The Tsuruga Castle

We take a walk to the Tsuruga Castle in Aizu Wakamatsu, a city where the influences of samurai remain strong even today. The five storied impregnable fortress and castle tower that stands today is a replica reconstructed in 1965, based on photographs and historical documents of the preceding Kurokawa Castle, built in 1384.

Catching the train to Aizu-wakamatsu

Statue of young Byakkutai warriors in front of Aizu-wakamatsu station

Akabeko, the legendary cow from the Aizu region of Japan

After dropping our luggage at the Hotel, we waled back to the station to catch the bus to Tsuruga Castle.

The bus drops you off at the Tsuruga Castle Bus Stop – Tsurugajo Kitaguchi

After walking for a few minutes we found ourselves in front of the castle walls.

The moat surrounding the castle grounds is lovely to walk around.

Chuukonhi Liberty Monument

Bell Tower on Tsuruga Castle Grounds

Tsuruga Castle Park

Tsuruga Castle

Close-up of the Tsuruga castle keep.

Tsuruga Castle Park

As evening set it, the sky turned magical

Once it was dark, the castle was flooded with colorful lights.

Walking back to the hotel

Thanks for reading!

The radiant Shuri Castle

31 October 2019 Update. It is a sad sad day as I see helicopters capturing the video footage of the Shuri Castle in flames. A massive fire broke out and burned down the Seiden, the main hall, and also the Hokuden and Nanden. The fire alarm went off around 2:30 am and by afternoon, the fire had completely gutted six of the castle’s heritage buildings. I feel a heavy burden in my heart as Okinawa’s most iconic heritage site and some of my most memorable moments vanished up in smoke.

This is my story of when I visited the castle in 2016.

Shuri Castle is a Ryukyuan gusuku castle in Shuri district of Okinawa Prefecture in Japan. The castle was built sometime in the 13th century by Shunbajunki, the second king of Chuzan. It served as the center of politics, foreign affairs, and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom until the archipelago was annexed by the Japanese Meiji government in 1879 CE.

My day began among sunny blue skies in Nara. It was hot, but the strong breeze made it pleasant. I and my wife, Mani, got up early and had a light breakfast. We packed light. The trip to Okinawa was a short one and a single cabin bag was enough for both of us.

Our flight to Okinawa was scheduled for 10.30 am. From Nara, we took the limousine bus to Osaka KIX Airport. From KIX Airport, we caught the flight to the Ryuku kingdom on the southernmost island of Japan.

If you are catching a Peach flight from KIX Airport, you will need to get down at Terminal 2

Peach Airlines is one of the cheapest ways to reach Okinawa from Osaka. I wouldn’t recommend flying economy if you are a large figure. The spacing on the aircraft was quite constrained. Thankfully the discomfort only lasted for a wee bit over 2 hours.

We landed in Okinawa at 12.40 pm to wonderful but hot weather. The airport building is directly connected to the Okinawa Urban Monorail, also known as Yui Rail. The monorail line serves as a useful commute in the busy cities of Naha and Urasoe in Okinawa. If you don’t have anyone to pick you up and you want to save on the cab fare, you can use the monorail, which takes you directly into the city.

Fact: Okinawa is the southernmost island of Japan and Akamine Station and Naha Airport Station, are the southernmost and westernmost active rail stations in Japan.

It was only later while writing the journal that I realized, that at that moment I had inadvertently traveled to the southernmost train station in Japan. For the record, I have already been to the northernmost active station in Japan.

We had to wait for some time before the train arrived. We were heading to Asahibashi Station, where, just a few blocks away, we had booked our stay at the Naha Beachside Hotel.

As the monorail carried us into the city, I kept staring out of the window with the excitement of a schoolboy on a camping trip. I have to admit that Naha is unlike any Japanese city. Not only are the homes designed differently, but the trees and shrubs are also more tropical, like the ones found in my home city of Kolkata.

From Asahibashi Station, it was a long walk to the hotel. We were exhausted by the time we reached the hotel, but we still had some time before we could check-in. So, we just dropped our bags at the hotel reception and walked back to Asahibashi Station. The Sun was extremely strong, but we kept going.

At Asahibashi station we gathered the available information regarding local sightseeing and train timings. Since we were already out, we decided to head out to Shuri Castle. On the way, we grabbed some onigiri from a nearby convenience store.

Trains are at 8-minute intervals and it takes about 17 minutes to get to Shuri Station from Asahibashi. Within a few minutes, the monorail came wooshing along and we were on our way to explore our first heritage site in Okinawa.

The train comprised of two coaches, with a capacity of around 100 people. After getting down at Shuri Station, we were not sure about the directions to the castle so we used our phone navigation to guide us towards the castle grounds.

Shuri Castle is surrounded by a massive park. Within the castle park, there are numerous historical buildings and sites that have been passed down from the bygone era. Usually, one gains access to the castle’s grounds via the Shurei-mon Gate and passes the stone gate – Sonohyan-utaki, before entering the actual fortification walls at the Kankai-mon. However, we wanted to explore a few other structures surrounding the park before entering the castle grounds.


The first building we landed at was the Benzaitendo, sitting idly in the middle of a manmade pond called the Enganchi. A masonry bridge, called Tennyo bashi, connects the edge of the pond to the small building. The railings of the stone bridge are beautifully decorated with images of lotuses on either side.

The Enganchi is a man-made pond. It was initially constructed in 1502, to hold the spring water and rainwater that flowed from the top of Shuri Castle. Water that overflowed from this pond was collected at the Ryutan, another pond located adjacent to it.

The Benzaitendo, sitting idly in the middle, with faded, red roof tiles, enshrines the goddess Benzaiten, a deity that watches over people on voyages at sea. But I hear that it was always not so. The history of this pond and the building in the center goes back to the mid-15th century, during the reign of King Sho Toku.

The Sho family ruled the Ryukyu Kingdom from the early 15th century through 1879 when it was annexed by Japan and renamed Okinawa Prefecture

Precious Housatsuzou-kyou (Buddhist scriptures) were presented by the Korean king Sejo of the Joseon Dynasty to the then king of Okinawa, King Sho Toku. Many years after the death of Sho Toku, In 1502, by the order of King Sho Shin, a small building was built over the Enganchi Pond in order to house these scriptures.

The building was destroyed in 1609 during the invasion of Ryukyu by forces of the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma. When it was later restored in 1629, an image of Benzaiten was enshrined here. The statue was ruined a couple of more times but it was always restored. The last time it was destroyed was during the Battle of Okinawa but again restored in 1968.

After exploring and capturing some the shots of the pond, we moved on towards the back of the castle.

Shuri Castle Grounds

Built inside a sprawling complex, Shuri Castle or Shuri-jo, includes layers of inner and outer walls constructed in different eras. As I mentioned before, Shuri-jo is a Ryukyuan gusuku castle. The “Gusuku” were basically walled compounds created between the 12th to 16th centuries, that evolved into forts and castles of local chieftains. Not all gusuku buildings evolved into castles, some of them were also religious centers used for traditional religious rituals such as nature worship.

Like other gusuku, the Shuri Castle was built using Ryukyuan limestone. The outer walls which were built during the Second Shō Dynasty, dates back to the 15th-century, while the inside walls were commissioned some time in the mid-16th century. Surrounded by these winding stone walls, Shuri-jo is neither an imposing citadel like the Matsumoto Castle nor a fortress-like the Matsue Castle. Locals describe it as a castle designed to welcome people.

Most parts of the castle can be explored free of charge. Only if you want to see the very inner parts of the castle, you’ll have to buy admission tickets, which can be purchased at the Kōfuku-mon.

Kyukei-mon Gate

We entered the castle grounds from the Kyukei-mon Gate at the back. Its foundation was laid sometime in 1477 and it was completed in 1526. Kyukei-mon is also known as Hokori Ujo. While the Kankai-mon was the main gate, Kyukei-mon functioned as a service gate where mainly women passed through. The gate was also used on certain occasions by the King when he visited the temple at the base to offer his prayers or during times he visited Urasoe district in the north

From the Kyukei-mon Gate a cobbled path leads to the Kankai-mon gate. From there a curving path leads to the Zuisen-mon gate.


Two Shishi lions, carved in stone sit on either side of the Zuisen-mon gate. “Zuisen” means “great, auspicious fountain,” and the gate was named after a “dragon head” water conduit called “Ryuhi” in front of the gate. Shishi lions traditionally stand guard outside the gates of Japanese Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They are always depicted in pairs, one with mouth open and one with mouth shut.

A few paces up the path leads you to the Houshin-mon Gate.

Houshin-mon Gate

Hoshin-mon Gate means “a gate to respect the gods.” Beyond the Houshin-mon Gate you will find yourself in front of the Una Forecourt with the beautiful Seiden Hall at the end.

Shuri Castle

The date of construction of Shuri Castle is uncertain, but it was clearly in use as a castle during the Sanzan period (1322 – 1429). It is believed that it was probably built during the Gusuku period (1050 -1429), like most other castles of Okinawa. The beginning of the Gusuku period corresponds to that of the Old Ryukyu period of Okinawan historiography, both beginning in 1187 with the semi-legendary ascension of King Shunten. When King Shō Hashi unified the three principalities of Okinawa and established the Ryukyu Kingdom, he used Shuri as a residence. At the same time, Shuri flourished as the capital and continued to do so during the Second Shō Dynasty.

The characteristics of Ryukyuan architecture at Shuri-jo lies in the unique features of Ryukyuan designs arranged with the influences of both the architectural styles of Japan and China. The Seiden is the Honden or the main hall of Shurijo Castle and, unlike Japanese castles with Tenshukaku or castle towers, it shows architectural styles of Chinese imperial structures and strong influences of Japanese architectural features of shrines and temples.

A three-story structure with wide stone steps at the front, and the dragon pillars of Dairyuchu and Shoryuchu which are carved out as columns. At the center of the Seiden’s roof is a design known as Karahafu.

The karahafu is perhaps the most instantly recognizable Japanese architectural feature, yet its origins are not well established in Western literature. Folk etymology suggests that the style was imported from China sometime during the Nara or Heian period. You can clearly see its ominous presence at the entrance to the Todai-ji.

Seiden Hall of Shuri Castle

For 450 years from 1429, it was the royal court and administrative center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was the focal point of foreign trade, as well as the political, economic, and cultural heart of the Ryukyu Islands. According to records, the castle burned down several times, and rebuilt each time.

The 15th century was the kingdom’s golden age but after that, it experienced one hardship after another. During the reign of Shō Nei, samurai forces from the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma seized Shuri in May 1609. The Japanese withdrew soon afterwards, returning Shō Nei to his throne two years later, and the castle and city to the Ryukyuans, though the kingdom was now a vassal state under Satsuma’s suzerainty and would remain so for roughly 250 years.

After taking a breather we walked in to explore the interiors of the castle. In order to enter the Seiden, one enters the buildings on the right hand side of the Una at the one-storied Bandokoro, which houses, just like the connected, two-storied Nanden, a museum documenting the eventful history of the castle and royal dynasties of Okinawa.

The Shuri Castle complex itself can be divided into three main zones, namely a central administrative area (including the Seidan and Ura), an eastern living and ceremonial space (behind the Seidan) called the Ouchibara (literally “inside field”), and a southwestern ceremonial area including the Kyo-no-uchi. The living quarters were occupied by the Ryukyu Kingdom’s ruling family from 1429 to 1879.

The Hokuden also houses two miniatures of the palace’s buildings set for special ceremonies. The seating arrangement will surely remind you of scenes from mythological movies depicting the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The throne in the Karahafu area of Shuri Castle. The first floor of the Seiden was referred to as Shichagui, and this was where the King himself mainly led the ceremonies. The lavish area at the center was called the Usasuka, the royal throne where the King presided for various ceremonies. Through the sliding Shoji screens behind the Usasuka is the Ochokui, a set of stairs used exclusively by the King, and it was from these stairs that the King arrived to the Usasuka from the second floor.

The dragon is a vast imaginary beast that originally symbolized the Chinese emperor. The Ryukyuan king made extensive use of dragon images in imitation of the emperor.

The second floor of the Seiden is called the Ufugui and at the center is where the King’s throne was placed, on a platform similar to that of Shumidan Buddhist altars. Above the throne were a number of framed writings sent by Chinese emperors that read, Chuzan Seido – Ryukyu is to be ruled by the King of Chuzan; Shuzui Kyuyo – Ryukyu is where auspicious markings gather, and Eiso Eizen – rule the Kingdom of Ryukyu found across the seas with eternal happiness. These writings were framed after coated with lacquer in Ryukyu, and displayed in the palace.

The glorious throne we can see today is a reconstruction of the throne used by King Sho Shin, who ruled the island from 1477 to 1526.

There are a total of 33 dragon ornaments inside and outside of the Seiden, including the pair of large dragon pillars standing at both sides of the main entrance.

Here we have the The Royal Crown is also called HIBENKAN or TAMANCHAABUI. Along with a formal costume gifted by the Chinese emperor, it was a formal wear for the king at such nationally significant events as Sappo (enthronement of the king) and the New Year’s celebration.

Black silk crepe was attached to the crown’s surface, and 12 of tape shaped golden threads were sewn on it. 7 kinds of 24 beads – a total of 288 beads – including gold, silver, coral, and crystal were tacked on each golden thread. A dragon, the symbol of the king, was engraved in the golden ornamental hairpin.

In 1879, the kingdom was annexed by the Empire of Japan and the last king, Shō Tai, was compelled to move to Tokyo, and in 1884, he was “elevated” to the rank of marquess in the Japanese aristocracy. The kingdom was turned into Okinawa Prefecture, and its 500 years of history came to an end. Subsequently, the castle was used as a barracks by the Imperial Japanese Army. The Japanese garrison withdrew in 1896, but not before having created a series of tunnels and caverns below it.

In 1908, Shuri City bought the castle from the Japanese government, however, it did not have funding to renovate it. In 1923, thanks to Japanese architect Ito Chuta, Seiden survived demolition after being re-designated a prefectural Shinto shrine known as Okinawa Shrine. In 1925, it was designated as a national treasure.

Ryukyuan elements also dominate. Like other gusuku, the castle was built using Ryukyuan limestone, being surrounded by an outer shell which was built during the Second Shō Dynasty from the second half of the 15th century to the first half of the 16th century. Similarly, Okushoin-en is the only surviving garden in a gusuku in the Ryukyu Islands, which made use of the limestone bedrock and arranged using local cycads.

The large dragon pillars erected on both sides of the stone steps at the center of the Seiden are called Dairyuchu, and these were first created in 1508. Later, they were remade several times as the Seiden saw reconstruction works after fires. The present Dairyuchu were made after 1712, and their shape and size were referenced from damaged remains of the present pillars that managed to survive the ravages of war, and also from records that documented repairs of the Seiden in 1758.

Unlike Japanese castles, Shuri Castle was greatly influenced by Chinese architecture, with functional and decorative elements similar to that seen primarily in the Forbidden City. The gates and various buildings were painted in red with lacquer, walls and eaves colorfully decorated, and roof tiles made of Goryeo and later red Ryukyuan tiles, and the decoration of each part heavily using the king’s dragon.

Shuri Castle operated not only as a base of political and military control, it was also regarded as a central religious sanctuary of the Ryukyuan people. Formerly there were 10 utaki (shrines) within the castle and the large area on the south-western side of the citadel was occupied by a sanctuary called the Kyo-no-uchi.

We take it for granted so naturally that the islands of Okinawa are an integral part of Japan, and yet the fact is it has only been less than 150 years since they became part of the Japanese Empire.

We were both extremely tired from the exhausting walk. As the sun set of the beautiful castle we made our way down. The street lamps were on. I wished I had had some strength to set up the tripod, but I was very tired. The shots thereafter are noisy as they were taken hand-held.

We passed by the Tennyo Bashi which was dimly lit up and looked fantastical in the night.

We took the monorail back to Asahibashi Station. On the way to the hotel, we grabbed some food from a convenience store to eat at the hotel.

It was about 9 pm by the time we reached the Naha Beachside Hotel. We checked in quickly and directly went for a hot tub bath.

Shuri Castle’s history is enmeshed in the imperialist history between the island of Okinawa and Japan, which annexed the Ryukyu Islands into its feudal domain in 1879. Before then, Shuri had been the capital of Okinawa. Now, the city is part of Naha, the new capital of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture.

Thanks for reading! Tomorrow we head out to the Okinawa Churaumi considered one of the biggest aquariums in the world.

Open Timings:

April to June: 8.30 am to 7 pm (last entry: 6.30 pm)
July to September: 8.30 am to 8 pm ( last entry: 7.30 pm)
October to November: 8.30 am to 7 pm (last entry: 6.30 pm)
December to March: 8.30 am to 6 pm (last entry: 5.30 pm)

Admission fees:

Adults: 800 Yen

The lovely Fukuyama Castle

After a quick visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial I was on my back to Nara. It was still early in the day, so on the way, I decided to drop in at Fukuyama Station to explore the castle. I always used to adore this lovely castle from the comfort of my seat on the Shinkansen, when it used to stop at the Fukuyama Station. Today I finally get to explore it!

Fukuyama Castle was built in 1619 by the feudal lord Mizuno Katsunari, a younger cousin of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who unified Japan and established the Edo Shogunate. The castle is located in central Hiroshima Prefecture and is a leisurely stroll away from the conveniently located JR Fukuyama Station, which also happens to be a stop on the Shinkansen line.

It was around 3 pm when I got down at the Fukuyama Station. It is a sweet box-shaped, two-storeyed building.

In front of the station you will find a small garden dedicated to different colored roses.

Just beside the station there lies a statue of Izura Shojin – which basically means five cove fisherman. The statue was modeled upon by a local fisherman known as Tenshin Okakura, a fisherman. The statue is a popular work of Hiraku Kushidanaka, a sculptor and honorary citizen of Fukuyama City.

The Castle lies on the other side, so I went back inside the station building searching for the other exit. The station may not look big from the outside but it houses many souvenir and cake shops.

The first thing I noticed as I exited from the back of the JR Fukuyama Station is this huge Information board. This detailed map of Fukuyama Castle Park helps immensely to plan your walk.

A flight of stairs just next to the information board leads to the Castle Park, but I decided to go via the alternate route hoping to cover some extra area of the Park. The stone wall you see beside the stairs is the Sannomaru ( the castle’s third outermost enclosing wall).

As I moved towards the secondary gate I passed by a narrow stream that may have been a moat surrounding the Fukuyama Castle Park.

Withing a few minutes I found the side entrance. A short staircase surrounded by blooming flowers led me towards the Fukuyama Castle Park.

The stairs led me to this small wooden gate. I am not sure if it has any historical significance. With not a soul around, it was impossible to get any local information.

Just after the wooden gate I found myself on the premises of the castle park. There are benches are regular intervals. There are about 500 cherry trees at the castle grounds and thousands come to view the cherry blossoms when they bloom from late March to mid-April.

History of Fukuyama Castle

As you walk around the castle’s grounds and explore Fukuyama Castle Park you will come across many of its original ruins including the Castle gates and turrets. Sanzouinari Shrine, Bingogokoku Shrine, Fukuyama Museum of Literature and Fukuju Hall are also within a few steps of the castle’s grounds. Fukuju Hall has a pond, a teahouse, and beautiful garden that you can walk around. It’s also a great opportunity to take a seat, relax, and enjoy the towering view of Fukuyama Castle. Wandering around the park, I first arrived at the Sujigane Gomon Gate of Fukuyama Castle.

Sujigane Gomon Gate

Below is a close-up capture of the rivets and the iron work on the Sujigane Gomon Gate. Most of the structures at the castle were destroyed in the air raids of World War II in 1945. Sujigane Gate is one of the two structures to have survived the ravages of time.

From the stone gate, I reached out to the main keep. Fukuyama Castle, also referred to as Hisamatsu Castle, is a five-story (six-level) castle. It is considered one of the renowned castles of the Edo period The history of Fukuyama Castle dates back to 1619 CE when the feudal lord Mizuno Katsushige became the ruler of the Bingo-Fukuyama domain, then known as Fukuyama Province.

The castle was built on a hill on the Fukuyama plain and it was the capital of Bingo Fukuyama Han. Construction of the castle was commenced in 1622 during the Genna era. The newly commissioned structure presented a grand sight with 6 floors with surrounding turrets and palace like residential elements. It used to be surrounded by double moats which provided an inlet to the Seto Inland Sea.

Many of the materials and buildings used to construct Fukuyama Castle were transferred from Fushima Castle in Kyoto under direct orders from Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The Fushimi Yagura of Fukuyama Castle

The beautiful castle turret (yagura in Japanese) managed to escape the destruction of not one, but two castles… Originally the yagura was built as part of the Fushimi Castle in Kyoto (hence its current name “Fushimi Yagura”). But after the castle was demolished by order of the Tokugawa shogun, the turret was dismantled and relocated here, in Fukuyama, becoming part of the newly constructed castle. Fushima Turret is listed as Important Cultural Property of Japan.

The Tsukimi Yagura of Fukuyama Castle

Katsunari was well known as a very brave general and his subjects called him “Oni-Hyuga” which means “the demon of Hyuga.” Apart from being brave, he also carried out flood control projects and looked after the castle towns prosperity. Since the 17th century it has played an important role in Japanese history and was one of the greatest castles of the Edo period.

The Mizuno clan maintained control over the castle from its construction until 1700. Thereafter the Castle passed through the hands of several feudal lords.

The Castle managed to survive the widespread demolition of castles that took place during the Meiji Restoration, but 77 years later most of its buildings were destroyed during the US bombings of World War II . In August 1945 most of the castle’s remains that were not destroyed during World War II were demolished.

Disintegration of Fukuyama Castle

As time passed, Fukuyama Castle fell into disrepair after being abandoned and was eventually destroyed in a fire, but in 1966 the castle’s keep, observation tower, and tea house were all reconstructed. As the castle was being constructed, elements of Fushimi Castle in Kyoto that escaped destruction during the war such as the Fushimi observation tower and Sujitetsu-Omon gate were moved to Fukuyama Castle, allowing visitors to enjoy these national historic treasures even today.

The castle tower was also reconstructed in 1966 and opened as the Fukuyama Castle Museum, exhibiting articles and materials of successive feudal lords. The museum also features genealogies explaining the relationship between the Mizuno and Tokugawa families.

It was late and Nara was still a long way off, so I started my walk back to Fukuyama Station. This time I took the main route that takes you right in front of the Station. Along the path there were many flowering plants that beautify the landscape.

I came down the very stairs beside the Sannomaru wall, that I had seen previously near the Map Board. Fukuyama Station is built within the walls of the castle. When planning the construction of the Sanyo Shinkansen line, it was determined that running through the castle’s inner moat would be the shortest route and so the station was constructed right next to the Sannomaru.

While waiting for the train, I caught a last glimpse of the Fukuyama castle from the train platform.

The train to Osaka had some time so I waited. Fukuyama Castle is one of the very few tenshu that survived the Meiji Restoration, however it suffered extensive damage from Allied attacks in World War II. The main tower was rebuilt in part, thanks to the donations from the local residents. Today the area around Fukuyama Castle contains a park, a history museum, an art museum and other facilities, that help to spread the city’s history and culture.

Today the Castle is designated as one of the 25 National Historic Sites of Hiroshima and considered one of Japan’s Top 100 Castles from a list created by the Japanese Castle Foundation.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your reviews and questions. If you are looking to explore more of the Chūgoku region check out my journal on the Torii of Itsukushima or follow my story as I visit the great Buddha of Kamakura

Fukuyama Castle is open from 9:30 am until 5:00 pm and costs 200 yen to enter for adults; students and children are free. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the keep until you reach the top floor.

The top of Fukuyama Castle now serves as a viewing platform where those who climb to the top can get a look out over the whole area surrounding the castle. On the fifth and final floor you can venture outside on a balcony with 360 degree views. Here you can take pictures and enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of Fukuyama and its surroundings.

A walk to Kochi Castle

Kochi Castle used to be the seat of the Yamauchi lords, who ruled over the surrounding area, then known as Tosa, during the Edo Period. Mani & I hike up the castle, the only one in all of Japan to have all the original buildings in the honmaru, or innermost ring of defense, still standing.

Early morning view of Kochi


On the way to Harimaya bridge

Harimaya Bridge

On the way to Kochi Castle

Shopping area

Sunday Market

Otemon gate

Kochi Castle walls

Kochi Castle Gate

Otakasa Hill

Pine Trees

Entering Kochi Castle


Closeup shot

Inside Kochi Castle

Leaving for Tokushima

Thanks for reading!

An evening stroll at Kokura Waterfront

Kokura city is the gateway to the Island of Kyushu from the Japanese mainland. We go for an evening stroll along the dazzling Kokura Waterfront up to the 400 year old flat land Kokura Castle built towards the beginning of the Edo Period.

Reaching Kokura

Walking to hotel

Checking in at JR Kyushu Kokura

Riverwalk Kitakyushu

Statue on Ogaibashi Bridge

Kitakyushu City Hall

Kokura Castle Entrance

Strong winds at Kokura Castle Garden

Kokura Castle Tower

Gate of castle tower

Dusk setting over Kokura castle

Hanging out at Starbucks

Kitakyushu City Hall

Kokura Riverwalk

Katsuyama Bridge

Shops along Uomachi Gintengai

JR Kokura Station

JR Kokura Station at Night

Picking food from Station

Back at hotel

Thanks for reading!

On the trail of the Ninjas of Iga Ueno

It was a grey Sunday. The clouds had enveloped Nara and everything appeared gloomy. We had plans for Kyoto but seeing the depressing weather, we decided to go a bit far to escape the elements and thus the plan to visit the Ninja town of Iga Ueno came to happen.

Iga Ueno is a small town located in mountains of western Mie. It is particularly famous as the birthplace of the Iga Ninja spies & the art of Ninjutsu, but it also hides within its boundaries a few other secrets.

The origins of the Ninja is somewhat shrouded in secrecy. The art was practiced by the Shinobi or Ninja that rose to prominence during Japan’s Sengoku period in the 14th-century, but then some records also show the practice to be around as early as the Heian Era (794 CE to 1185 CE).

Ninjutsu is a systemized art of warfare used by the Ninjas, for the specific purpose of espionage. Ninjutsu developed mainly in the regions of Iga in Mie Prefecture, and Koka in Shiga Prefecture in Japan. In the village of Iga, Ninjas honed their unique skills using psychology and pharmacology, combined with martial arts.

The Ninjas would infiltrate into the enemy’s ranks, undetected using their special skills, mostly with the objectives of scouting, and obtaining valuable information. Point to note that they were predominantly spies and not warriors.

Did you know that Ninjas have been known by different names during different periods of Japanese history. Today we know them as Ninjas, because that name stuck and became popular in the Western world.

Nara to Iga Ueno

To go to Iga Ueno from Nara, one has to catch a train from JR Nara Station to Kamo Station and then switch to a local train to Iga-Ueno Station. The route should be the same if you are coming from Osaka or Kyoto.

Tickets for the full length of the travel can be purchased at one go. It cost us ¥670 per head. The platforms have information boards in English as well Japanese, so it was not difficult to follow the instructions.

The ride to Kamo was uneventful. The lush paddy fields looked lifeless in the constant drizzle. At Kamo Station, a blue colored, two coach train was waiting for us. This connecting train would take us all the way to Iga Ueno.

The rain had relented by then, leaving behind a mysterious mist. A large group of kids dressed in scout uniforms joined us on the train bringing some cheer to the otherwise mundane coach.

After Kamo, the train tracks run parallel to the Yasu River. The ride through this part of Mie Prefecture is very-picturesque. It felt like going into a mystical land. We chugged across several bamboo forests and then into the mountains engulfed by the thick mist.

The group of kids got down at Kasagi Station. They were probably heading for the Kasagi Camping Grounds by the Yasu River. Quite a few tents could be seen right from the train windows, set up on the edges of the river bed.

We reached Iga Ueno Station by noon. The skies had cleared up a bit, but it was still gray all around. The outside of the station was desolate with not a person in sight. You can find a bike rental just beside the station, if you are interested. The staff at the station was very helpful. They provided us a map with directions and helpful markings, towards Ueno Castle.

If you are coming by train get down at Uenoshi Station which is located a mere five to ten minute walk from Ueno Castle.

The castle is about 3 km away from the station. It was going to be a long walk, but it was fun walking in the cool breeze, chatting away with my wife, Mani. Coming from a crowded country like India, it felt a bit strange seeing absolutely no people around. Even the petrol pump we passed was unmanned. Time and again a car would pass us by, and that was it.

A few minutes into the walk, a car stopped and an elderly lady walked out towards us. She offered us a ride to our destination, but we politely declined, as it was much more interesting walking nonchalantly past this desolate yet beautiful suburb. She was the only person I would see for the rest of the way.

Midway to the castle, we crossed the bridge over Hattori river. Hattori Hanzo is one of the most famous Ninja Grandmaster from Iga. The river was named after him.

A few minutes after passing the bridge, we found ourselves near a field of Cosmos flowers. Cosmos is the seasonal word for “autumn” in Japan. It’s Kanji “秋桜” means “autumn cherry blossom”. Fields of cosmos can be seen in many places in Japan because they are easy to grow as long as they get a lot of sunshine.

Just before the entrance to the castle park, we stumbled upon an orange colored post box. I haven’t seen one like these in India for quite some time now. It lends a nostalgic feel to the surrounding along with the old wooden houses.

The history of Japan’s mail box began in 1871. Over the years, predominantly in the urban areas, its shape has changed into a rectangular box shape and seeing this original version, felt like we were transported to a medieval world.

After walking some 40 odd-minutes from the station, we were finally at the Ueno Castle grounds. The area surrounding the castle is a park, and the atmosphere is very relaxing. Tall trees decorate the path all the way up to the castle.

The sidewalks were littered with acorns fallen from the trees. I picked up some for feeding them to the Shika deer in Nara Park. With no one to point us in the right direction, we just kept following the map.

Ueno Castle, Iga

After the moat, a winding stone staircase leads you up to the Castle. After the morning showers, the old stone steps were wet and had moss growing at the edges. It was quite slippery to walk so we took our time as neither of us were in a hurry.

At the end of the stairs, you can find the looming castle surrounded by Momiji trees. Unlike numerous other Japanese castles which were recreated in the twentieth century utilizing concrete, Iga Ueno Castle was revamped with wood just, giving it a wonderful, unique look and environment.

Construction on Iga Ueno Castle began in 1585 CE on the command of Takigawa Katsutoshi. His successor Tsutsui Sadatsugu built the honmaru and three level main keep. After the Battle of Sekigahara (1608), Sadatsugu’s lands were confiscated by the Tokugawa and given to Todo Takatora. Todo Takatora renovated the Honmaru, increasing the walls height to 30-meters, to fortify the defenses against any resurgence by Sadatsugu’s followers, which to this day remains the tallest among all castles in Japan.

We sat on a bench in front of the castle for some time staring at one of the most beautiful architecture, I have laid my eyes upon in recent times. Because of its pure white color and mesmerizing beauty, the castle is also known as “Hakuho” or “White Phoenix Castle.”

Todo Takatora’s main keep was originally never completed, so the current keep was created using designs from nearby structures.

Exhibits at Iga Ueno Castle

Iga Ueno Castle was designated as a national treasure in 1967. The castle has three floors, with historical artifacts displayed on each floor. The ticket booth in inside the castle on the first floor. Admission tickets cost us ¥500 each. Before you enter the castle, you will have to leave your shoes at the shoe stall near the entrance to the Hall. The first floor exhibits various armor and weapons used in battle.

The most important of the exhibits is a seated model of Todo Takatora and his famous hat, which is on display both as a replica, as well as the original behind a glass case. Just in case you’re wondering, Todo Takatora was the successor of Tsutsui Sadatsugu.

As an innovative architect for many castles, Takatora developed techniques for building bigger, stronger, cheaper Sotogata type tenshu keeps, being much faster and cheaper to build than the traditional Borogata style keeps. His castles were also famed for their steep, high walls, particularly those of Iga Ueno Castle. He also perfected the Masugata type, or Death Box of gate systems, greatly strengthening the defense of the many castles he designed.

Visitors can see the intricate details of traditional body armor and battle helmets up close as they walk through the exhibition room. Fortunately photography is allowed inside.

A sujikabuto is a type of helmet that occurred in the late Kamakura period and the Northern and Southern eras of Japan. Unlike a star helmet, it does not show the studs that hold the iron plates that form the helmet body, but twists the edges of the iron plates to make the joints look like streaks.

You can also find a miniature model of the Iga Ueno Castle among the exhibits.

Below you can find a couple of wakizashi swords on display at the museum. The wakizashi has a blade between 30 and 60 cm. The katana was the big or long sword and the wakizashi the “little” or companion sword. It being carried together with the katana was the official sign that the wearer was a samurai or swordsman.

The wakizashi is a traditionally made Japanese sword worn by the samurai in feudal Japan


An extremely narrow wooden staircase leads up to the second floor. This floor displays ceramic utensils from the Edo Period (1603-1868). Iga has a long history with ceramics and its utensils referred to as Iga yaki have come to be loved by many masters of the tea ceremony.

The history of Japanese ceramics began with Jomon earthenware, followed by Yayoi (300 BCE – 250 CE) and later in the Kofun period (300 CE to 538 CE) the technique was succeeded by Hajiware and haniwa terracotta figures. Iga yaki is a specially referred to the porcelain produced in this area, surrounding the city of Iga.

In ancient times, the ever-popular Lake Biwa, which is now limited to the Shiga prefecture, used to extended all the way to Iga. Over centuries, even though the lake gradually receded from the area, it left behind its rich clay. This clay fostered the production of Iga yaki, an art of earth and fire that has withstood the test of time.

Iga ware’s origins are believed to date to the second half of the 7th century and 8th century CE, during the Nara period (710-794). Shigaraki and Iga, which are adjacent to each other have had a close relationship since the medieval period in terms of pottery styles. Back then, there was not a significant difference between Iga ware and Shiga-raki styles. It was often said that there are “Handles on Iga, no handles on Shigaraki,” since the handle was almost the only difference that distinguished the products of the two localities.

The items baked at the time were mainly mortars and pots. These early Iga ware is referred to as “old Iga” (Ko-Iga). These usually had wavelike patterns made by spatula scraping or stamped lattice patterns.

The main point of divergence from Iga-ware came during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1574–1600), when tea ceremony culture was also flourishing. Many distinctive pieces of Iga ware were produced at this time, including pieces with wave-like patterns that were created using spatulas or a technique of deliberately breaking the piece by hand to generate an “out-of-tune beauty”.

Characteristically, Iga ware has a asymmetrical beauty created by deliberately distorting well-shaped forms and making each piece unique. This style of Iga-ware was backed by Tsutsui Sadatsugu, feudal lord of what was then Iga province, and Takatora Todo, also a feudal lord. These kinds of pieces were particularly prized in tea ceremonies for the sense of wabi-sabi they evoked. The most well-known kilns were at Makiyama and Marubashira, in the Ayama district of Iga city.

Iga ware uses local clay which is extremely resistant to heat, reacts well to repeated firing, and is fired over three days in a kiln dug into the ground. The clay tends to have a high level of hardness and is created on a pottery wheel. The potter delicately uses a spatula to give curvature. This distinctive curve lets the flames lick over the round edge. Furthermore, tiny pebbles in the clay give it additional surface texture.

The surface texture of Iga ware comes about from the long firing at high temperatures whereby the ashes fall on the pots and turn a glassy green. Features such as ash glaze, black scorching, and cracks can all be seen as natural effects of the firing process. The reddish color of Iga ware is a result of the red flames hitting the grainy stone textured clay in the kiln. When moistened, the glassy green glaze on these vessels glistens, heightening the taste of foods or sake.

The lugs on an Iga ware vase are called “ears” (mimitsuki). Vases tend to be made out of rough clay, sometimes with tiny white stones added. In the past these were kneaded by hand, which gave it a distorted form and thus character, but later production by wheel also developed.

Iga-ware does not use applied glaze. Instead it is fired at a very high temperature in a kiln causing it to crystallize in a reddish hue, often with brown-grey scorch marks caused by log ashes called koge, and a translucent green ash glaze from the burning wood forms. This occurs when firewood ash melts at 1400 Celsius.

Since they are free of impurities, a clear jade translucent glass called biidoro is created. Sometimes the biidoro glass coagulates to form a globule called a “dragonfly eye.” The clay’s durability means it can be fired multiple times without cracking, sometimes up to three times. The ash glaze builds up in layers and produces a translucence which does not form in modern gas-fired kilns.

The walls on this level contain pictures of some of the most important castles in Japan. While Mani was checking out the artifacts, I was taking mental notes of the castles I must visit on my next trip to Japan. From here a wooden staircase leads to the observatory on the third floor where visitors can gaze upon the whole town.

It was a bit early for the Fall, but in the mountains, the leaves had already started to change color.

Iga-ryu Ninja House

After coming out of the Castle, we walked around on the grounds. We came across a souvenir shop. It was a bit crowded, so we decided to come back to it later. A few meters beyond the shop we reached the Ninja House. Tickets to the Ninja House costs ¥700 each. They organize an immersive Ninja martial art demonstration for visitors.

The Iga-ryu Ninja House is maintained by actual descendants of Ninjas. The innocuous house is full of smart contraptions, such as trick doors (Shikakedo), secret passages (Nukemichi) and even false floors to hide weapons. A lady guide, dressed as Kunoichi (female ninja), demonstrated to us how these were used by the Ninjas to avoid conflict or overpower stronger foes.

Room by room, the lady showed us how the Ninjas set up hidden traps in preparation for enemy attacks. Ordinary-looking walls that revolve so Ninjas could hide behind to attack unsuspecting enemies. Hidden escape routes that secretly lead outside of the house. It was fun!

The annual “Iga Ueno Ninja Festa” is held from 1st April to 4th May. During that time the city comes to life with many exhibits, competitions and the opportunity for the visitors to practice their Ninja skills.

Iga-ryu Ninja Museum

After the marvelous show at Ninja House, we walked towards the Ninja Tradition Hall. The Ninja Tradition Hall is a place where visitors can learn about the history of Ninja and look at documents and other materials. In the hall, various tools are displayed, including weapons, code books and gunpowder.

I found some peasant dolls near the entrance. If you are interested in Japanese dolls, try to visit the Saitama Doll Museum.

Here we can see various types of weapons on display, that the Ninjas used. Makibishi are sharp spiked objects that were used in feudal Japan by the Ninjas to slow down pursuers. These iron caltrops could penetrate the thin soles of the shoes such as the waraji sandals that were commonly worn in feudal Japan.

The most popular, Shuriken (throwing blades) are on display here. Also known as throwing stars or ninja stars, the Shuriken were originally designed in many different shapes.

These weapons were thrown to inflict a wound on the enemy. Ninjas used to poison the edges of the blade of Shuriken to make it more potent. Although the range of Shuriken is short about 6 to 7 meter with an expert, it could be said that Shuriken was an excellent weapon in times of eluding pursuit.

You can also find the Sojin-gama tools here. The Sojin-gama was originally a farming tool but could easily double up as a weapon. Because of its use in farming, Ninjas could move around with it without arousing any suspicion.

Here we see a Mizugumo on display. The devices were worn on the feet to walk on water. However it was not really meant for walking on water but though marshy areas where regular shoes would stick in the mud .

Towards the end of the hall is the museum shop, Ninjabo. They sell various ninja goods, including ninja stars. We bought some souvenirs from here.

On our way back we stopped at a Ramen shop for lunch at the Aikat-tei restaurant. The restaurant lies inside the castle grounds near the museum.

After lunch we walked across to the souvenir shop and bought a few gifts. We wandered around the grounds for a bit and then started on the long walk back to the Iga Ueno Station. The old, meandering streets were still very empty, which was kind of nice as we could enjoy the old houses without the usual crowds.

On the way we stopped for a bit at a Mall along the road. I bought some Meiji chocolates for gifting friends in India and then we were back on the road to the train station. As we walked past the Hattori river, it was looking lovely in the dying sunlight.

The clouds had gathered again. The sun was fighting with the thick clouds to take a peep at the Earth by the time we reached the station. The local trains are scheduled every hour, so we had to wait for a while before the train came along.

From the train, I took some beautiful dusk shots as we headed back to Nara.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the home of Buddha – Todai-ji.


1585 CE

Built by

Tsutsui Sadatsugu

Admission Fees

¥ 500  (Castle only)
¥ 1500 yen (Castle, Ninja Museum and Danjiri Kaikan)

Which is the nearest station to Iga Ueno Castle

Ueno Castle is located a five to ten minute walk north of Uenoshi Station.