Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 2

Let’s continue our visit to the ruins of Suncheon Castle (순천왜성), a 16th-century fortress built by the invasion army of Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi on the coast of Jeollanam-do, South Korea.

Note: This Field Report is divided into three parts. Part 1 (the previous post) and Part 2 (below) describe my actual visit to Suncheon Castle. Part 3 contains background information and transportation advice.

A brief word before we carry on. If you’ve arrived at this post directly – through a feed or search engine, for example – I’d recommend reading Part 1 before going through the rest of the text and images presented below.

Right, let’s proceed. 🙂

After passing through the site of the first gate, I turned east and walked towards another stone-cased platform: the remains of a second fortified gateway.

It’s difficult to imagine what the gate might once have looked like, with just this L-shaped foundation at one’s disposal. Was this all there ever was – at least in terms of stone-reinforced construction – or, like the first gate, was there originally at least one other platform nearby?

The old Ming Chinese painting of Suncheon Castle we’ve been using as a site guide depicts this portal (labelled “Second Gate” in the following image) as a yaguramon (櫓門), with a gatehouse over the opening. If that’s the case, there was probably another stone platform in close proximity, with the wooden superstructure spanning the gap between the two.

From the second gate, I turned south and followed a gravel path that rose in a gentle incline towards the highest part of the castle compound.

The path curved towards the east and began to rise more steeply as it mounted the slope of the tree-covered hill. Although this rocky prominence was of natural origin, I saw that the 16th century builders had levelled and sculpted the summit into something resembling a plateau, encasing the sides with vast stretches of carefully laid stone walls (石垣, ishigaki). Transformed beyond recognition, this seaside hill was now Suncheon Castle’s honmaru (本丸): the heavily fortified innermost enclosure of a Japanese stronghold.

I passed through a large opening in the western side where a gate once stood. From there, I slowly made my way to the eastern, seaward side of the lower terrace, admiring the restored stretches of ishigaki that towered above me.

I passed through the remains of another gateway – now just a ramp of earth and a gap in the retaining wall – which led onto the uppermost terrace, the honmaru proper.

The honmaru was the last line of defence: a final refuge for the castle’s occupants in the event that all the outer walls and moats were overrun. In some larger castles on mainland Japan, the principal palace of the daimyō (feudal lord) might be set up in this area, although quite often the main residence would be erected in one of the larger outer enclosures.

From various sources, I gather that Konishi Yukinaga (小西 行長; 1558?-1600) – the Japanese warlord who commanded Suncheon Castle – resided in one of the outer enclosures rather than here. I suspect he and his men would have fallen back to this innermost citadel only if their opponents managed to breach the lower enceintes, which never happened during actual fighting. Of course, the allied Joseon-Ming army did eventually take control of the entire castle, but only after Yukinaga’s troops had successfully evacuated.

I approached the northern tip of the honmaru, drawn towards a lonely structure standing near an outcrop. Anyone familiar with traditional Japanese castle design will recognise its significance almost instantly.

This stone-clad base once supported the tenshu (天守) or tenshukaku (天守閣): the main tower of a Japanese castle. Suncheon’s is of a type known as dokuritsu-shiki (独立式), where the tenshu stands as an independent structure; i.e., not directly connected to a secondary tower or other buildings.

The information panel bore a faded copy of the old Ming painting I first saw in the parking lot – the same one that we’ve been using as a guide to the various landmarks on the castle grounds.

It’s impossible to say how accurately the main tower was depicted here. Allowing for the inevitable incursion of non-Japanese elements familiar to the Chinese painter (such as in the design of the gates), I think we can surmise that it does broadly reflect how Suncheon Castle looked during the 1598 siege.

We’re drawing near the end of this visit, but there’s one last thing that we need to do.

Let’s climb up to the top of the tenshu base…

…and savour the amazing view.

Of course, it’s no longer possible to enjoy the even better view that Konishi Yukinaga and his men once beheld from the top floor of the now-vanished tower. But what we can see is quite impressive all the same.

Looking north, west, or south, one is rewarded with views of the castle compound and the surrounding landscape.

Turn your gaze east and there’s something even better in store…

…namely, a view of Gwangyang Bay and the tree-covered islets and mountains beyond. Shame about the industrial development, though.

Yukinaga’s vista in 1598 would have been quite different from ours, with no landfill between the castle and the sea. Just his ships crowded into the safety of his harbours, the enemy ships of the Ming and Joseon in the distance, and the wind-ruffled waters of the bay all around.

What a gorgeous sight that must have been.

As things stand, I should probably give up on the wild dream of seeing the bay restored to its former state. Too much reclamation has taken place, too many buildings have been built and streets laid … the damage is both done and irreversible.

A suggestion to the Suncheon city government and tourism authorities (if any of them happen to be reading this): put Korea’s technological prowess to work and set up an augmented reality experience for visitors. Allow them to see the castle as it once was with walls, gates, and buildings all resurrected, and Gwangyang Bay digitally restored to its original form. Throw in a “battle mode” where the allied forces of Joseon and Ming can be seen marching towards the walls if one turns to the west, or the besieging fleet sailing upon the bay if one looks to the east.

I exited the honmaru by way of its other gate, built into the western flank (i.e., on the opposite side from where I’d walked in).

On the long and lonely walk back down to the exit, I paused several times to enjoy different views of the various landmarks I’d just seen – from the walls of the honmaru to the two gate sites.

I headed east, back over the bridge and to the main road. “Sailing” away from the castle, if you will, since I was walking upon land that had been wrested from Gwangyang Bay.

The bus shelter where I waited for my ride back to Suncheon would have been quite far out to sea in the late 16th century (or indeed until the 20th, before coastal redevelopment took hold). From here, I gazed back towards Suncheon Castle’s prominent hill, seeing it as a sailor would have seen it centuries ago.

Even though I’ve seen most of the visible remains in Suncheon Castle’s main eastern enclosures, I’ve yet to explore the western half where the outer defences once stood. Perhaps a cautious, mind-that-you-don’t-trespass-onto-someone’s-orchard examination of that area will make a great addition to any future visit.

Cheerio.

2 responses to “Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 1 | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Field Report: The Ruins of Suncheon Japanese Castle, South Korea (26 January 2020) – Part 3 | Within striking distance·

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