Club Level concierge that features nature-inspired decor and other exclusive experiences.


PLAY

•  Dotonbori (pictured) is arguably Osaka’s most touristy neighbourhood but is a must-visit. Streets are dotted by iconic shop displays and neon lights, while a number of cafés and restaurants come with their own roof terraces — ideal for listening to live music and enjoying Osaka’s breathtaking nighttime skyline.

•  The Japanese are huge baseball fans, so if you are in Osaka anytime from March to September make sure you catch a live game. The Hanshin Koshien Stadium, located just 15km outside of Osaka, is the home base for Japan’s most enthusiastic baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers.

•  Get your nature fix at the Fumin no Mori Hoshida Park, a 105ha forest reserve that is ideal for visitors of all ages. Its main attraction is the 280m Hoshi no Buranko suspension bridge, which provides stunning vistas of the forest below. If you feel that something more strenuous is in order, the park has a 16.5m rock climbing wall alongside special facilities for children.


EAT

•  Located in the outskirts of Osaka, Kashiwaya (pictured) — helmed by three-Michelin star chef Hideaki Matsuo — offers modern Japanese food in a serene sukiya-style setting that draws from traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Chef Matsuo’s well-known obsession with seasonality is most evident in his kaiseki menu, which changes every month to highlight seasonal Japanese produce.

•  The takoyaki we all know and love is usually brushed with a tangy sauce and sprinkled with aonori shavings and dried bonito. But at Aizuya, said to be where takoyaki originated, the piping hot dish was first served without any topping. Aizuya also offers rajio yaki, the supposed predecessor of takoyaki, which contains beef and konnyaku instead of octopus.

•  Mizuno at Dotonbori has been serving one of the best okonomiyaki dishes in Osaka for over 70 years. Apart from its classic okonomiyaki, patrons are also encouraged to try yamaimoyaki — a flourless yam version topped with scallops, pork slices, oysters, squid and shrimp. The place  is popular with locals, so prepare to queue during peak hours.