Okayama is best known for its Korakuen garden, notably one of the top three gardens in Japan. We had planned to spend the afternoon exploring them but after enjoying the fantastic views of Okayama castle from inside the gardens we knew we had to cross the river and take a closer look. Korakuen uses the concept of ‘borrowed scenery’ prevalent in Japanese garden design to connect the castle and garden visually. The rating of these gardens among the top three in the country isn’t an exaggeration, we absolutely loved them, if you want a sneak peak take a look at our recent post on Okayama’s spectacular Korakuen gardens.
As you wander through Korakuen there are several spots that boast picture perfect views of the black crow castle beyond. Okayama is one of over 100 castles remaining in Japan today but like the majority of them what you see is mostly a recreation with a few pieces that have been preserved and restored.
The history of Okayama Castle
The castle has a slightly ill-fated history. Construction was started by Ukita Naoie in 1573 but he didn’t live to see it completed. His son Ukita Hideie finished Okayama castle in 1597 but only lived in it for 3 years before he was captured in the Battle of Sekigahara and exiled. The castle became spoils of war and passed to Kobayakawa Hideaki who lived only two more years without producing an heir. The castle then passed to the Ikeda clan who added the beautiful Korakuen garden.
During the Meiji era in 1869 the grandeur and expanse of the castle began to disappear and the castle was abandoned from 1873. The Meiji government saw Okayama castle and other symbols from the time of the samurai as a thing of the past with little value. The outer moat was filled in and walls knocked down to allow the city to develop. Despite the misfortunes of its early owners the castle was one of the few that survived until modern times. During WW2 allied bombers burned the castle to the ground, only a few small structures survived. Among the survivors was the Moon Viewing Turret that dates back to 1620, some parts of the wall and around the grounds some original foundations were uncovered and relocated. Many of the walls and the main castle tower (donjon) that stands today are recreations built in 1966.
The original castle must have been an impressive sight. Today the golden shachihoko statues (a figure from Japanese folk stories of an animal with the head of a tiger and body of a fish) gleam from the roof. Originally it wasn’t only these fire protection ornaments that were gilded, Hideie also had the roof tiles covered in gold earning the castles original nickname of golden crow castle.
Around the castle grounds
The main castle tower (donjon)
Okayamas castle’s main keep is three tiers and six stories high. Although now rebuilt of ferro-concrete the replica is believed to be true to the original design based on the extensive records that had been maintained from the Ikeda period.
The outer walls of the original castle were painted in Japanese lacquer to give the castle its unique black appearance and to provide a level of fire proofing to the wooden building. Another unusual aspect of this castle is that the first floor has the shape of a pentagon, the shaping of various castle buildings at the time as pentagons and diamonds was intentional to allow easy movement of the troops inside for its defense.
The Rokomon Gate
The Rokomon gate formed the lower end of a long corridor used by the Lord of the castle to connect the Omoto-shoin (the feudal government office on the middle level) to the Hondan (the highest level). The gate was rebuilt in the original location from reinforced concrete in 1966.
This substantial castle gate at the southern end enters to a flight of wide stone step which lead to the inner castle grounds.
Moon viewing turret (Tsukimi Yagura)
Located in the north west corner this watch tower survived the allied bombing and is now protected as an important cultural property. It dates back to the Ikeda era of the castle being built in 1620.
The basement layer served as a storage space accessed under the floor from the first level. The upper levels were watch towers incorporating the lattice windows and stone drop setup seen in many castles of the era.
It’s interesting that the space was multifunctional, the inner grounds side of the second floor of the structure was also used for everyday life. It was equipped with a veranda and handrail with shutter to allow the palace to enjoy viewing the moon and the seasons.
The ruins of Omotoshoin
When the replica of the original donjon (main tower) was rebuilt in 1966. The new castle tower was built with reinforced concrete so the original cornerstones of the castle tower were brought to this section and meticulously positioned as the originals had been.
Visitor Information for Okayama Castle
The castle is open daily between 9am and 5.30pm, it is closed only in the lead up to the New Year period from the 29-31 December. Good views of the castle are available from the surrounding area even when it is closed and it’s especially attractive from inside Korakuen garden or looking across the river from the other side.
Access to the areas around the main castle keep are free. The adult entry fee to the inner castle areas is Y300 but it can also be purchased as a combined ticket with the gardens for Y560, a discount of Y140 on the individual prices. Discounted childrens and group ticketing is available.
Are you looking for other ideas to combine with a day in Okayama?
You might want to contrast the black crow design of Okayama castle with the more traditional white heron styling of the famous Himeji Castle. It’s only 30 minutes away by train.
If you’re looking for something more active you could head to Soja or Bizen-Ichinomiya station within Okayama prefecture and hire cycles to take a relaxed 17 km ride between the two stations. Riding mostly on a dedicated cycle path between the rice paddies you can stop in at temples and shrines while learning the local folk story of Momotaro .
It’s only 40 minutes further to Hiroshima from Okayama which makes it a convenient place to break the journey for anyone travelling along the Sanjo / Tokaido bullet train line from Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka.
Getting to Okayama Castle & Korakuen Garden
From Okayama station it’s around 1.8 km to the castle and you have two main options to get there. You can walk down the main street which will take you around 20 minutes or you can catch the tram from outside the train station. The tram will cost Y100 and takes 11 minutes. It runs every 5 minutes but allowing for wait time and stops along the way there may not be much time difference between the two options.