Field Report: Azuchi Castle Ruins and Museums, Shiga, Japan – Part One (03 May 2017)

In a quiet corner of Shiga Prefecture, on the slopes of a thickly forested hill overlooking Lake Biwa, I came across the scattered remnants of what was, for a few glorious years, the mightiest fortress in all of Japan. A castle to end all castles, unequalled in size or grandeur by anything that had come before – and, in some ways, not even by those that followed.

In 1576, construction began on what was to become Oda Nobunaga’s new seat of power. As one might expect for an ambitious warlord’s headquarters, the site – a hill on the eastern shores of Lake Biwa – was chosen not merely for its aesthetic qualities, but mainly for its strategic importance. Troops garrisoned within Azuchi Castle (安土城, Azuchi-jō) were within striking distance of the major highways leading to Kyōto, the seat of imperial power, from the inland Tōsandō and coastal Tōkaidō regions. Even today, the area’s central location is apparent from the major railway lines that pass nearby – including the critically important Tōkaidō Shinkansen high-speed route between Tōkyō and Ōsaka – as well as key highways like National Route 8 and the Meishin Expressway.

Due to its linchpin role in Nobunaga’s military ambitions, Azuchi Castle was equipped with every means available to ensure its effective defence: a network of moats, a succession of monumental gateways, and long stretches of stone-encased walls bristling with sentry posts.

Yet for all that, this was more than a mere army base. Nobunaga sought to ensure that his headquarters would impress vassals and rivals alike not only by the sheer scale of its outer defences, but through the elegance and grandeur of its innermost precincts. To that end, he commissioned some of the country’s finest craftsmen – amongst them, the celebrated painter Kanō Eitoku – to turn this strategically important fortress into a palace worthy of Japan’s most powerful warlord.

We’ll have more to say about Azuchi Castle’s artistic splendour – particularly that of its legendary main tower – in the next post. There, we’ll do the rounds of a few nearby museums, the exhibits of which will help put flesh upon the bare bones of the ruins we’re about to see in this entry.

Right, off we go.

The castle site is a long walk from the nearest railway stop – Azuchi Station on the JR Biwako Line (part of the Tōkaidō Main Line) – but it’s a doable trek of about 20-30 minutes if you don’t mind investing the effort. That said, I knew that there was a bit of a hike up ahead and decided to keep my energy in reserve, so I shelled out a little extra for a quick taxi ride.

The cab deposited me near the main entrance to the ruins, a short walk from where one of the outer gates used to be. Even here, on the fringes of the former compound, some significant remnants of the castle were already in evidence.

After paying the entrance fee at a booth near the foot of the hill, I began my long climb up Azuchi’s so-called Ōte-michi (大手道). More than a mere staircase, this wide stone-paved path is closer in size and purpose to a small town’s high street, serving as the castle compound’s main artery for men and beasts of burden alike.

Terraced enclosures on either side of the Ōte-michi once guarded the lavish residences of Oda Nobunaga’s most senior generals. The list of residents reads like a veritable who’s who of Sengoku-era Japan, making this part of the castle seem like a medieval version of Beverly Hills. To my left, a sizeable property on two levels (connected by a staircase) is believed to have been the site of a mansion belonging to Hashiba Hideyoshi … better known to history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

A site plan and a speculative reconstruction showing how Hideyoshi’s private compound might once have looked.

Standing at the ruined foundations of Hideyoshi’s front gate, I looked across the “street” towards another empty plot of land (where the couple in the picture are standing). That area is supposedly the former site of Maeda Toshiie’s home.

A little further up the Ōte-michi, I came across the compound where the Oda retainer (and future shōgun) Tokugawa Ieyasu’s residence is said to have stood.

In the picture below, the stonework in the foreground once supported the gate leading into the upper terrace of Hashiba Hideyoshi’s estate. Beyond that is the Ōte-michi, and further on is the tall stone-encased platform that may have served as the foundation for Ieyasu’s house.

On the spot where the Tokugawa mansion once stood, I found the present-day main hall of Sōken-ji (摠見寺), a temple established by Nobunaga within the walls of his castle. Interestingly, the main hall we see today was originally built to serve only as a karihondō (仮本堂), or “temporary” main hall. We’ll have more to say about that – and indeed about the temple as a whole – further on in this post, but let’s just have a quick peek inside for now.

There’s Big Man Oda himself, in a rather handsome portrait that lends him the aura of a cultured warrior-statesman (rather than a cunning, bloodthirsty dictator).

After taking a moment to, er, relieve myself in the temple’s facilities – note that there are no washrooms anywhere in the vast castle grounds apart from here! – I returned to the main path and continued upwards, occasionally glancing back to take stock of my rising elevation.

I’ll admit that I found the hike a little exhausting. Then again, I’m a not-particularly-fit fellow who leads a not-particularly-active lifestyle. If one doesn’t have any significant mobility or health issues, tackling Azuchi Castle will probably be within one’s abilities.

That said, regardless of one’s physical condition, I’d strongly recommend packing a bottle of water (or two) and lacing up some comfortable walking shoes. The stepped road is quite steep at certain points, with inconsistent rise heights and tread depths; also the weathered stones that make up the Ōte-michi aren’t exactly running-track level. (Mind those steps or risk a twisted ankle.)

Words of caution aside, the long trek up the thickly forested hillside was a real treat. The cosy shade of the soaring trees, the forest floor dappled with the warm sunshine of late spring, the fresh air of the Japanese countryside … ahh, sweet bliss.

In due course, I reached the stone foundations of the Kurogane-mon (黒金門). The name, literally translated, means “Iron Gate” – a fitting name for the portal that once guarded the main approach to Azuchi’s inner enclosures.

I continued on, following a path that led up more flights of stone steps and overlooked by towering stretches of ishigaki (the sloping stone walls that are a key feature of Japanese castle design)…

…until I came to a patch of level ground that belonged to the castle’s honmaru, or innermost enclosure.

A few steps onto an elevated platform, and then more steps further up, after which I emerged into a low-walled enclosure with flat stones embedded into the ground.

It doesn’t look like much now, but this neatly laid grid of foundation stones once supported the soaring tenshu (main tower or donjon) that was the crowning glory of Azuchi Castle. Taller, larger, and far more lavishly decorated than many of the simple defensive towers that had come before it, this enormous wooden structure of seven levels – a basement floor within these low walls, plus six storeys above – heralded a new generation of Japanese castle.

I won’t say much more about the main tower here. Let’s save that discussion for the next post, where we’ll take a look at some detailed reconstructions of the lost tenshu exhibited in the museums scattered around the area. But to start things off, here’s a video featuring a brilliant CGI reconstruction of Azuchi Castle – including the donjon and the Ōte-michi area – showing how it might once have looked at the height of Nobunaga’s power.

By climbing up to the edge of the foundation’s ruined walls, it’s possible to gain a (very limited) sense of the fantastic views that Nobunaga once enjoyed from this vantage point.

Needless to say, the view would have been more fantastic from higher up, on the tower’s upper storeys. And one should bear in mind that most, if not all, of the forest around the castle would have been cleared away during construction, giving defenders an uninterrupted view across the surrounding plain and Lake Biwa beyond.

Shifting my gaze west, I looked down into the site of the ninomaru (the castle’s second enceinte) and spotted a strange-looking structure surrounded by a low wall.

I descended from the tenshu base, exited the honmaru area, and entered the ninomaru for a closer look.

As it turned out, that structure was a mausoleum erected in Oda Nobunaga’s memory. Not his actual tomb, mind you – more of a cenotaph serving as his symbolic grave, deep within the walls of the castle that had protected him in life.

Having come all the way to the top, I now retraced my steps back down the forested hillside…

…but not quite all the way to the bottom. Near the spot where the mansion of Oda Nobunaga’s eldest son Nobutada is believed to have stood, I forsook the southerly path that would have taken me down (by way of the Ōte-michi) and headed west.

At one point, I spied a massive section of intact ishigaki half-hidden behind the trees – a solid foundation for what must have been a set of large buildings.

But when I reached the top of the steps, there were no buildings to be found … save for an ancient three-storey pagoda nestled within the forest.

This pagoda and the scattered foundation stones nearby are all that remain of the original Sōken-ji, the one that existed here during the days of Oda Nobunaga. Although Azuchi Castle was destroyed not long after Nobunaga’s death, Sōken-ji survived and continued to operate as an active temple throughout the Edo Period. In 1854, a major conflagration swept through the compound and reduced most of the temple buildings to ashes, save for the wooden tower that we see above. This led to the construction of the “temporary” main hall we visited in the earlier part of this post (erected on the site of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s house). In the end, the original main hall was never rebuilt, and the provisional structure – quite some distance from here, one might add – ultimately became a permanent replacement.

Spare a moment to enjoy the view…

…and down, down we go at last.

After leaving the Azuchi Castle compound, I proceeded on foot towards the museums scattered across this peaceful corner of Shiga Prefecture, thirsty for more information on the fortress I’d just explored…

…but let’s save that story for the next post.


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