In this post, I’ll take you to the ruins of a hilltop castle in Hyōgo Prefecture: a place where stone walls, sheer drops, and fantastic views come together to create one of the most splendid castle vistas I’ve seen anywhere in Japan. Some people have dubbed it “Japan’s Machu Picchu” – an exaggeration, to be sure, but it’s not difficult to see why.
Tuesday, 02 May 2017.
I’ve taken trains to and from Shin-Ōsaka Station countless times before, but never have I seen it so eerily deserted. Certainly not what I’d expect during Golden Week, one of the busiest travelling seasons in Japan. (Then again, it’s five in the morning and the gates aren’t even open yet.)
By the time the clocks start marking the next hour, I’ve settled comfortably into a seat on the Mizuho 601, the first available westbound San’yō Shinkansen service of the day (scheduled departure 06:00)…
…with one of the oddest last-minute breakfasts I’ve ever assembled spread out on the table before me.
For the record, I’m well aware that cold cuts and smoked cheese are not traditionally paired with futomaki and inarizushi – or with canned coffee, for that matter. In any event, there’s a long day of walking ahead: calories first, flavour combinations (a distant) second.
At Himeji Station, the 06:39 Bantan Line local train takes me to Teramae, where I transfer onto the 07:27 Bantan Line service bound for Wadayama. Even though this entire leg of the journey runs along the same railway line, transfers are needed when using local services because the stretch from Himeji to Teramae is electrified (and uses electric trains), whilst the section from Teramae to Wadayama is not (and is reliant on diesel trains).
I’m not going all the way to Wadayama, though. I stay on the train just until Takeda Station in Asago, where I disembark at 08:14 … right on time for the second departure (08:25) of the 天空バス (Tenkū-basu) loop service bound for my main sightseeing objective of the day. 500 yen for a one-day pass: slightly cheaper than the normal 520-yen round-trip fare (260 yen each way), and more convenient as I’d rather fish out a single 500-yen coin the one time than try to assemble 260 yen in exact change twice.
The bus reaches the 竹田城跡 (Takeda-jō-seki) stop a few minutes ahead of its scheduled 08:45 arrival. From here, there’s still a 20- to 30- minute uphill walk to my destination…
…though at least the journey is enlivened by seasonal blooms and – at one particular spot next to a break in the trees – a great view of the valley below.
Now then, let’s keep ourselves occupied during the long stroll by talking about the place we’re about to see.
Construction of the first defensive earthworks on the site of what would become Takeda Castle (竹田城, Takeda-jō) is believed to have started in 1431 on the orders of Yamana Sōzen, governor of Tajima Province. When the fortifications were completed in 1443, Yamana Sōzen appointed Ōtagaki Mitsukage as the castle’s first administrator. The position was handed down through several generations of the Ōtagaki clan, who would rule this outpost until Toyotomi Hideyoshi asserted control over the region in the late 1570s. Takeda Castle was ultimately assigned to Toyotomi vassal Akamatsu Hirohide, who would complete the network of stone walls that we see today.
Hirohide initially sided with the Toyotomi clan’s Western Army at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, but switched his allegiance over to the victorious Eastern Army of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ordered to assist in laying siege to Tottori Castle, Hirohide was later accused of setting the nearby castle town ablaze and was forced to commit seppuku on 3 December 1600. Takeda Castle was abandoned shortly thereafter. Designated a historic monument in 1943, the ruined fortress would undergo decades of restoration work (including partial closures) before transforming into the tourist draw that it is today.
Just don’t forget to bring 500 yen for the entrance fee. Otherwise, you’ll have walked all the way here for nothing.
All right, enough chit-chat. We’re here. And since you’ve probably had enough of me spewing out all sorts of names and dates and numbers, I shall leave the pictures to do the talking for now. (Most of the images you’ll see below are of the ruins themselves, but I’ve also thrown in a few of the utterly breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape that can be enjoyed from this lofty hilltop position.)
I wouldn’t normally assign a high rating to a castle with no intact buildings (or at least reconstructed buildings), but Takeda’s absolutely fantastic setting and interesting layout easily merit a 4 out of 5 in my book. (Trust me, that’s high; you’d have to be something along the lines of Himeji to win the full 5/5.) I’d love to return at some point and spend more time exploring the entire compound…
…but for now, it’s back down the hill we go.
The loop bus takes me back to Takeda Station, where I munch on an ice-cream bar from a vending machine whilst waiting for the next service back to Teramae…
…which, in an absolutely splendid case of perfect timing, turns out to be this fine specimen.
It’s an old KiHa 40 DMU – specifically unit KiHa 40 2007 – that was recently refurbished and is now running on the Bantan Line as the themed tourist service 天空の城 竹田城跡号 (Tenkū-no-shiro Takeda-jō-seki-gō). Despite the special livery and upgraded interiors, no extra fare is required to board this train; just the standard price of a normal train ride on the Bantan Line.
Incidentally, the first part of the train’s service brand, 天空の城 (Tenkū-no-shiro), is a popular nickname for Takeda Castle: it means “Castle in the Sky” and refers to a natural phenomenon where the fortress is surrounded by a sea of clouds early in the morning during autumn.
Two more shots of the exterior, this time taken after the train’s arrival at Teramae Station.
Now for the interiors. Since the train now runs as a themed tourist service geared towards visitors to Takeda Castle (rather than commuters), the old boring innards typical of KiHa 40s have been stripped out, replaced with a mix of standard transverse seating and window-facing longitudinal seats. The train is also fitted with a toilet – good to know should any, er, urgent needs manifest themselves en route.
Now for some useful links.
Japan Guide has a useful summary (including basic information on how to get there), and the Asago City tourism website can supply further details. The comments on the JCastle site are also good for learning more about the ruins, specifically from a Japanese castle enthusiast’s perspective.
Timetables for the loop bus service are available here (Japanese only).