Field Report: Ōzu Castle, Ehime Prefecture, Japan (23 November 2016)

I’ve mentioned before how some of Japan’s long-destroyed Edo Period castles are now being reconstructed using historically faithful materials and techniques. This stands in contrast to the mid-20th century trend of building castle replicas out of concrete and fitting them with modern interiors. Last autumn, I visited one of the finest examples of the new generation of resurrected castles: not a cement-and-rebar Frankenbuilding with a sham exterior hiding contemporary innards, but a painstakingly assembled and historically accurate wooden reproduction of the soaring tower that once guarded a city in Shikoku for centuries.

23 November 2016. From Matsuyama Station, I travelled on a limited express service to the city of Ōzu (大洲), less then 40 minutes away.

This riverside city was the capital of Ōzu Domain during the Edo Period (1603-1868). As one might expect of a typical Tokugawa-era fiefdom, the territory was ruled from a solidly fortified castle – one of sufficient importance amongst Japanese castle enthusiasts to merit a couple of hours out of my cross-country holiday.

On foot, it takes about half an hour to reach the castle from Iyo-Ōzu Station. A bus or taxi ride will shave a few minutes off that time, but it was fairly early in the day and I was eager for an invigorating morning walk.

Whilst crossing the main bridge spanning the Hijikawa River, I looked up and saw the day’s main target: a grey-roofed tower standing on top of a tree-covered hill. (It’s just left of centre in the picture below.)

Ōzu Castle (大洲城, Ōzu-jō) as we see it today is largely the product of an early 17th-century design. At first, the tenshu (main tower) survived the nationwide wave of castle demolitions that took place shortly after the Meiji Restoration, but it finally came down in 1888, leaving just the two wing towers standing. In the 1990s, plans were set in motion to erect a historically accurate replica of the tenshu, using real timber (rather than steel or concrete) and employing traditional castle-building techniques. The project was completed in 2004.

Remnants of Ōzu Castle’s vast outer defences – including an old gate and two yagura (turrets), along with surviving stretches of ishigaki (stone walls) – are scattered across the city, along the edges of its former sannomaru (“third circle”) enclosure. However, I was so eager to see the reconstructed tenshu that I rushed towards the castle hill and completely neglected to seek out these other relics. (Another reason for me to return to Ōzu someday.) The first major ruin I encountered was the base of the demolished Yagura-shita Gomon, which once served as the main gate of the castle’s ninomaru (“second circle”) enceinte.

Not far away stands the Shimo-daidokoro, which was used as a storehouse.

The castle stands on top of a hill ringed with stone-clad walls. Imagine how even more formidable it must once have looked back in the Edo Period, when those walls bristled with watchtowers and protective barriers.

As I continued my uphill walk, I passed the site of the Ninomaru Palace, one of the Lord of Ōzu’s main residences. Virtually nothing now remains of the lavish building, save for some of the ishigaki that once supported its base.

Higher up I went, passing even more of the castle’s enormous ishigaki

…and in an upper section of the ninomaru, I finally managed to get a good glimpse of the tenshu.

Further on, I entered the honmaru – the innermost enclosure of an Edo Period castle. The tenshu would normally be built in this, the most heavily defended part of the fortress and the final line of defence against a besieging army, whose forces would have to breach the outermost sannomaru and middle ninomaru enceintes (themselves stoutly walled and surrounded by moats) before they could even get this far. Most of the honmaru I’ve seen in my castle hunting expeditions were of a single level, but Ōzu’s was divided into two: an upper terrace (jōdan), where the main tower was located; and a lower terrace (gedan), which formed an extra layer of defence within easy sight (and easy shot) of the defenders stationed on the upper level.

Here on the lower level, I found one of the most effective instruments that could be used by defenders against an attacking force. Not a weapon, nor a wall, nor a gate or watchtower…

…but a well. Makes sense, when you think about it. After all, a well-watered force can hold out for much longer than one dying of thirst.

At roughly 3.8 metres in diameter, this is supposedly the largest well in any castle honmaru in Japan. Its importance is underscored by the fact that the gedan section of the honmaru – where the well was dug – is apparently also known as the Idomaru (literally, “well circle/enclosure”).

From here, I walked up to the honmaru‘s upper terrace, passing the site of the Kuragari-mon…

…and finally came face to face with Ōzu Castle’s beautifully rebuilt tenshu, with the original Kōran-yagura and Daidokoro-yagura turrets connected to it on either side. To help readers properly appreciate the architecture of the main tower (a task at which my words will undoubtedly fail me), here follows a small gallery of images taken from different sides and angles.

Splendid work they’ve done here. Now let’s head inside to admire the equally impressive interiors.

Unlike the bowels of Japan’s 12 remaining original Edo Period tenshu, which look quite dark with age (and understandably so), the freshly worked and varnished timbers of Ōzu Castle practically glow with life. This is probably quite close to how the interiors originally appeared when the castle was newly built, when the Lord of Ōzu and his retainers inspected the building for the first time.

Granted, they wouldn’t have seen the various concessions to modern rules and regulations that had to be installed – the safety handrails, the electric lighting and so forth – but one can’t have everything. And what we do have exceeds my expectations.

As you explore the tower, do take a few moments to admire the intricate and skillfully executed traditional joinery that holds the tenshu together, bearing in mind that all this could have turned out very differently indeed. During the planning stages, the government was initially reluctant to approve the project, since using traditional construction methods for a wooden structure of this size would have run afoul of current building codes. After a lengthy period of consultation, an exemption was granted and the programme marched along to its glorious conclusion.

Marvellous, every bit of it. Reminds me of the interiors of Kakegawa Castle, another relatively recent reconstruction project that was carried out using authentic materials and techniques.

A chart posted amongst the exhibits within the main tower shows how the tenshu of Ōzu Castle measures up against those of other noteworthy castles in Japan. In the foreground, we have detailed line drawings depicting (from right to left) the tenshu of Ōzu, Kōchi, Matsuyama, Uwajima, and Marugame, all located on Shikoku. Behind them, rendered as shadowy grey outlines, are (from right to left) the tenshu of Ōsaka, Azuchi, Himeji, and Edo.

(Interestingly enough, I’ve already been to every single one of the castles featured on that panel – hence the links to some of my previous blog posts. Only Azuchi doesn’t have a link, because I haven’t written about that particular visit yet.)

There are, of course, a couple of other things one shouldn’t miss whilst visiting the castle. First, one shouldn’t neglect having a look at the two original turrets on either side of the rebuilt tenshu. The difference is quite apparent, even from the connecting passageway: the lighter-coloured new wood of the reconstruction giving way to the age-tinted floors of the older buildings…

…and the darker, more ancient timbers of the interiors.

The other thing one shouldn’t miss: the splendid views of the city of Ōzu and the surrounding hills, as seen through the large windows of the yagura.

The walls of the honmaru beneath and close to the tenshu are quite impressive in their own right, melded with the steep hillside to form a very steep drop down to the outer walls and the Hijikawa River beyond. (I wouldn’t want to take a tumble from here, that’s for certain.)

And with that, I bade farewell to Ōzu Castle and made my way back to the railway station. I’ve got a lot of things left that should draw me back to this city for a return visit: the parts of the castle I haven’t seen yet (especially in the former sannomaru area), plus a district lined with old buildings and a well-regarded early 20th-century villa near the river.

But for now, it’s back to Matsuyama.

Whilst waiting for my boring limited express train, I caught sight of a not-so-boring train on the opposite platform: a Type KiHa 54 DMU (unit 54 7 in this case), decked out in special “Welcome NanYo!” livery as part of a tourism-oriented campaign. I’ll save the railfan talk for a separate trainspotting post that I plan to write in due course; let’s just look at the pictures for now.


2 responses to “Field Report: Ōzu Castle, Ehime Prefecture, Japan (23 November 2016)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: The Open-air Architectural Museum that is Matsuyama, Japan (23 November 2016) | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Rail Report: Trainspotting my way around Shikoku, Japan (19-23 November 2016) | Within striking distance·

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