Bitchu Matsuyama Castle: Japan’s Only Surviving Mountain Castle
Japan’s very first castles were mountain castles or yamajiro. Unfortunately, many of them do not exist anymore, due to the nature of their location or acts of war. However, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle stands on the top of Mt. Gagyu (487m) is the only surviving example of a yamajiro, with its keep restored to perfect condition. If you are a fan of Japanese castles, then a visit to this castle is truly exciting experience!
The History of Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle dates back to the 13th century when the Akiba clan built a small castle on the top of Mt. Gagyu. As this was an important place to secure in order to conquer the Chugoku region, many wars took place in this castle, meaning the castle had many different lords, with each of them expanding the castle grounds. It was in the 16th century when the Mimura clan started to build the current Bitchu Matsuyama Castle on the current site.
After the Mori clan lost in the Sekigahara War, the Tokugawa government dispatched the Mizutani clan to reside in Bitchu Matsuyama Castle. Mizutani clan then spent several generations renovating the castles, including the main keep, which was built by Mizuno Katsumune in 1681 and still stands today on the top of the mountain.
After Edo period, the main keep was abandoned and is probably why it is intact today.
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
Walking to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
30 minutes away from Okayama Station in Okayama Prefecture is Bitchu Takahashi Station. From there, a community bus will take you to the foot of the mountain, but it is possible to walk there. It takes only 30 minutes on foot.
Near the foot of Mt. Gagyu is Takahashi High School. It was in this area where government buildings and the people who lived in the castle usually spent their days. Like other mountain castles, people only used the castle during the times of emergency i.e war.
After crossing the bridge near the high school, the path to the castle begins. It is 1,500m (about a mile) long, but since you have to climb 430m, it takes a full hour. By doing so, you can feel how hard it was for people to attack this castle. Today, many simply drive to the top in a few minutes. Even still, you have to walk 20 minutes or so to the main keep from the Fuigo Parking Lot.
After the parking lot, the trail is paved, making it much easier to walk. You can also see some of the castle buildings.
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
In what felt like no time at all, suddenly there was a castle wall right in front of us. The walls of the castle were breathtakingly huge and needless to say, it is quite amazing to think that people built such large stone walls in the middle of a mountain like this.
From the gate, the trail to the main keep goes up a little ways further. This winding path to the main keep is actually an important defensive feature, as it made it more difficult for intruders to reach the main keep. The castle grounds are very well maintained and we could see many of the original stone walls throughout the castle grounds.
Finally, we arrived at the main keep. While the castle grounds were very big, the main keep itself is small, only 11m (40ft) tall, making of the smaller of Japan’s oldest surviving castles. However, this building has stood here ever since 1681 and is the only surviving keep of a Japanese mountain castle. Not only is it really surprising for there to be a castle in the middle of the mountain like this, but also it has managed to survive here for over 300 years.
Once you pay the entrance fee, you can go into the keep. We definitely recommend going! It is worth it. Although it is quite small, it is one of only a few castles in Japan that are almost entirely in their original state. Inside the keep was a hearth, which while quite unique for a typical castle, would in actuality be very natural, given that it snows a lot around here.
At the back of the castle, you can see the lone surviving original turret, Ni no Yagura.
Other points of Interest
If you want to truly explore Bitchu Matsuyama castle, you should visit Omatsuyama Castle too. Omatsuyama Castle was built long before Bitchu Matsuyama Castle. Unfortunately, much of Omatsuyama Castle ceased to exist, and only remains are castle walls in the several baileys. Of course, even if you don’t find old stone ruins that interesting, it’s fun to take another hour or so to explore! The trail to Omatsuyama Castle starts behind the Ni no Yagura Turret.
Only passionate castle enthusiasts visit Omatsuyama Castle, so there won’t likely be anyone else there. So few people visit this area in fact, that we could clearly hear monkeys screaming in trees above us.
On the far backside of the castle is the former site of the keep of Omatsuyama Castle. The area is completely overgrown so it’s hard to imagine that a castle once stood here.