Nagoya Castle and Honmaru Palace: Insights into castle administration

By Vicki L Beyer

On the night of May 14, 1945, American bombs destroyed the main donjon of Nagoya Castle, which had stood since 1612. Although the castle was a legitimate military target -- then in use as the Tokai district army headquarters -- it was the loss of the castle to the city's skyline that was most keenly felt by the citizens of Nagoya. Little wonder, then, that it was just over a decade after the end of the war that work began on a replacement donjon, completed in 1959.

The replacement is a ferro-concrete structure shaped to look like the original donjon and built atop the ramparts of the original donjon. It even has replicas of the pair of golden dolphins that sat on either end of the ridge cap of the highest roof of the castle -- figures that are believed to guard against fire. (Yes, the originals were lost in the conflagration that ensued from the 1945 bombing.) The castle and its grounds quickly became, and remain, a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Floodlit at night, the castle has again taken its symbolic role in the city's skyline.

The Tokugawa Period castle was originally built as a "flatland" castle, surrounded by a man-made moat and defended by two sets of walls. Much of the area between the two sets of walls is now strolling gardens (particularly lovely in the cherry blossom season), with tea houses and some remaining historical buildings, including the Nogi Storehouse in the far northwest corner of the castle grounds. This brick and stone structure somehow survived the 1945 bombings, which is particularly fortunate as some of the castle's art treasures had been stored here for safekeeping. The inner wall marks out the Honmaru, a large square zone at the center of the castle grounds. The main donjon sits in the northwest corner, while there are defensive towers on the southeast and southwest corners.

Sixty years after the reconstructed castle re-opened, a major project was launched to reconstruct the Honmaru Palace and administrative buildings that once stood at the foot of the main donjon. While many castles had such structures within their precincts, most are no longer extant. Visiting only the donjon of a castle, it is difficult for visitors to understand just how castles operated. Accordingly, these additional structures make a visit to Nagoya Castle interesting and instructive, and quite unlike the experience of visiting other Japanese castles. Visitors can gain a much deeper understanding of the role of the castle as the capital and administrative center of its district.

Only Stage One of the reconstructed palace is currently open. But it is also possible to arrange for a hard-hatted walk along a catwalk above the construction area of Stages Two and Three as well as to tour the wood processing workshop. Both of these offer great insights into traditional Japanese construction techniques and give one a deeper appreciation of the craftsmanship that is going into this project.

The completed Stage One area is comprised of the entrance hall and outer reception area of the palace, including waiting rooms for visiting dignitaries. Built to the original specifications, it is a dazzling assortment of rooms divided by “fusuma” covered in gold leaf and art work. Pictures of tigers and leopards grace the “fusuma” of some rooms, presenting visitors with images of strength and ferocity. In other rooms, the “fusuma” hold nature images, such as pine trees, cherry blossoms, and maple leaves. One wonders how visitors centuries ago must have felt sitting in the original rooms, contemplating these same images.

After a visit to the Honmaru Palace, visiting the inside of the castle is almost a let-down. Given its age and history, and the fact that it is a ferro-concrete 20th century building, one has no sense of being inside a castle. Rather, it is a museum containing exhibits on the history of Nagoya and the castle, and should be thought of as such. There are a number of artifacts from the original castle, as well as exhibits on how the castle was original constructed in the 17th century. There are also exhibits on armor and swords from the Warring States period and others on town life in the Tokugawa period. All in all, lots to learn here!

As with other castles, the very top (approximately the height of a 10 story building) is an observation area offering expansive views of the castle grounds and surrounding area. On your way in or out of the castle grounds, make a brief stop at the Nagoya Noh Theater, which sits just south of the main gate to the castle (just west of the castle parking lot). Admission is free and there are a number of famous Noh masks and costumes on display. Time your visit to be there at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. or 3 p.m., to see a performance of Hashi Benkei by Nagoya's famous “karakuri” mechanical dolls. This style of clockwork-operated doll dates to the 15th century.


• To reach Nagoya Castle by public transportation from Nagoya Station, take the subway Meiji Line to Shiyakusho Station or the Meguru sightseeing bus to Nagoya Castle. • Nagoya Castle is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (last entrance to the palace and the donjon at 4 p.m.). • The construction area may be toured from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. (closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Thursdays). • The wood processing workshop is open for visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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Thanks for the information. I was at the Nagoya castle long time ago, may be it is time to visit it again.

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