June 4, 2021

Inuyama Castle

Prefecture's Inuyama Castle is Japan's oldest surviving medieval fortress. If you're in the area and like history, you need to check it out!

Inuyama Castle, the oldest surviving Japanese castle

Those who have visited Japan in the past are likely 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, only a mere twelve of numerous castles stand as originals. The remaining castles 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 (e.g. Tsuruga Castle in Aizu-Wakamatsu), there’s just something special about experiencing the real McCoy.

While 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, you there’s few spots better than Aichi Prefecture’s Inuyama Castle. Widely considered to be the oldest of the surviving medieval strongholds, the current keep was erected as far back as the year 1537. Moreover, the castle also stands atop a small hill next to 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 that was Inuyama Castle. While I will always be a Hikone Castle fanboy, it’s a history buff’s dream-come-true to scout a fortress that actually withstood several fierce battles.

Getting to Inuyama Castle

The area in front of Nagoya Station in Aichi Prefecture

Before I end up nerding out on Japanese history on you again, let’s make a detour and cover some key logistics. Though Inuyama Prefecture isn’t exactly found far off of the beaten path, it’s not as easy to access as the reconstructed Osaka Castle. 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.

Anyway, once you’re in Nagoya, you’ll want to switch to the Meitetsu Inuyama Line and take this to Inuyama Station. As always, you’d be wise to reference Hyperdia or a similar service to make calculating the train times easier. After arriving at Inuyama Station, you’ll need to hoof it 10 minutes or so over to Inuyama Castle. While there may be a bus, it’s probably less of a headache to walk (unless you have a strong command of Japanese that is). Here’s a link to a Google Map to help guide you in case you need it…

What to See at Inuyama Castle

The castle town in front of Aichi Prefecture’s 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 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 fortresses often gave birth to so-called castle towns that resided at their bases. Here, commonors and other individuals related to the economy of the domain would reside. Though there are many Japanese castles 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 history. Over the years, both locals and travelers from far away have come to Sanko Inari Shrine to make their obedience. Perhaps the biggest reason for overseas visitors to check out this location is not about legacy but the shrine’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 visit to Inuyama Castle. This location is considered to be the place where the spectacular Inuyama Festival originated 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 make a quick visit to the Inuyama Cultural History Museum. This facility chronicles the area around Inuyama Castle across many centuries of Japanese history. Unfortunately, for those not semi-fluent in Japanese though, there’s little to no English accompanying the displays.
  • 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 karakuri ningyo encounter 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 museum 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
    For the sake of transparency, note that I haven’t actually traveled to this garden due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing a temporary closure. According to what I read online though, this Japanese garden contains a teahouse known as Jo-an which is rated as one of the top three in all of Japan. If you have time, consider checking it out.

Of course, you really ought to spend your time savoring Inuyama Castle too. While you’ll need to scale some rather steep stairs to reach the upper echelons of this fort, the panoramic views 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.

Attractions Near Inuyama Castle

The deity Susanoo battles the eight-headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi

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 shrine 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…