Japanese castles are familiar to movie lovers, gamers, and anyone interested in world history. Their iconic designs and impressive appearance are a stark contrast to the castles of Europe.
Matsumoto castle is one of the oldest, a largely original example that dates back to the 1500s. Its mostly-black exterior earned it the nickname the "Crow" Castle.
Himeji is the largest, and probably the one you've seen in photos. Its white façade led it to be called the "White Egret" or "White Heron" castle. Forts on the hilltop where Himeji castle stands date back to the 1300s, and the castle we see today was built in the 1600s.
Both castles are largely made of wood and plaster with stone bases. Hundreds of years of weather, war, and earthquakes take a toll on any structure, but both of these are largely intact. Many castles in Japan are replicas built in the 20th century. They're beautiful too, but there's just something about the select twelve that are still mostly original, and the five listed as National Treasures of Japan, including both the Crow and the Heron.
Though most of Matsumoto's outbuildings, gatehouses and outer walls are gone, many of Himeji's still remain.
Here's what they look like up close, inside and out.
The Crow: Matsumoto Castle
A few hours northwest of Tokyo is the small city of Matsumoto. It's a fairly quiet town nestled in a valley among the stunning Japanese Alps. A river gurgles its way through the city. Matsumoto castle is the main attraction here, and it is stunning. Other than the castle, only the immediate walls and buildings remain of this 400-year-old fortress. The rest was absorbed by the city. The park area around the castle fills with tourists during the day, and even into the night.
Timing is everything, and the one day of sunshine I had during my visit to Matsumoto was also the start of Golden Week where essentially the entire country goes on vacation.
This tour was the most terrifying thing I've done for CNET, by far. I had broken my leg in two places in February, and only gotten the all-clear from my doctor a little over a week before I did this tour. Inside the wooden castle I had to walk around in my socks, and as an added bonus, the stairs were all nearly vertical. While trying to get photos among throngs of people, I was convinced I'd slip, fall, and rebreak my leg.
Luckily I didn't, and everyone seemed quite patient while I (and assorted old people) slowly made our way up and down the stairs, one step at a time.
The castle itself is smaller than it looks, at least on the inside. Each floor is much smaller than most American houses (as you'll see, the same can't be said for Himeji). Huge structural posts dominate every floor and most rooms, though once you get to the higher levels, the windows make it far airier. The view of the mountains from the top floor is fantastic.
The Heron: Himeji Castle
Himeji is huge, majestic, and gorgeous. It's about an hour and a half southwest of Osaka, and as soon as you leave the train station, you can't miss it. A long straight boulevard connects the two, and the castle is up on a small hill, with a commanding view of the town below.
It's a large complex of buildings, including outer walls and gatehouses.
It's also the most visited castle in Japan. Golden Week had long passed by the time I arrived at Himeji, but there were still lots of people. Walking around the grounds this wasn't too apparent, but inside the donjon, it got packed, quickly. As the floors got smaller further up, the going got slower. A slow shuffle was all anyone could manage as we made our way around the top floor.
Still, it was fascinating to see the differences between the two castles. Though the basic design was the same, everything in Himeji was supersized. This indeed felt like a fortress.
Check out the pictures (and videos above) for more.
Japan has countless natural and man-made wonders. Even just limiting a visit to castles, shrines and temples, you'd be here for a decade (not necessarily a bad thing).
My advice is to definitely include some castles in a visit. These two are magnificent examples of Japan's historical castlebuilding technology. I recommend them both, but if you only have time for one, choose Himeji, definitely.
In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, iconic music studios and more. You can follow his exploits on Twitter and Instagram, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. Got a tour-worthy spot you think he should check out? Let him know!