Now that we have covered the basic history of Osaka Castle, we are ready to start talking about the castle and the three rings of the castle grounds. We wouldn’t want you to miss anything, so we are going to give a sort our guide of Osaka Castle, highlighting:
Our recommended path to the castle tower
The castle’s defenses
The castle tower
Historic markers and structures
But first a little bit about the layout of Osaka Castle. There are three things of Osaka Castle, which are: Sanomaru, Ninomaru, and Honmaru. Sannomaru is the outer most ring and Honmaru being the inner most ring where the castle tower is located. Like many other castles around the world, Osaka Castle’s primary function up until the 20th century was largely that of a military fortress and political stronghold. Even though the castle has burned down a number of times, there are still some really cool remnants of the castle’s fortifications and turrets! Moreover, if you know where to look there are some really interesting historic monuments and carvings littered around the castle grounds.
In our next article about the castle we will cover, the castle gardens, the shrine to the Toyotomi clan, and some interesting stones around the castle that have stories all their own.
Our Recommendation for Getting to Osaka Castle
There are four gates that connect Sannomaru to Ninomaru: Ootemon Gate, Kyobashiguchi Gate, Aoyamon Gate and Tamatsukurimon Gate. Whichever gate you use to enter Ninomaru will eventually lead you to Honmaru, but that being said, we strongly recommend entering through Ootemon Gate [大手門], which is closest to the Tanimachi 4-Chome Station via the Tanimachi Subway Line.
Although some websites recommend getting off at Osaka-jo Station, we do not recommend this because if you get off at Osaka-jo Station that means you will most likely enter Osaka Castle through Aoyamon Gate [青屋門]. Historically, this gate primarily functioned as an emergency exit, and was not even used for a long time because the gate faces northeast, an ominous direction in feudal Japan.
The two other gates that guard Ninomaru, Kyobashi and Tamatsukuri, unfortunately lost their turrets in massive fires during the Meiji Era and WWII, respectively and have become shadows of their former selves.
A Local’s Guide To Osaka Castle
Let’s start our tour from Ootemon Gate! Once you get off at Tanimachi 4-Chome Station, Osaka castle is right in front of you.
The structure of Ootemon Gate was so complicated that Osaka City asked professional architects from all over the country how it was made and only two could figure it out.
As you are entering Ootemon Gate look to your left and you will see a turret called Sengan-yagura [千貫櫓]. This turret was built in 1620 and one of the oldest building in Osaka Castle. This turret allowed soldiers to attack intruders approaching from either side of Ootemon Gate. The name “Sengan” [千貫], comes from the time before Osaka Castle, when the Honganji monks occupied the area instead. During their war with Oda Nobunaga, there was a Hongan-ji turret in roughly the same place. As Nobunaga’s forces were advancing on the Hongan-ji stronghold, Nobunaga said he would pay 1,000 gan to whoever could destroy the turret.
The area square between Ootemon Gate and Tamon-yagura is called a masugata [枡形門]. A masugata is a cleverly designed defensive area. When advancing enemies would enter the courtyard, they would have been forced to turn 90 degrees, ultimately slowing down their procession to the castle tower. The walls of the courtyard also made it easier to attack invading forces by ambushing the enemy from a number of locations in the courtyard.
At the end of the Masugatamon is Tamon-yagura[多聞櫓]. Sengan-yagura and Tamon Yagura will be open to public and you can walk around inside of them.
Tamon-yagura had another layer of defense. The rectangular holes cut in the floor of the turret were used in a similar fashion to European castle gates by allowing the stationed soldiers to impale their enemies with spears, or dump hot sand or even oil on them as they attempted to make their way through the gate.
*Once you go through Tamon-yagura, Nishinomaru Garden will be on your left. We will cover this in Osaka Castle Part 3, but for now just be aware that you cannot get to Honmaru from Nishinomaru Garden.
If you might remember from our article about the Ishiyama Hongan-ji monks, you will recall that they occupied the where Osaka Castle stands long before any of the incarnations of the castle were erected. However, the Hongan-ji were forced out by Hideyoshi’s lord, Nobunaga.
When Tokugawa was rebuilding Osaka Castle, he ordered just about everything leftover from Hideyoshi’s castle to be buried or destroyed so he could build his castle on top of it, this likely included anything remaining of the Ishiyama Honjan-ji Temple met one of these fates.
However, archaeologist and historians have been able to piece together that the temple likely stood in Ninomaru.
Just after the Hongan-ji monument you will see Karabori Moat. But the moat is empty!
This moat has been empty ever since the very first version of the castle. Some speculate that this moat was another defensive countermeasure meant to lure enemy platoons, ultimately making them easier to kill. Scaling the castle wall would also have been much more difficult from that side of the moat as well.
If you walk a little bit more, you will see Sakuramon, the main gate for Honmaru. Unfortunately, the military had to rebuilt this gate after it burned down in 1868.
Just as you approach the gate you will see two large stones. These two stones are called the Tiger and Dragon Stones. Supposedly, when it rains you can see a tiger and dragon on them. We’ve never seen them, so maybe it is an urban legend. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Honmaru and Castle Tower
As your cross over the final bridge, you will see the most iconic part of the castle, the main tower. Remember, the design of the main tower was modeled after Hideyoshi’s version of Osaka Castle. Hideyoshi was a man who enjoyed elaborate and flashy designs, and was very fond of placing gold wherever he could. The large gold tigers and cranes on the main tower would have been even more noticeable on the black walls Hideyoshi’s Castle.
In 1886, the military brought part of Wakayama Castle, called Kishu Goten, to Osaka Castle. Despite surviving the onslaught of WWII, Kishu Goten caught fire shortly after the war. This Japanese-style garden that sits near the front of the castle is all that remains of Kishu Goten.
Osaka Castle History Museum
The inside of the castle is a museum about the history of Hideyoshi and Osaka Castle. It’s not very much, only about 400 yen.
As you enter the museum, you will notice a cannon next to the entrance. This cannon was first used to protect Osaka Bay in 1854 when a Russian fleet tried to invade the city. The cannon was transported to the castle in the Meiji Period where it functioned as a sort of clock. Eventually the castle discounted use of the cannon due to noise.
If you know very little about Japanese history, you may not be able to understand all the exhibits in the museum. Luckily, if you are curios you can rent an audio guide– for free! I found the explanations to be rather short, but it certainly makes it easier to understand the exhibitions and artifacts on each floor.
With tons of exhibits and a total of 8 staircases, you will walk a good bit before reaching the top of the castle. When you do reach the top, you’ll realize the view is well worth it.
Once you complete the museum in the castle tower you may think it’s a good time to head back, but we recommend one more place to stop by on your way out. When you exit the museum, head to the back of the castle to find Yamazato Maru.
Yamazato Maru is one of the remaining elements of Hideyoshi’s original castle and served as a place Hideyoshi would occasionally relax with his tea. The original version of Yamazato Maru was designed to a simple wabisabi area but by the Edo Period, servants houses had been built in Yamazato.
You may think that Yamazato Maru doesn’t have that much to offer but just a bunch of rocks! However if you look closely, you can find the family crests of many famous daimyo carved on to these stones.
You can find even more stones bearing family crests in the nearby bailey.
Yamazato Maru is also where the Toyotomi bloodline came to a tragic end.
During the Siege of Osaka Hideyoshi’s second wife, Yodo, and his son Hideyori watched in horror as their castle burned. Rather than face imprisoned, banished, or worse, they decided to commit suicide, thus ending the Toyotomi clan forever.
After you finish Yamazato Maru, you will see Gokurakubashi Bridge. Gokurakubashi Bridge might look unimpressive now, but in Hideyoshi’s day it was once covered elaborate roof and decorative gate. After Hideyoshi’s death, the gate went to Hougon-ji Temple on Chikubujima Island in Lake Biwa.
Keep your walking shoes on ’cause we’re not done yet!
Coming next time
Osaka Castle Part 3: Castle Gardens and Iconic Spots
The adventure continues…