I was drawn to Osaka castle for the ume, a stunning display of 1,250 plum blossom trees that offers one of the best collections within a major city. Ume have a less dedicated following than the sakura (cherry blossoms) that burst into their dramatic bloom a month or so later but ume have the variety and fragrance that sets them apart. If you’re interested you can read about the differences and how to identify an ume from a sakura bloom here. If you’re in the cherry blossom camp, or love both as I do, be sure to head back to Osaka castle in early April to see the 4,500 sakura trees in flower.
The Osaka Castle ume gardens were also the only place besides the Nagahama Bonbai festival where we saw this beautiful and specialised form of bonsai on display.
Of course walking through the historical park and gardens with the main tower of the castle looming above us we couldn’t resist taking a closer look and exploring the museum inside.
The History of Osaka Castle
Even before it was a castle the land that Osaka Castle stands on was very influential. In 1496 a powerful Buddhist monk had a monastery built near the site which grew into a large temple known as Osaka Honganji. As with other powerhouse temple complexes such as Enryukuji, its influence saw it become a threat to the feudal leaders of the time and Nobunaga Oda (the first great unifier of Japan) burned it to the ground during his campaign for national unification.
It wasn’t until after Nobunaga Oda’s death that construction of the castle began on the site in 1583. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the second great unifier of Japan and first Shogun) took control of political affairs and had a castle built that would be fit to be the permanent residence of Japans ruler. During the summer war in Osaka in 1615, 17 years after Hideyoshi’s death, the castle fell to the Tokugawa clan leaving Tokugawa Ieyasu to finally unify the country.
In 1620, Tokugawa Hidetada ordered the reconstruction of Osaka castle, it was a project that took 10 years to complete and wasn’t the final investment, the castle was damaged and restored several more times. In 1665 a lightning strike destroyed the main tower and during the turbulent transition to Imperial rule several more buildings were burned down. In 1931 public sentiment saw the main tower rebuilt to the version that stands in the park today. During WWII the area around the castle was again heavily damaged during Allied bombing raids but was subsequently restored into the large and beautiful park that’s dominates the area today.
A walk around Osaka Castle
The castle tower & museum
The dominant structure in the park is the re-created main tower. We’d heard a lot of negative comments about the ferro-concrete construction and several people suggested we bypass Osaka castle completely but we found the pragmatism of rebuilding a structure that had burned so many times in a non flammable material an interesting part of its history and evolution. Despite the non-traditional material it’s still very beautiful and I think most will enjoy a visit. We would suggest though that if you have an interest in Japanese history from that feudal era two original castles that are well worth a visit are the very striking Himeji Castle and the smaller but equally interesting Hikone Castle. Both are fantastic day trips from Osaka especially if you have a JR pass to minimise your transport cost.
Inside the tower is a modern and well present museum. Additional renovations in 1997 added an elevator and other modern conveniences. We took our time wandering through and some of our favourite exhibits were:
Level 3 – A full scale replica of the Golden Tea Room. I’m fascinated with the tea ceremony, Hideyoshi was obsessed with gold. He had his entire tea room gold clad, from the walls, ceiling and pillars to the tea service itself. I’m left wondering what his highly respected tea ceremony master, Sen Rikyu , made of this break with the understated subtlety of the zen tradition. His own tea bowl designs were rustic in their simplicity embodying the concept of wabi (bring simplicity intentionally into daily living) and sabi (an appreciation of the old, worn and imperfect).
Level 5 – Huge scenes from the summer war in 1615 created in miniatures and hand painted folding screens. They show incredible individual detail, these aren’t just a line up of tin soldiers. In both the miniatures and painting each individual and animal depicted is unique in their pose, clothing and even facial expressions.
Level 8 – The observation deck certainly isn’t one of the highest points in Osaka today but you get an idea of the impressive vantage point it would have given the soldiers of the vast plains surrounding it.
Osaka museum has excellent English language signage and brochures available, this isn’t always the case in all the museums we’ve visited but it does make it a lot more interesting when you have a fuller picture of the history that shaped the area.
The masugata is a square that’s adjacent to the main gate of a Japanese castle. It looks quite dramatic but the purpose is to effectively corral enemies and prevent them entering the castle. This is the masugata at the Ote-guchi entrance to Osaka castle which incorporates many huge stones. For scale here’s me looking like an idiot in front of one of them. Just to clarify I’m not standing in their garden, there’s a path there. If I’ve understood correctly this one is just a smidgen under 48 square metres and is the forth largest used at Osaka castle. You have to wonder how the heck you’d move it today let alone back then, evidently humans were way better a physics before they started teaching it in schools.
The next two pictures are of the ote-guchi gate, the first looking from the square into the castle grounds and the second from inside the heavily fortified gate looking back out into the walled enclosure.
The castle wall and yagura (turret)
Much of this part of the castle grounds remain as they were throughout the Edo period (1603 – 1868). They were built as part of the work initiated by the Tokugawa shoganate in 1620. It did look especially imposing and ominous in this light.
Former Japanese Imperial Army Headquarters
This building pre-dates the 1930’s rebuild of the castle. It was headquarters for the 4th division of the Japanese Imperial army until the castle was rebuilt. Subsequently it was used for a time as the Osaka City Museum. It now appears to be abandoned but we did hear it houses a temporary restaurant at some times of the year. It was quite common for Japan to use castles as headquarters for military operations which contributed to them being a target for allied bombing raids during WWII while other some sites of historical and cultural significance were avoided.
The bridge was under renovations when we visited and not looking its best but it connects the Ni-No-Maru (outer bailey) with the Yamazato-maru bailey. The original Osaka Castle built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1583 had a bridge of this name, as did the rebuilt castle by the Tokugawa clan. The name however comes from Buddhism meaning ‘the world of peace’ and it’s believed that its origin dates back even further to when the Hongan-ji Temple stood on the land prior to the castle.
Location, Fees and Facilities
The castle is easily accessed by subway (Tanimachi 4-chrome Station on the Tanimachi Line) or JR train (Sakajokoen Station on the JR Loop Line). From Osaka’s central station it’s about 10 minutes and Y160.
Entry costs Y600 for the castle tower and Y200 for the Nishinomaru Garden. Large portions of the castle park, gardens and excellent views of the dramatic castle can be accessed at no cost. The castle is open daily from 9am until 5pm and the only days it closes are during the new year period from the 28th December until the 1st January.
The park and castle museum are fully wheelchair accessible with ramps and internally within the tower a lift is available to all levels. As lift facilities were limited we were pleased to see it being discretely managed to give priority to older visitors and those with limited mobility. There are western style toilet facilities available onsite.
If you are using the Osaka Amazing Pass (formally the Osaka Unlimited Pass) entry to the castle museum and the Nishinomaru Garden are included, transport via subway, local train and buses is also covered. If you’re in the area and using the pass you might consider visiting the Osaka Museum of History which is also included. It’s located directly between the subway station and the castle park and it’s dramatic design make it hard to miss. Inside the museum the recreated Edo period street is definitely worth a look.
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