All About Japan

Japan's 3 Great Mountain Castles

Castles Ruins Mountains Shoryudo Gifu Nara Okayama

Three of the most famous mountain castles in Japan are Iwamura Castle, Takatori Castle and Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, which form the ”Three Great Mountain Castles of Japan,” called sandai-yamajiro (三大山城). These fortresses were built for their defensive capabilities, and remain historically important reminders of a bygone, tumultuous era.

3. Iwamura Castle (Ena City, Gifu)

3. Iwamura Castle (Ena City, Gifu)

Iwamura Castle (岩村城) was first founded in 1185 and is located in the Ena District of Gifu Prefecture, famous for its scenic landscapes and valleys. This fortress was extremely difficult to attack due to its strategic location high in the mountains.

Nature was also one of its best defenses, with the area around the castle often blanketed in a deep fog, providing it with natural camouflage. This fog made the castle hard to see, and earned it the nickname of Kiri-ga-jo, or “The Misty Castle.”

This elusive castle survived the centuries until the Meiji Restoration (1868), when it was dismantled. Today, a set of stunning ruins in excellent condition remain, including stone foundations and walls.

2. Takatori Castle (Takatori Town, Nara)

2. Takatori Castle (Takatori Town, Nara)

Takatori Castle (高取城) was constructed atop Mount Takatori in southern Nara Prefecture in 1332. The castle was a massive fortification in its day, with impressive stone walls surrounding 27 turrets, making it the largest mountain castle in Japan.

The impregnable stronghold was strengthened by rows upon rows of stone walls and dry moats, and served as a castle to a long series of 14 feudal lords until its abandonment in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Today all that remain are stone foundations and ruins.

Autumn is the best time to visit and explore the ruins, as the area is surrounded by colorful fall foliage.

1. Bitchu Matsuyama Castle (Takahashi City, Okayama)

1. Bitchu Matsuyama Castle (Takahashi City, Okayama)

Bitchu Matsuyama Castle (備中松山城) is one of only 12 original-construction castles still remaining in Japan. It's the only yamajiro (mountain castle) to have an original tenshu (keep).

Located in Takahashi City, Okayama Prefecture, the castle was built at its present site in 1331, set on a steep mountain at an elevation of 430 meters (1,410 ft). It's been enlarged and expanded several times over the centuries by various feudal lords.

The current main keep was built in 1683 and, as there was little need to build a high vantage point on a mountaintop castle, it's quite small at only two stories. The castle is the highest mountain castle in Japan with an existing main keep, and offers stunning views of the surrounding area and town below.

There isn't a completed road to the summit of the mountain, so visitors wishing to see the grounds have to hike up the mountain path.