Aichi Prefecture is the home of the samurai! Samurai hailing from Aichi Prefecture made some of the biggest, most important contributions to Japanese history, time and again, starting from the Three National Unifiers, the warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, right down to the low-ranking ashigaru foot-soldiers who filled their needs. In fact, 70% of the early Edo period (1603-1868) ruling daimyo warlords nationwide were originally from Aichi and the surrounding areas.
So, why did Aichi’s samurai become so successful?
Well, much of the centrally located Aichi is comprised of the Nobi Plains, a large tract of flat land ideal for growing rice. In those times, money didn’t grow on trees, it grew in rice paddies! The area was serviced by large rivers, a water source perfect for irrigating rice crops as well as for the transportation of trade goods and services. Aichi has many mountains, another good source for food and resources, such as timber and the rich clays that were dug for the area’s traditional ceramics industry. Aichi Prefecture has the sea to its south, again a rich source of foods and salt, as well as a major transportation route for trade. For these reasons, Aichi was a strategically important location, greatly desired by many other powerful warlords, and so it became the contested center of the Sengoku, or Warring States period. Toughened by the continuous fighting, Aichi’s innovative samurai expanded as they succeeded, spreading out across the country, forging the strong, resilient Japan we know to this day.
Here are a few ideas to help you see, feel and experience Aichi’s unique samurai culture and history in a two-day, one-night tour.
Start at Nagoya Castle, built in 1609 by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) on top of the ruins of the former Oda clan castle of the same name. Nagoya Castle boasts Japan’s biggest keep and features 2-meter-high pure gold iconic shachihoko tiger-fish statues on top! The castle’s palace is regarded as the most magnificent, and the castle’s entire layout is considered one of the finest defensive designs.
The first Japanese castle to be designated a National Treasure, Nagoya Castle and its palace were reduced to ashes by firebombing air raids three months before the end of WWII. The huge keep was hurriedly reconstructed in concrete in 1959, while the Honmaru Goten Palace re-opened in June of 2018 having undergone a completely authentic rebuild.
The keep was closed in mid 2018 with plans to authentically reconstruct it in the traditional manner. While the keep is closed, three of the remaining original condition yagura watchtowers are being opened to the public on a rotational basis. Incidentally, Nagoya Castle’s corner turret watchtowers are among the biggest of all turrets in Japan. The keep is so big, these extra-large turrets look small in comparison. In fact, Nagoya Castle’s turrets are actually bigger than the keeps of many other castles across Japan! If the chance arises, definitely see the northwestern turret, also known as the Kiyosu Turret, from when the timbers of nearby Kiyosu Castle’s keep were recycled over 400 years ago to become this huge three-story watchtower.
The current main focus of attention is Nagoya’s magnificent Honmaru Goten Palace, recently authentically restored to its original condition using traditional craftsmen, tools and materials. Considered the masterpiece of samurai castle architecture, it features 13 structures housing over 30 rooms and covers an area of 3,100 meters squared. All of it is exceedingly gorgeous, richly decorated with gold-covered walls and sliding doors displaying traditional artworks of intimidating tigers and leopards, relaxing scenes of nature with birds, flowers and trees, and scenes of everyday life. The elegant structure, fine artworks, gold, lacquer work, and decorative fittings visually flaunt the power, wealth and authority of the mighty Tokugawa clan. It is simply breathtaking!
There’s more to see around Nagoya Castle than just the keep and the Honmaru Goten Palace! The castle was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu using a system known as Tenka Bushin, whereby the Shogun Ieyasu called in 20 warlords, all former enemies, and had them build the castle for him - at their expense! They had to hire workers to dig the extensive moats, to seek and transport the huge rocks to be used in the castle walls, and to find tradesmen to build them. Timber had to be sourced and carpenters brought in to build the defensive structures. It allowed the wily Shogun to keep an eye on his former enemies. Keeping them close, keeping them busy, and keeping them financially strapped so they could not afford to wage war or insurrection, all while having his most magnificent castle completed at next to no cost to himself. It was the ideal way to maintain peace!
Like an artist signs his work, the various warlords tasked to build Nagoya Castle also left their marks carved on the rocks along the sections they built. These markings are often overlooked or barely noticed, so do take the time to view the walls up close. See how many of these carved marks you can find, while marveling at the size and craftsmanship involved in construction of the sturdy walls. Incidentally, the moats, and all the stonework was done without the use of machinery, cranes, trucks or earthmovers, and was completed within 6 months. Yes, 6 months!
From Nagoya Castle, the next stop is the Tokugawa Art Museum, built in 1935 on the grounds of the former retirement villa of the Lords of Nagoya. The Tokugawa Art Museum is the world’s finest collection of daimyo items, over 110,000 heirlooms of the Tokugawa clan, including swords, weapons, armor, ceramics, lacquer-works, furniture, paintings, calligraphy, Noh costumes and masks, and daily life items. The quality collection boasts 9 designated National Treasure items, 59 Important Cultural Properties, and 46 Important Art Objects. The Permanent exhibition is enhanced by the regular themed exhibitions held in the museum’s National Cultural Property listed building. Take the time to stroll around the adjoining gardens, too.
Having had your fill of traditional culture, try some modern culture next in Nagoya’s lively Osu region. Amongst the many fashion, food and hobby shops along the multiple arcades is the Banshoji Temple. The Banshoji was the Oda clan’s family temple, and the site of the famous scene where the young Oda Nobunaga turned up late and dressed inappropriately to his father’s funeral, only to upset the alter and throw handfuls of incense, shocking the family and clan retainers. Don’t expect a historical, traditional temple when you visit the Banshoji. The temple recently underwent a complete rebuild and is now a garish, gaudy parody of its former self, surrounded by LED screens and steam-breathing dragon statues with light-up eyes. Oda Nobunaga’s father, Nobuhide’s grave is now displayed atop a plastic Disney-esque dungeon to the side of the building. He is probably turning in his grave!
Behind the Banshoji is the Osu areas’ namesake and much more picturesque Osu Kannon Temple. Home to the oldest extant copy of the Kojiki, the traditional history of Japan, it was moved to this site in 1610 on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu during construction of Nagoya Castle, and has been a focal point of Nagoya ever since. Incidentally, on the 18th and 28th of every month, the Osu Kannon Temple’s grounds are transformed into an antiques market, selling everything from old kimono, pottery and tansu chests, to antique household items, toys, collectables and 45 records. Enjoy your souvenir hunting!
Having seen the scale and majesty of Nagoya Castle the previous day, get an early start and travel the 27 kilometers to the National Treasure Listed Inuyama Castle. If you don’t have access to a rental car, then take the Meitetsu train line to Inuyama and catch a taxi or take a 15-minute stroll through the picturesque city streets to the castle.
Dating back to 1537, Inuyama is one of just 12 castle keeps across Japan in original condition, and the oldest of the five of those original castles designated as National Treasures. Cleverly built on top of a wedge-shaped hill with the wide Kiso River acting as a natural moat, Inuyama Castle has seen its fair share of action over the years.
You’ll have to remove your shoes on entry, but you’ll be supplied with a plastic carry bag as you make your way through the wonderful old timber interiors with steep wooden steps. Inuyama provides you with a first-hand look at an actual Warring States castle keep. There are suits of samurai armor, weapons, various historical records and other items on display inside the keep, but the main focal point is the remarkable architecture.
On a fine day from the upper balcony, you can see clear across the Nobi Plains northwest to Gifu Castle, directly south to Komaki Castle and behind that the skyline of sprawling Nagoya City.
Below the castle is the old castle town, currently one of the must-see areas among the general public. Although quieter on weekdays, on weekends the castle town becomes a lively tourist destination!
(Please note, Inuyama Castle will be undergoing restorative maintenance between mid-July and December 2019, and the keep will be shrouded in protective cladding. Between August 1 and September 30, 2019, the upper floors will be temporarily closed.)
Inuyama is also home to Meiji Mura, an open-air architectural museum and Meiji period (1868-1912) theme park on the banks of Lake Iruka. The start of the Meiji period signified the end of both Japan’s feudal period and 260-year self-isolation policy and saw the nation’s western influenced rapid recovery towards a modern, industrialized state.
Meiji Mura consists of around 70 old buildings from around Japan preserved in a wide, forested setting. Amongst them is the 1923 Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built masterpiece, the old Imperial Hotel entrance and lobby which once stood in Tokyo until 1967 when it was superseded by the current Imperial hotel. There are preserved banks, station buildings, schoolhouses, the private residences of writers Mori Ogai, Natsume Soseki, and Lafcadio Hearn, the German Baroque influenced Kitasato Institute building and so many more.
Other notable buildings include the old Kureha-za theatre dating from 1868, Kyoto’s former 1890 built St. Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral and St. John’s Church, from 1907. Many of the structures are open for inspection, complete with period furniture and fittings, or are used as shops and cafes. Ridable working steam engines, streetcar trams, buses and horse drawn carriages add to the atmosphere and to the fun. You can even rent period costume for the day or have old style photos taken of your unique time tripping experience.
Nine of the buildings within the wide park are designated as Important Cultural Assets, while most of the remaining structures are Tangible Cultural Assets.
There you go, a number of little seen, relatively unknown but historically and culturally important travel destinations within Japan’s easily accessed, centrally located Aichi Prefecture. While many opt for Kyoto as a destination for Japanese history and culture, Aichi Prefecture offers a wider range of samurai related, historical and cultural attractions, and for now, without the crowds of the old capital. Be adventurous; see Aichi, home of the samurai!
Chris Glenn is a bilingual radio DJ, TV presenter, producer, narrator, MC, copywriter, author and columnist, and Japanese historian, specializing in samurai castles, battles, armor and weapons. He is an inbound tourism advisor, and is often called upon as a lecturer and speaker on Japanese history and topics. He was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1968, and has spent over half his life in Japan, most of that time in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture. Chris is dedicated to promoting and preserving Japans’ long history, deep culture, traditions, arts and crafts.