Traditional stroll gardens, such as the splendid specimen we visited in the previous post, are all well and good for reinforcing your typical Edo-period daimyō‘s reputation as a man of refined taste. However, where visual manifestations of a Japanese warlord’s wealth and power are concerned, one would be hard pressed to find anything more capable of inspiring reverence amongst comrades – or sowing fear amongst rivals – than a castle built to monumental proportions.
Regular readers of this blog are probably well aware of my obsession with Japan’s palace-fortresses, so it should come as no surprise that, in addition to Kumamoto’s magnificent Suizen-ji Jōju-en garden, one of my priority targets for the day was the city’s namesake castle. In fact, I’d already been there during a previous holiday, but the sheer size of the castle compound – as well as restoration and reconstruction work – meant that I was in for quite a few more surprises.
From Suizen-ji Jōju-en, I walked to the “Suizenji Park” tram stop (水前寺公園, Suizenji-kōen) and rode the line north-west, disembarking at the “Kumamoto Castle ・ City Hall” stop (熊本城・市役所前, Kumamoto-jō ・ Shiyakusho-mae). The castle has at least four entrances (that I know of), with the closest from this tram stop being the Hazekata Gate.
On my last visit to the castle (almost two years prior), large sections of the gate’s stone walls were sheathed in scaffolding due to restoration work on the attached Bagu Turret. The project is now complete, leaving in its wake the newly restored building – that’s the tile-roofed structure visible in the following images – and the defensive wood-and-plaster screens lining the stone ramparts that extend behind it.
You might have also noticed the lovely sakura tree in its full springtime glory. On top of its wealth of historic structures, both original and rebuilt, Kumamoto Castle is a well-regarded hanami spot and late March (the time of my visit) happens to be just about the right time to catch the trees at their best.
Now I love cherry blossoms as much as the next chap, but I won’t let them distract me from my primary mission: namely, to examine some structural features of Kumamoto Castle that I didn’t get to see on my earlier visit. The compound is so large…
…that visitors can choose from three different walking courses, ranging in approximate required time from 60 to 130 minutes, with each route highlighting a certain aspect of the castle’s multi-layered defences. Back in 2013, I chose a mid-length course that allowed me to admire large sections of the castle’s enormous stone walls. This time, I elected to cover part of a longer route that takes in several surviving centuries-old turrets in the eastern part of the grounds.
Two of the recommended courses can be followed from the Hazekata Gate. This means that whichever one you choose, you’re likely to be greeted by the awe-inspiring sight of the Iida-maru turret, perched high up on what seems to be an impossibly tall stone wall that overlooks this entrance.
A little further on, we see a gap in the inner walls that gives a clear line of sight to the soaring main tower far beyond.
I headed north through that opening in 2013, but this time, we’ll turn right and walk east.
Most of the castle walls have been stripped down to their stone bases, with the wooden structures that once stood on top of them (like the Iida-maru turret, which was itself only recently rebuilt in 2005) long lost to fire and war…
…but just a little further on, we see the walls as they once appeared centuries ago: lined with roofed corridors and towers of wood, plaster, and tile, from which defenders could observe (and fire upon) any attackers massed below. This group of five hirayagura, or long turrets, is amongst the few original parts of Kumamoto Castle to have survived the 1877 Seinan War more or less intact. Due to their historic significance, these and several other surviving Edo-period structures on the castle grounds are officially registered as Important Cultural Properties.
Right then, let’s press on. We’ll need to get up there for a closer look, and that means continuing on the gradually rising route that takes visitors along the castle walls.
Overlooking part of the route is the imposing Higashi Jūhachi-ken turret, which is also a rare Edo-period survivor and a designated Important Cultural Property.
Okay, let’s keep going. Not much further now, and in any case, there’s plenty of well-preserved stonework to admire on our walk.
Along the way, I spotted a small crew that appeared to be inspecting the walls. Maintaining a centuries-old castle – especially one of this size – certainly requires constant vigilance.
And here we are! The interior of at least one of the turrets – I can’t remember which of the five exactly – was open during my visit, allowing the public to admire the simple, age-darkened structure both within and without.
From here, we begin to head north, through a passageway flanked by stone walls that takes us deeper into the heart of the castle compound.
The two longer walking courses merge into one at this point, so from here on we’ll run across a few landmarks that will look quite familiar in light of my 2013 visit.
Ah, now here’s one of the castle’s interesting little oddities: the Niyō-no-Ishigaki (or “two-style stone wall”), so named because of the two different styles used in its construction. The older, more gently sloping section on the right consists of large, irregularly shaped stones sealed off along the sharp corner with rocks of fairly similar proportions. Rising at a steeper gradient, the newer extension on the left is composed mainly of smaller blocks dressed to a more consistent shape and size, with the corner masonry laid in alternating courses of headers and stretchers.
Viewed from the air, the extra wall’s effect of increasing the available acreage for the lord’s palace becomes more apparent, even though the recent palace reconstruction project’s initial phase (consisting of the roofed edifice visible below) did not yet include the wing that once stood directly upon the Niyō-no-Ishigaki.
The normal route takes visitors up to the honmaru, the castle’s innermost enclosure, dominated by the soaring main tower (rebuilt in 1960 using concrete but reproducing the original exterior) and the magnificent partial recreation of the honmaru palace (completed in 2008 using authentic techniques and materials). Because I’d already snapped scores of photographs there back in 2013, I simply breezed through at leisure, freed from the tourist’s curse of having to keep one’s camera at the ready to document nearly every step taken – though ironically, that also means I’ve got no pictures to show in this post about what may well be the best and most photogenic area of the castle. To give you an idea of what to expect, have a look through the snapshots featured in the post documenting my earlier visit – the palace interiors, in particular, are an absolute delight.
Of course, even without going up to the honmaru itself, there are some nice views of the main tower to be had from down here.
And before we forget, let’s whip out our notebooks and collect our souvenir stamps! There’s the usual touristy version…
…and, of course, the highly coveted hyaku meijō stamp. Kumamoto Castle is number 92 on the list.
(By the way, I know I’ve already mentioned this in an earlier post, but to reiterate for non-castle enthusiasts: the numbers on the hyaku meijō list are assigned geographically, not in terms of ranking. Since we’re all the way down south here in Kyūshū, of course the castles on the island would be located further down on the list.)
After my time at Kumamoto Castle, I headed north towards another historic structure: a place where visitors can more clearly imagine the domestic lives of the Japanese aristocracy during the Edo period…
…which, of course, we’ll save for the next post.