January 5, 2021

The Takeda Castle Ruins

Regularly referred to as Japan's Machu Picchu these castle ruins in Hyogo often appear to be floating above the clouds in the early morning.

Hyogo Prefecture's "floating" Takeda Castle Ruins from one of the Ritsuunkyo viewpoints

If you’ve been following me for a half year or so, you’ll know that not too long ago I foolishly tried to take on all of Hyogo Prefecture in a single outing. While I hit many of the main stops on that overly ambitious trip, unfortunately there were several locations that I had to skip. Of the allures that I missed on that adventure, it’s the Takeda Castle Ruins that have been beckoning to me the most. Commonly referred to as “Japan’s Machu Picchu,” this hidden gem definitely deserves to be on visitors’ bucket wish list. I mean, just look at that breathtaking shot above!

Alas, as evidenced by the fact that I had to opt out of visiting during my prior stint in Hyogo, the Takeda Castle Ruins are not exactly easy to access. Nestled deep within the mountains of the prefecture, you’ll need to make a serious detour from the likes of Kobe and Himeji to explore this rural region. However, those determined to make the trek may possibly be rewarded with the otherworldly phenomenon pictured above. Known in Japanese as unkai (lit. “sea of clouds”), this spectacle causes the Takeda Castle Ruins to look like an ancient floating fortress soaring skyward.

According to historical documents, the Takeda Castle Ruins date as far back as the early 1400’s. Throughout all of the Warring States period (1475–1603), the mighty stronghold solemnly stood vigil over this section of the country. Forged on top of a towering bluff, Takeda Castle undoubtedly provided a commanding view of the valley below. In fact, enemies approaching from Himeji Castle in the south would need to pass by directly. Given the castle’s strategic importance, is it any wonder that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi quickly added this location to his dominion when positioning western Japan under his heel?

Unfortunately, the former Takeda Castle fell victim to the forces of time and entropy. Firmly situated in Toyotomi-controlled territory, the faction that controlled this part of Japan sided against Tokugawa Ieyasu in the fateful turning point that was the Battle of Sekigahara. Consequently, the leadership’s loss at the hands of the Tokugawa alliance resulted in the gradual disarray of Takeda Castle. Nevertheless, visitors today can still marvel at the remains of the ancient stone walls. Standing in contrast to structures built during peaceful times, you can easily see how Takeda Castle was contrived for wartime.

By the way, before we dive into the logistics of visiting the Takeda Castle Ruins, allow me to quickly note that Hyogo Prefecture will be one of three locales for the 2021 World Masters Games (to be held in 2022 due to Rona-chan ruining everything). Now going on its 10th installment, this global gathering has seen over 170,000 participants to date. The World Masters Games are open to anyone over 30 years of age. Should you be traveling to Japan either as a spectator or as a participant, consider giving the Takeda Castle Ruins a go.

Getting to the Takeda Castle Ruins

People come in and out of Himeji Station in Hyogo Prefecture

As mentioned, the journey to this castle in the clouds ain’t exactly easy. Located over seventy kilometers north of Himeji, the Takeda Castle Ruins are actually a lot closer to the hot spring town of Kinosaki Onsen. If you are departing from Kobe’s neighboring city of Himeji you’re looking at nearly two hours on the local JR Bantan Line. As always, allow our friend Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the connections for you. Just plug in Takeda Station and let the transportation planning tool map out the details. Remember though, trains out here are rather infrequent compared to major cities and missing one can significantly set you back timewise.

Of course, given the Takeda Castle Ruins are found way out west in Hyogo, it only stands to reason that you’ll need to first make your way to the prefecture. Those traveling from Kansai International Airport will want to make a quick transit in Osaka before heading out to Himeji. Alternatively, the initial leg of the trip can be made from Tokyo in one swoop aboard the Shinkansen. In either case, you’ll need to find your way to Himeji where you can then pick up the JR Bantan Line. Hey, no one said finding this real-life Laputa was going to be easy…

After pulling into Takeda Station, know that the castle is not a far distance away. That said, I highly suggest you try to arrive in this area of Hyogo Prefecture the night before your planned visit to “Japan’s Machu Picchu.” The reason for this will become apparent in a second but keep in mind that few fancy hotels exist in this part of the countryside. Instead, you’ll need to settle for one of several homely guest lodgings that you’ll find here. My travel companions and I stayed at a place called Guest House TENKU but my midnight walk informed me that all other options are of similar caliber.

Like a “Castle in the Sky”

A view from the Takeda Castle Ruins that looks like Machu Picchu

Are you a morning person? No? Neither am I but you’re just going to need to suck it up buttercup if you want to catch the Takeda Castle Ruins floating above the clouds. In fact, given that much of the mist dissipates mere hours after sunrise, you’ll want to be dressed by the crack of dawn. When I visited, we began our ascent from the closest parking lot where we were greeted by a host of others already waiting to catch the sunrise. If you need a morning jolt of caffeine like I do, do yourself a favor and snag a can of coffee to store in your pack before hitting the hay.

One of the unsavory snags of viewing Takeda Castle’s sea of clouds is that you’ll probably want to have your own set of wheels. While you can make your way on foot to the top of the bluff where the remains sit, the strenuous ascent takes approximately forty minutes. Remember, you’re doing this in the dark too so there’s also a safety concern to be mindful of. Alternatively, buses and taxis serve as viable transit to the Takeda Castle Ruins however these runs aren’t feasible options given the need for an early start.

Seeing the need to set out well before the break of dawn, those without a rental car will need to hike up in the dark unless you can hail a taxi somehow. If you’re the athletic type, the climb should not be much of a challenge as the trek can be completed in less than an hour. I’d encourage you to either bring a flashlight or keep the flash on your smartphone on max though to ensure you don’t trip on the way up. You don’t want to accidentally stumble somewhere up here and incur an injury.

After reaching the top of the hill where the Takeda Castle Ruins sit, you’ll need to pay an admission fee of roughly five-hundred yen. Here, you will embark on another short climb to reach the remains of the castle’s stone walls. While none of the original buildings remain, you can still peruse the sturdy castle foundations which are largely intact. As you meander about the marked-off, one-way course, try to envision what the stronghold would have looked like in the days of yesteryear. Be sure to keep your eyes out for the observatory deck that offers killer views of the town in the valley below.

When contemplating the best season to visit the Takeda Castle Ruins, know that the mist is at its best during the autumn months. During this period, the sun warms the nearby river giving rise to the dense foggy haze. This atmospheric condition is unique to this area of Japan. While the elements weren’t such for me, the best weather is said to be clear, breezeless mornings that follow a sunny day. The prime location for viewing the “Castle in the Sky” scene opening this piece is actually not from the remains themselves. Instead, this vista can only be witnessed from the Ritsuunkyo viewpoints on the opposite side of the valley.

If you’re a shutterbug who absolutely must get their own shot, I suggest that you first go to Ritsuunkyo then hit up the castle. While the castle walls can be enjoyed at any time of day, you can only catch the “sea of clouds” in the early hours of the morning. Just remember that there’s no way to reach the observation decks via public transportation so those hankering for a shot will need to have access to a rental car or hail an early taxi (if you even can).

Attractions Near the Takeda Castle Ruins

An aerial shot of Mt. Kannabe’s caldera in Hyogo Prefecture

Normally, I like to conclude my work by recommending some nearby spots. In the case of the Takeda Castle Ruins, this would be somewhere like the rustically charming Kinosaki Onsen or the magnificent Himeji Castle. Given that Hyogo will hopefully host the World Masters Games in 2022 though, I’d like to wrap this article with some options for the sports enthusiasts out there. Considering the rural logistics, know that if you head just a bit northwest, you’ll encounter the Kannabe Highlands. Formed by the most recent volcanic activity in the Kansai region around 25,000 years ago, this slice of the countryside offers a surprising number of options for sporty adventures.

While I sadly did not have much time to explore the Kannabe Highlands, my hike around the Mt. Kannabe caldera (seen in the drone shot above) showed me that there is a lot to do in the area in addition to just trekking on the mountains. From this formerly active volcano, you can enjoy the thrill of mountain biking down its steep slopes during the warmer months of the year. Additionally, when the grounds are blanketed with snow, visitors can enjoy skiing and snowboarding on Mt. Kannabe. What’s more, adventurous souls and adrenaline junkies can even try their hand at paragliding around the Kannabe Highlands.

As if this weren’t enough, outdoor enthusiasts will delight to know that there are many campgrounds scattered about this neck of the woods. There’s also a lot of interesting tidbits to explore for those interested in geology and nature too. While you’ll likely need someone to help assist you in negotiating the language barrier (look to hire a guide or interpreter if you’re concerned about communication), a visit to Kannabe Highlights is a unique twist on the routine sightseeing style that typically characterizes one’s journey to Japan.

Until next time travelers…