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Japan: Kumamoto Castle, Resilience and Longevity of the Gingko

Updated: Mar 9

Kumamoto Castle, an architectural gem nestled in the heart of Kyushu Island, stands as a silent witness to the country's historical and cultural evolution. Founded in the 15th century at the beginning of the Edo period, this iconic monument embodies the splendor of Japanese castles with its ingenious defenses, peaceful gardens, and imposing structure.

Japan: Kumamoto Castle, Resilience and Cultural Evolution of a Symbol

Despite the ravages of time, Kumamoto Castle, located in the Kumamoto Prefecture, continues to fascinate and attract history enthusiasts. In this article, I revisit the evolution and architectural features of this magnificent castle, as well as the efforts made for its permanent preservation. Not to forget, of course, its undeniable photographic interest.

An Appropriate Nickname

Kumamoto Castle is often referred to as "Ginnan Castle" (銀杏城, Ginnan-jō), which translates to "Gingko Castle." This nickname arises from the numerous gingko trees planted around the castle grounds. These trees are not only aesthetically pleasing, especially in autumn when their leaves turn a brilliant yellow, but they also hold historical significance.

The gingko tree is known for its resilience and longevity, which symbolically aligns with the history of Kumamoto Castle itself, known for its endurance through battles and natural disasters. The castle's ability to withstand such events, along with its ongoing restoration efforts, mirrors the enduring nature of the gingko trees, making the nickname "Ginnan Castle" particularly apt.

Moreover, the presence of these gingko trees adds to the castle's serene beauty and provides a striking contrast to its stone walls and architectural features. Which makes of it a favorite subject for photographers.

History and Evolution

1. Origins

1467-1477: Construction of a fortress by Ideta Hidenobu on the site of the current castle.

1588: Kato Kiyomasa, a feudal lord of the Toyotomi clan, begins the construction of the castle, relying on Korean fortification techniques. The major construction extends until 1607, resulting in an impressive defense complex with a main keep (Tenshu) and several secondary towers.

2. Edo Period (1603-1868)

The castle becomes a major political and military center under the Tokugawa shogunate, assigned to the Hosokawa clan, daimyos of the Higo province, for about 250 years. Renovations and expansions are also carried out to strengthen its structure and aesthetics.

3. Boshin War and Meiji Restoration (1868-1869)

1868: The castle plays a key role during the Boshin War, a conflict that opposed the forces of the Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to restore Emperor Meiji.

1871: After the victory of the imperial forces, the castle loses its military function and becomes government property as part of the abolition of the "Han System."

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What is the Han System?

The Han System, known as "Han Seido" in Japanese, was an administrative and territorial structure in place during the Edo period. This system was established by the Tokugawa shogunate to consolidate its power over feudal Japan after a long period of civil war.

The "han" were feudal domains governed by feudal lords, or daimyos, who were responsible for collecting taxes, maintaining order, and providing soldiers to the shogunate as needed.

Each han had a certain autonomy and was responsible for its own administration, finances, and judicial systems, although subject to the laws and policies dictated by the Tokugawa shogunate. The size, wealth, and power of a han could vary considerably, with some being small territories with few resources, while others were vast, rich, and powerful domains.

The Han System contributed to political stability and the relative isolation of Japan during the Edo period, allowing the country to enjoy two centuries of peace and cultural development. However, by the end of this period, the system began to show signs of weakness, contributing to the collapse of the shogunate and the restoration of the emperor during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

As part of the Meiji Restoration reforms, the Han System was abolished in 1871 and replaced by a modern prefectural system, marking the end of Japan's feudal era and the beginning of its rapid modernization.

Japan: Kumamoto Castle, Resilience and Cultural Evolution of a Symbol

4. Modern Period

1945: The castle is severely damaged by incendiary bombings during World War II, notably the main keep which is destroyed.

1960: Reconstruction of the main keep in reinforced concrete, a controversial decision at the time but one that allows for public access and the preservation of the site as a historical landmark.

Features of Kumamoto Castle

Kumamoto Castle is definitely one of Japan's most impressive castles. It is famous for its unique architectural features that reflect the ingenuity and adaptability of Japanese construction techniques in the feudal era. It also bears witness to the sophistication of Japanese military architecture.

Kumamoto Castle is considered a national treasure of the country and is famous for its unique "inverted" stone walls, called "musha-gaeshi" (see below), as well as for its impressive wooden gates and watchtowers.

Its ongoing preservation reflects the importance of passing on cultural heritage to future generations. Here are some of its most notable features:

1. "Musha-gaeshi" stone walls: These inclined walls, specially designed to be extremely difficult to climb, are an iconic defensive feature of the castle. Their smooth surface and steep incline prevented assailants from gaining ground.

2. Moats (Hori): The castle is surrounded by wide and deep moats, a crucial defensive element that increased the difficulty of access for attackers.

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3. Main Tower (Tenshu): Although the original tower was destroyed and the current structure is a reinforced concrete reconstruction from 1960, it remains an impressive representation of Japanese keep architecture with multiple floors and pagoda roofs.

4. Watchtowers (Yagura): The castle has several strategically placed watchtowers on the site, used for surveillance and defense.

5. Secret passages and strategic pathways: The castle's design includes secret passages and paths designed to confuse invaders and facilitate the movements of defenders within the castle.

6. "Nozurazumi" foundation stones: The huge uncut stones used for the foundations of walls and towers show a construction technique that aimed at both solidity and natural aesthetics.

7. Gates and drawbridges: The castle had several massive gates and drawbridges, designed to control access and provide additional protection.

8. Gardens and living spaces: Within the walls, the castle housed gardens, residences, and administrative spaces, reflecting the castle's function as a governance center.

Japan: Kumamoto Castle, Resilience and Cultural Evolution of a Symbol

Position Among Other Castles

Kumamoto Castle is often ranked among Japan's three great castles, alongside Himeji Castle and Matsumoto Castle, due to its historical importance, impressive architecture, and unique defensive features. These castles are famous for their architectural beauty, cultural value, and significant role in Japanese history.

In terms of popularity and recognition, Himeji Castle is often considered the most iconic due to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its exceptional state of preservation. Nevertheless, Kumamoto Castle remains a major site of interest for historians, architects, photographers, and tourists, recognized for its cultural impact and beauty. It embodies Japan's resilience and cultural evolution, making it a must-see among Japanese castles.

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Festivals and Events

Kumamoto Castle is associated with several festivals that celebrate Japanese culture and history. These events attract visitors from all over Japan and beyond. They provide a unique window into the traditions and heritage of the Kumamoto region. Here are some notable examples:

1. Kumamoto Castle Festival (Kumamoto-jō Matsuri): This is one of the most important events held at the castle and its surroundings. It takes place every year in April and celebrates the castle's history with battle reenactments, samurai demonstrations, traditional dances, and parades. The highlight is often the procession of the castle lord and his court in period costumes.

2. Sakura no Kuni (Land of Cherry Blossoms): Kumamoto Castle is also famous for its spectacular views of cherry blossoms in spring. The celebration of Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) attracts many visitors who come to admire the abundant bloom's beauty in the castle's historical setting.

3. Kumamoto Summer Festival: Although it takes place throughout the city, the castle often serves as a backdrop for some activities, including fireworks displays and concerts. It's a time of festivities that brings together the local community and visitors.

4. End-of-Year Illuminations: During the end-of-year period, the castle is often illuminated as part of celebrations and light installations, offering a magnificent and festive view of the historical site.

Japan: Kumamoto Castle, Resilience and Cultural Evolution of a Symbol

The Final Word

Kumamoto Castle, with its tumultuous history and resilience in the face of natural disasters, embodies perseverance and cultural continuity. This monument, a testament to architectural ingenuity and defensive strategies of the past, offers photographers a timeless subject, where light and shadow play on stone walls and tranquil moats, capturing the essence of the fleeting passage of time.

Through the lens, each stone and blooming cherry tree tells a story of survival and renewal. Photography, by immortalizing the castle from various angles and seasons, not only captures its aesthetic beauty but also underscores the importance of preserving our heritage for future generations, reminding us of the fragility and strength inherent in our connection with the past.

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