From the late 16th century up to the end of the Edo Period, the Lords of Kaga Domain presided over one of Japan’s wealthiest fiefdoms from within the secure precincts of Kanazawa Castle (金沢城, Kanazawa-jō). Although most of its wooden buildings and watchtowers were either destroyed by fire (particularly during a massive conflagration in 1881) or deliberately dismantled over the centuries, parts of the castle have been recently reconstructed – and the results are quite impressive indeed.
First, let’s check our present whereabouts on a map of the country.
Now we can zoom in closer.
The castle grounds are simply massive, with remnants of the extensive wall and moat system spread across a vast swathe of land in the centre of Kanazawa.
Seeing all of the castle’s main features would have taken me the better part of a day (or two), especially since I’m the sort of chap who loves to pore over every single signboard and plaque along the route. Alas, I didn’t have a lot of time to spare, so I headed directly for the prominent structures situated in the sannomaru and ninomaru enclosures.
This was actually my second visit to Kanazawa Castle – the first was back in 2010 – but with the city on a determined course to slowly and surely resurrect its main landmark, a chap like me who drops by every few years or so might reasonably expect to see something new every time.
The first major structure I saw on this particular trip wasn’t new, however. A survivor of the 1881 fire that consumed much of the castle, the Ishikawa Gate (石川門, Ishikawa-mon) was completed in 1788 – incidentally, to replace an earlier gate that had itself been lost to fire – and has been guarding the eastern approach to the fortress ever since.
After passing through the gate, I found myself standing in a vast greensward – the site of Kanazawa Castle’s sannomaru (one of its three inner enclosures). Across the open ground from where I stood was the Kahoku Gate (河北門, Kahoku-mon), which once served as the castle’s main entrance. It apparently survived the 1881 fire that levelled so much else, only to be demolished about a year or so later. From 2007 to 2010, the gate was painstakingly rebuilt using authentic materials and techniques, drawing upon extensive research (including original Edo-period plans) and archaeological evidence to ensure that the replica was as accurate as possible.
I was in a bit of a rush and didn’t get to see the Kahoku-mon from its more impressive northern or inner sides, though I did get a glimpse of the inward-facing sections fronting the sannomaru.
Standing next to the Kahoku-mon was Kanazawa Castle’s largest single structure – or rather, set of structures, consisting of two important watchtowers linked by a long roofed building.
The tower on the right end is the Hishi-yagura (菱櫓), so named because of its interesting and quite unusual lozenge-shaped floor plan – more apparent from the air than from the ground – which resembles a water caltrop (菱, hishi). The one on the left is the Hashizume-mon-tsuzuki-yagura (橋爪門続櫓), which overlooked an important gate attached directly to it (more on that shortly). And the structure in between is the famed Gojukken-nagaya (五十間長屋), whose name refers to its generous length: 50 ken (approximately 91 metres). Destroyed in the 1881 fire, this set of buildings was accurately reconstructed over a period of several years and finally opened to the public in 2001 – one of the largest wooden construction projects ever undertaken in Japan after the Meiji Era.
It’s possible to enter those buildings, so enter them we shall, and to get there we’ll need to pass through one of Kanazawa Castle’s main gates. Two we’ve already seen – the Ishikawa-mon and the Kahoku-mon – and the last, which is attached to the western end of a long wall separating the sannomaru and ninomaru enclosures…
…is something that I passed through on my 2010 visit but didn’t get to see. No, I’m not playing riddles with you, mate: at that time, preparatory work was only just beginning on the site (which I walked across on my way into the ninomaru), with the years-long effort finally bearing fruit in 2015.
This is the Hashizume-mon (橋爪門), the main entrance of the ninomaru compound. The original – or rather, the last in a series of destroyed-and-rebuilt “originals” – burned to the ground in 1881, but thanks to the recently completed reconstruction project, we can now see it as it once looked in the Edo Period.
As the entrance to the tightly guarded ninomaru compound – where one of the Lord of Kaga’s main residences was located – this gate played a key role in the defence of Kanazawa Castle. Like Ishikawa-mon and Kahoku-mon, Hashizume-mon consisted of a smaller “first gate” (一の門, ichi-no-mon), which in this case stood at the head of a wooden bridge spanning a water-filled moat…
…a larger “second gate” (二の門, ni-no-mon), with a white-walled gatehouse overhead…
…and in between, the masugata (枡形), a boxlike enclosure completely surrounded by high walls. This particular feature – the largest of its kind amongst the three main gates of Kanazawa Castle – is best appreciated from the air.
I’ve seen enclosures like this referred to as “killing zones”, and it’s not difficult to see why. Even if a besieging force somehow manages to breach the first gate, it would be trapped within the masugata as it tries to penetrate the second – and all this time the bow-wielding, arquebus-firing, rock-throwing defenders would be raining death upon them from the safety of the gatehouse and turret overhead.
The entrance to the large structures we saw earlier can be accessed from the ninomaru-facing side, just a short walk from the gate.
The interiors are actually quite plain, but that’s only to be expected because the castle lord didn’t live in these spacious halls (in spite of what their elegant, palace-like exteriors might suggest). The two corner watchtowers housed sentries charged with observing the castle gates, whilst the Gojukken-nagaya mainly served as a storage area for weapons.
Although not particularly tall – unlike the soaring towers found in some Japanese castles – the structures still offer good views of the surrounding grounds.
Something else one might observe from the windows is the distinctive greyish-white shade of the castle buildings’ roof tiles. The colour comes from the fact that these roofs aren’t covered in ceramic, but lead: or to be precise, wood overlaid with lead sheets of about 1.8 millimetres in thickness.
There are a number of possible reasons behind the use of lead tiles: to reduce the weight of the roof, to take advantage of the fact that Kaga Domain had plenty of lead available, to provide an emergency source of lead for arquebus bullets in the event of a siege … or even just because they looked nice. (I’m happy to take the last theory as fact, but that’s just me.)
Now for a brief anecdote about the stairs in the next picture – well, either these actual stairs or something similar elsewhere in the building.
Back in 2010, when I was here for the first time, I was making my way down from the upper floor when I slipped on one of the lower steps (you can see how slickly polished that wood is) and crashed onto the floor below. Luckily it wasn’t from high up, and I emerged pretty much uninjured (physically anyway), but it must have looked like a rather nasty spill because both staff and fellow visitors quickly rushed up to check on me. I think it might have been one of the first times I said 大丈夫です in a real-life setting, outside of Japanese language lessons. (^_^)
Here ended my brief visit. I didn’t get to see the remains of the innermost honmaru compound, which lay somewhere within the towering walls that beckoned on one side…
…nor did I manage to visit the beautifully reconstructed Edo Period garden in the western reaches of the compound (also a very recent addition, with restoration work completed in 2015). There were also long stretches of wall and some surviving older structures elsewhere on the grounds…
…but enough of that for the moment. As always, rather than walk away with regret at what I wasn’t able to see, I can look forward to my next visit with the hope of encountering something I’d never laid eyes upon before.
By the time I crossed the bridge out of the ninomaru on my way out of the castle, the rain clouds had retreated slightly and a sliver of sunlight was managing to trickle through…
…which suggested to me that there was time enough for one more attraction before I had to call it a day.
But let’s talk about that in a future post.