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Imabari Castle

This year we decided to head down to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and explore some of the famous castles there. It was Mariko’s first visit there, and my only trip to Shikoku was more than 35 years ago, so it was fairly new for both of us.

There are 12 castles in Japan classified as “original," i.e. they are the original castles built during Japan’s feudal period before the Meiji Restoration in early 1868, and four of these are in Shikoku. Other castles that still exist today are reconstructions, either full or part.

In their day, castles covered large areas and consisted of a series of defensive rings or baileys spreading out from the central and largest structure (
tenshukaku (or simply tenshu) — castle tower or castle keep). The tenshukaku was located in the hon-maru (main bailey), and as with all castle keeps, was the last line of defence. Outside this was the ni-no-maru (second bailey), where the lord lived in his palace, and the highest ranking samurai lived in their comfortable residences, and the san-no-maru (third bailey). The lower ranking samurai lived in the town area around the castle; generally, the higher their rank, the closer to the hon-maru they lived.

In most of the castles remaining today, both original and reconstructed, what tend to be left are the
tenshukaku, one or two of the guard towers or turrets (yagura), and bits and pieces of the moat and wall fortifications. Most of the ni-no-maru and san-no-maru areas have been taken over by urbanisation or parkland.

Many of Japan’s great castles were destroyed in acts of cultural vandalism following the Meiji Restoration when they were seen by the new modernisation-focused government as unwanted symbols of the past. Many more were destroyed during the Second World War. Shikoku wasn’t subjected to the intensive strategic bombing that other parts of Japan suffered during the war, which is why four of the twelve original castles are on the island.

Area map
We caught the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Okayama. Mt. Fuji can be quite shy at times and often doesn’t want to be seen. The last four or five times I’ve been close to the mountain she’s remained hidden behind the clouds, and I didn’t have a chance to see her. This time, though, she probably considered me worthy enough to allow me a glimpse from the train.

Mt Fuji from the train
Obviously not worthy enough to give me a full view though. There really is something wonderful and majestic about that mountain.

From Okayama we changed to an express train to Shikoku, stopping off at Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. We only had a few hours in Imabari because we were staying in Matsuyama for the next three nights, so we made a beeline to Imabari Castle.

This is not an original castle. The castle and all associated buildings were torn down by the new Meiji government, but the
tenshukaku and turrets were rebuilt by the city in 1980. And the city did an absolutely excellent job of restoration.

Iimabari Castle 02
By the look of the sky, it’s hard to believe that a couple of days earlier virtually the whole of Japan was hit by a powerful typhoon, and also a large typhoon the week before that.

The castle was built by Tōdō Takatora, a feudal lord in the region, between 1602 and 1604. He was a renown designer and builder of castles, and he’s associated with many other castles both in Shikoku and in other parts of Japan.

Statue of Tōdō Takatora
Statue of Tōdō Takatora

It’s one of Japan’s three major “water castles” or coastal castles built by the ocean, and the water in the moat is tidal, so the water level changes with the tide. The moat is full of salt-water fish, but I’m pretty sure fishing would be severely frowned upon.

Imabari Castle
The castle keep (tenshukaku) and one of the turrets (Yamazato-yagura Turret)

At the main entrance to the castle just outside the Kurogane-gomon Gate is a massive stone in the wall. It’s been called the Kanbe-ishi Stone since the time the castle was built, and it was named after Watanabe Kanbe, who was the chief of castle construction. It’s a granite stone roughly 2.4 x 4.6 x 0.6m, and weighs 16.5 tons. It was meant to attract attention and show the authority of the feudal lord, and I have no doubt it would have achieved its aim.

Kanbe-ishi Stone
Kanbe-ishi Stone (and Mariko)

Former location of the Kōrai-mon Gate
The grey paint on the ground in the above photo shows the location of the stone walls that were on both sides of the Kōrai-mon Gate, which stood there. Any attacking enemy managing to break through this gate would be confronted immediately by the Kurogane-gomon Gate, and met by a terrifying barrage of fire from the firing bays in the surrounding Tamon-yagura Turret. This confined open area between the castle gates providing a very strong defensive barrier is called a koguchi, and was a feature of castles designed by Tōdō.

Kurogane-gomon Gate
The above photo shows the Kurogane-gomon Gate. This is what would have confronted any enemy that managed to breach the Kōrai-mon Gate. Kurogane is the old Japanese word for iron (tetsu is the modern term), and the entire gate structure is clad in iron. The life expectancy of troops in the initial wave would have been very short.

Kurogane-gomon Gate and turrets from the top of the castle keep
The above photo shows the Kurogane-gomon Gate and courtyard from the top floor of the tenshukaku.

The tenshukaku houses a history museum with wonderful displays of period armour, helmets, swords, and other items of feudal life throughout the building, and a natural science museum featuring interesting natural aspects of the local area. Two of the turrets house an antique museum and a local art museum, but unfortunately, because we spent so much time looking at historical artefacts and explanations in detail, we were running out of time to catch our train to Matsuyama, so we didn’t have a chance to look through them.

Imabari Castle
All in all, an outstanding castle, and we both wish we had a few more hours to spend there.

From Imabari Castle we made a dash to the station, just in time to catch our train to Matsuyama.

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