Castle Towns on the Nakasendo

Joukamachi are Japanese style castle towns. On your journey along the nakasendo with AJ Travel Bureau, you will pass through two castle towns, one in Hikone and one in Matsumoto. Hikone joukamachi is located next to Lake Biwa and has views across to Mt Fuji while Matsumoto City joukamachi is located on the flat plains nestled in between the Central Alps of Nagano Prefecture.

Both castles are listed as National Treasures in Japan. Lake Biwa no doubt enhances the beauty of Hikone Castle and also acts as a natural defence against marauding armies. Hikone is an Edo-period castle built in 1603 and is considered ‘the most significant historical building’ in Shiga Prefecture and is only one of 12 castles with an original keep.

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. It has an expansive moat, and various original keeps punctuated with stunning cherry trees that pop with vibrant colour and brings the Castle to life in the spring. Its origins go back to the Sengoku period — Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan built a fort on this site in 1504, which originally was called Fukashi Castle.

Unlike Chinese or European castle towns, often defined by walls, the Japanese cleverly incorporated natural landscapes, rivers, lakes and moats to defend their castles against invading armies. This is noticeable as you travel along the nakasendo — one moment you will be walking across mountain passes and through rice paddies and the next you will find yourself gradually enveloped by buildings as the country side morphs into a post town.

This is most perceptible as you walk from Hosokute to Ena, formally known as Oii-juku. Ena no longer has a castle but was essentially a castle town with noticeably narrow and curvy streets. Other modern day examples include the alpine lake town of Suwa in Nagano Prefecture as well as Hikone. The design of Matsumoto is different in the sense that it is on a central alpine plane in the Cho Mountain rage in Nagano Prefecture and its construction includes an impressive moat and striking bridge (see photo).  

And once you’re inside a castle town it is very easy to get turned around and lose your bearings. The streets are narrow and cranked or twisted making one easily confused as they were designed to misdirect assailants in an entirely unintended direction away from the castle. The houses were also tightly packed along each side of the main street to make it difficult to directly view the castle stymying the efforts of invaders storming the castle.

Therefore, it is interesting to note that sometimes the long way around is actually the shortest unless you are local to the area and familiar with small side street and obscure alley ways.  

It’s interesting to note that castle towns came about largely due to the efforts of two famous war lords in Japan — Oda Nobunaga (15th century) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Castle towns were predominantly political and economic epicenters. Hideyoshi (also 15 century) was particularly interested in creating prosperous commerce centers with free markets and open guilds to stimulate trade. Economics may have been a secondary concern to Hidyoshi’s predecessor, Nobunaga who was more focused on creating a class system in Japan - or in other words, ensuring the distinguished and privileged status of the samurai class.

The castle towns were divided into smaller districts including, samurai-machi, ashigaru-machi, and tera-machi. Typically, the higher-ranked the vassal the closer to the castle was his compound. Next in order of importance were the townspeople and villagers (peasants), followed by the guilds and merchants with areas such as as Gofuku-machi “apparel town”, Aburaya-cho “oil town”, Daiku-machi “carpenter town”, Kaji-machi “blacksmith town”, and Koya-cho “dye shop town”. These districts still remain in Japan’s modern cities of today. If you are wandering through an area called ashigaru-machi then there is good chance that foot soldiers were once housed here.

Japanese castles are beautiful inside and out. You will be able explore the various interesting elements that make up these iconic buildings in Hikone and Matsumoto. These include:

The Castle Keep (Donjin)

Known as donjin in Japanese or castle keep. This is the innermost, best defended and most prominent structure of the castle. Japanese castles have generally between two and five stories. However, due to their clever construction they have more floors on the inside than can be observed from the outside. Yes, a secret floor!  These rooms were often used as storage for supplies or weapons.

Walls and Moats

Some castles were designed with several rings of walls around the castle, employed as a major defence mechanism. Osaka Castle and Edo Castle, and currently the imperial palace are prime examples of these. And as you will see, Matsumoto Castle also has a spectacular moat.

Guard Towers (Yagura) – Hiroshima Castle

Yagura, or turrets in English are watch towers and often also doubled as store rooms. Often multiple yagura were built into castle walls and typically located on the corners. They mostly consisted of two floors and were smaller in stature in comparison with the main tower.

Gates

You’ll also notice a number of well defended gates. It was often Japanese practice that they were constructed as two gates placed at a 90 degree angle to each other creating an inner yard that was heavily defended from all sides.

Palace (Goten)

The palace consisted of the residences of the ruling lord and offices. There are few remaining examples of castles with a palace intact. Luckily, you’ll be able to see this at Hikone Castle. Perhaps the most famous rendition of this in modern Japan is Nijo Castle in Kyoto.

Nightingale Floor

This was a defense mechanism or early warning mechanism built into stretches of hallway in Japanese Castles to warn of lurking assassins or the dreaded ninja. The floors would actually squeak loudly when they were walked across.  Due to their elaborate design it was extremely difficult to pass over these floors without creating sound, reminiscent I guess of a nightingale bird.  These passageways were not just made famous through stories and movies, they actually existed and were ingenious in there engineering and construction. 

Nijo Castle in Kyoto (that was actually a heavily fortified palace) has perhaps one of the best examples of a nightingale floor that you can still see today, and if you know where to look you can actually see the pins and levers in action as tourists make their way through the hallways.