Joukamachi (literally “towns below castles”) were established around castles, particularly those that served as a daimyo’s (prefectural lord) political power base in the various han (or domains) that Japan was divided into during the Edo Period (1600 – 1868).  On our trek together along the nakasendo we will visit two Castle Towns or joukamachi.  One situated on the shores of Lake Biwa near majestic Fuji-san and one located on the plains of Matsumoto high in the Japanese Alps.  The atmosphere and style of these two joukamachi is unique, and both locations offer very different experiences of Work Heritage listed Japanese Castles and surrounding towns.

AJ Travel Bureau’s Nakasendo Way Walking Tour escorts you back in time to traverse the very best parts of the Nakasendo.  We stay in traditional Ryokan, Juku and modern day business hotels dotted along the route.  This unique tour provides  an experience that connects you to the very roots of Japanese history.  You will walk the roads that some of Japan’s most famous samurai were forced to walk, and stay in the accommodation that they stayed in.  You will eat in the style of travellers past, bathe in natural hot springs with some of Japan’s coveted treasures, castles, scenery and history under your very feet as you traverse the modern Nakasendo Way.

  • History around Joukamachi
  • Strategic Layout of Joukamachi
  • Hikone Castle Town
  • Matsumoto Castle Town
  • Conclusion

Joukamachi are Japanese Castle Towns

Joukamachi (literally “towns below castles”) were established around castles, particularly those that served as a daimyo’s (prefectural lord) political power base in the various han (domains) that Japan was divided into during the Edo Period (1600 – 1868).

The advent of Jokamachi dates back to the Sengoku period (period of warring states 1467 - 1603). Jokamachi functioned both as a military base represented by the castle and an administrative and commercial centre. Oda Nobunaga extensively contributed to the development of early Jokamachi.  One of Nobunaga’s primary objectives was to establish the Heinobunri - distinguishing the samurai class from the rest of Japanese society by giving them privileged status.  He forced the samurai class to live in Jokamachi, and established rakuichi-rakuza (free markets and open guilds) to stimulate the merchant trade and create commerce and and wealth into his occupied territories. 

Similarly, under the next warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s regime, whose political and commercial epicenter was based in Osaka-joka now mordern day Osaka.  joukamachi continued to flourish under Hideyoshi’s direction.  Osaka became a prosperous center of commerce and continues to be a major business powerhouse in modern Japan.

In the lead up to the Edo Period there were approximately 300 joukamachi in existence with a population range somewhere between 4,000 and 120,000 residents.  Kanazawa and Sendai were considered large sized joukamachi home to around 120,000 residents including samurai and merchants.  Kameda in the Tohoku region (north Japan) was an example of a smaller sized joukamachi with around 4,000 residents.

Strategic Layout of Joukamachi

During the last third of the 16th century the imperial capital of Kyoto and the bustling port cities of Nagasaki and Sakai were among the only cities of any noticeable size.  However, this changed significantly and swiftly over the course of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (c. 1573 – 1598) and into the early decades of the 17th century as daimyo become a more permanent fixture encouraging merchants into their domains and particularly their castle towns in an effort to drive economic and cultural growth.  In short order many of these castle towns burgeoned into cities of reputable size, population and economic power.

Jokamachi incorporated various techniques to strengthen the city’s defence. To prevent invasions, it cleverly used rivers and other natural terrain such as moats, built earth mounds and stone walls, and sometimes constructed heavy gateways like Masugata gates if the city was deemed strategically important. Inside the’ joka’, houses were tightly located on either side of the main street to make it harder to directly view the castle, and roads were cranked or had dead ends to elongate and confuse the route to the castle for invading armies or intruders.

Other strategies included fencing off smaller section of the city with wooden gates shutting them at night, manned with guards to ward of intruders. Moats were also used as canals and played an important role in the distribution of goods.  This type of joukamachi tended to be developed around river terraces in eastern Japan and deltas facing the ocean in western Japan. Cities such as  Hikone, Zeze, and Suwa were adjacent to a lake as part of the “lake type” jokamachi.

Within a joukamachi, smaller districts called Samurai-machi, Ashigaru-machi, Chonin, and Tera-machi surrounded the castle. A Samurai-machi was a district for samurai’s compounds also known as Samurai-yashiki. In principle, higher-ranked vassals owned a compound closer to the castle. 

Modern towns with names like Sange, Kamiyashiki-machi, Shitayashiki-machi are descendants of Samurai-machi. People at a lower status like Ashigaru (foot soldiers) were often forced to live at the outer rim of Chonin districts. Today, towns with names like Bancho, Yuminocho, and Teppocho tend to be what were originally Ashigaru-machi.

Chonin-chi (townsman) is a district that lay outside of Samurai-machi for merchants and craftsmen. Villagers who lived near the joukamachi resided in Chonin-chi when they moved in. Merchants and craftsmen were allocated according to their occupation. Towns today with names like Gofuku-machi “apparel town”, Aburaya-cho “oil town”, Daiku-machi “carpenter town”, Kaji-machi “blacksmith town”, and Koya-cho “dye shop town” are remnants of Chonin-chi. Chonin-chi were generally smaller in land size per family in comparison with samurai-machi and were also tightly aligned along the streets as a joukamachi defence mechanism.

This is why a Chonin house had a narrow entrance and great depth and was often referred in the Japanese vernacular as an “eel’s nest”.  This style of housing typically consisted of two floors and front room overlooking the streets on the second floor was utilized as a storeroom to avoid looking down upon the feudal lord or daimyo at their retinue passed through the streets.  Tera-machi (main streets lined with vendors often originating at temples) were placed on the outer rim of the joukamachi and formed an array of large temples. It contributed to reinforcing the city’s defence.

By the time the 17th century rolled around Japan had some of the largest cities in the world that had grown out of these joukamachi.  By the 1640’s roughly 10 percent of the total population on the Japanese archipelago lived in cities.  By the 1800s Edo was believed to have a population of roughly 1 million; Osaka and Kyoto was home to around 300,000 residents while  Nagoya and Kanazawa had approximately 100,000 people each.

Regardless of the cultural difference present in Japan daimyo operated in their own sphere of influence and brought their own flare and personality to bare in the domains they ruled, joukamachi tended to resemble one another closely in a number of respects:  most had towns that had samurai residences closely clustered around the castle, the hoi polloi neighborhoods were officially divided up by occupation, the width of their roads, residential architectural styles, and certain other aspects of urban layout were all quite similar. Chinese and European cities were usually defined by moats and walls.  In contract, Japanese cities were wall free and morphed into farmland without any defining barriers. 

Four of these castles, Matsumoto Castle, Inuyama Castle, Hikone Castle, and Himeji Castle, were designated as National Treasures.  Hikone Castle had its 5th grand renovation in 1996. Sixty thousand new roof tiles, made of thirty-four different kinds, were used to refurbish the castle, and the walls were painted white.  The renovation contributed immensely to the revival of the Castle. 

Hikone Castle Town

Hikone Castle is a Japanese Edo-period castle that was built in the city of Hikone, in Shiga Prefecture in 1603.  It is considered the most significant historical building in Shiga. Hikone is one of only 12 Japanese castles with an original keep, and one of only five castles listed as a national treasure.

Construction of Hikone Castle was interesting in that many elements of it were moved by the Ii clan to Hikone.  For example the keep was originally built in 1575 as part of Otsu Castle and later moved by the clan to Hikone while other parts were moved from Nagahama Castle.  The Tokugawa Shogunate confiscated Ii Naokatsu’s land leaving the castle in disarray.  It was completed in 1622 by his brother Ii Naotake who gained control of Omi Province.  He completed the Hikone Castle by collecting stones of the former Sawayama Castle and also having them moved to Hikone.

Many castles in Japan were scheduled to be dismantled at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868) as they were considered to represent symbols of Japan’s feudal past, standing in the way of progress and modernisation.  At the time the Emperor was touring Shiga Prefecture members of his travelling party persuaded the Emperor to preserve the castle.   It has been kept intact and remains one of the oldest original-constructed castles in Japan.  The Main Keep has been designated as a National Treasure by the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture.  

The Umaya (Stable), Tenbin Yagura (Balance Scale Turret), Taikomon Yagura (Drum Gate Turret) and Nishinomaru Sanju Yagura (West Bailey Three-story Turret) remain intact today.  We will explore the castle, its ground and various out houses as well as Yum-Kobayashi Road rebuilt in Edo Period style that is the main drag leading up to the Castle.

Matsumoto Castle Town

Matsumoto Castle is one of the most spectacular castles in Japan, known as the ‘Crow Castle’ due to its black exterior, and its slopping roofs appearing as spreading wings. The castle is located in the city of Matsumoto in modern day Nagano Prefecture.  Its origins go back to the Sengoku period. At that time Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan built a fort on this site in 1504, which originally was called Fukashi Castle.

The keep (tenshukaku), which was completed in the late sixteenth century, maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework and is listed as a National Treasure of Japan.  Unlike Hikone, Matsumoto Castle was constructed on a flat plain (hirajiro) rather than utilising natural land formations such as hill tops, lakes or rivers.  In its original format the castle would have comprised of an extensive system of inter-connecting walls, moats and gatehouses.  It has a spectacular moat filled with water and the contract of the dark castle with sweeping roofs contrasted again snow or sublimely pretty sakura blossoms makes a stunning photo.

When Toyotomi Hideyoshi transferred Ieyasu to the Kantō region, he placed Ishikawa Norimasa in charge of Matsumoto. Beginning in the 1590s Norimasa and his son Yasunaga built the tower and other parts of the castle including the keep and the small tower in the northwest, the Watari Tower; the residence; the drum gate; the black gate, the Tsukimi Yagura, the moat, the innermost bailey, the second bailey, the third bailey, and the sub-floors in the castle.  They exist today much as they were originally constructed. They also were instrumental in laying out the castle town and its infrastructure. It is believed much of the castle was completed by 1593–94.

During the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate established the Matsumoto Domain, of which the Matsudaira, Mizuno, and others were the daimyō.  For the next 280 years until the abolition of the feudal system at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, the castle was ruled by the 23 lords of Matsumoto representing six different daimyō families.


As we journey from Heian-kyo to Edo along the nakasendo you will be able to see how joukamachi with their confusing streets and alley ways that morphed into the larger cities of today, however, if you understand where to look you can still see the remnants of the old in the new.  In the sleepy post town of Magome and Tsumago, perhaps if you squint a bit at dusk with your paper hand held chochin stretched out on a stick in front of you, perhaps you may catch a glimpse of women in kimono and samurai with swords as you wonder through the outskirts of Chonin districts into the samurai-yashiki and your ryokan lodging for the night.