I’m very interested in Japan’s history and thus, castles are always a must-see for me. So far I’ve visited at least a couple dozen of them. I’ve seen castles of different shapes and sizes, varying among originals, reconstructions, and ruins. However, until my recent visit to Okayama, I’d never seen a castle like Kinojo Castle (鬼ノ城). In fact, I didn’t even realize that Japan had a structure that looked like something from China’s Three Kingdoms era 1,800 years ago. Let’s take a closer look at this unique ancient fortress and its breathtaking location!
Compared to the castles in Japan that most people are familiar with, the most significant difference of Kinojo Castle is that it has nothing to do with the samurai era where most castles we see these days originated from. It actually predates that era by a few hundred years as it has been estimated that it was built in the late 7th century, during the Asuka period (飛鳥時代). The date of construction is only an estimation as there are no extant written records that refer directly to the castle. The castle was dated based on research done on artifacts and ruins found in the area, and also based on knowledge of similar castles constructed in Japan during that period. It was apparently built as a defensive fortification against invading Tang dynasty forces from China and those of the Korean Silla Kingdom.
No buildings survived from the original construction, but the castle ruins were discovered in 1971. Since that time, various archaeological excavations have occurred and some reconstruction has taken place in more recent years. The castle was designated as one of Japan’s Top 100 Castles (日本百名城 / Nihon Hyaku-Meijo) in 2006.
The focus of this site is the 2.8-kilometer perimeter of the mountaintop that follows the path where the castle’s outer wall once stood. This path incorporates gates at each compass point, and also a sluice gate which was designed to release excess water from the fortress. The West Gate was actually fully reconstructed in 2004, and whilst its appearance is only an educated guess by scientists, it makes for a truly impressive sight.
As someone who has spent a lot of time exploring China’s ancient sites, I actually felt I was in China whilst in the presence of the gate. A thought reinforced by the fact that, combined with the gate’s huge reconstructed walls, I was reminded of some of the fortresses I’ve seen along China’s Great Wall. Interestingly though, there has been much debate in academic circles revolving around castles such as Kinojo Castle supposedly being modeled after Korean fortresses of the age. Regardless of its true origins, what you see here is in the heart of Japan and it’s fantastic.
Elsewhere around the site, the reconstruction hasn’t reached the extent that it has at the West Gate. The other gates have had their foundations reinforced and built up only very minimally for the purpose of making them focal points. Although remains of some buildings within the fortress grounds were also discovered, none of them have been reconstructed to date. At various points, you’ll also see water drainage holes and smaller rock walls which appear to have been repaired, but aside from the West Gate and its immediate surrounds, the site remains quite raw.
The location of the castle is quite spectacular. It’s a few hundred meters above the plains, on top of Mt. Kijo (鬼城山). Even if the thought of a partially reconstructed castle doesn’t particularly excite you, the views themselves are worth making the journey for. You’ll get unobstructed views along a good percentage of the castle’s perimeter. Look towards the south and you’ll see the countryside plains around Okayama, beyond that Okayama City, and further to the Seto Inland Sea towards Shikoku. Without exaggeration, it’s definitely one of the better areas for scenic views that I’ve seen in my extensive travels around Japan.
A round-trip hike along the perimeter following the wall’s path will take you approximately a couple hours to complete if you’re having a good look at things and making stops along the way for photos. As the top of the mountain is almost a plateau, your hike will be a rather leisurely stroll on mostly level terrain. As explained above, the restoration doesn’t encircle the majority of the mountain’s circumference so a lot of your journey will simply be enjoyable bushwalking whilst looking for wall remnants and checking out the view.
Be warned that the small visitor’s center doesn’t sell food or drinks. They do, however, have a water dispenser and an indoor area with tables and chairs where you can sit and have some lunch i.e. the packed lunch you’ve brought with you thanks to my forewarning.
I’ve never been totally at ease with the idea of rebuilding historic structures. Sometimes I think they’re best left alone, particularly if the rebuild is done in a tacky way or with too much modern influence. However, if done properly, I can see the merits of restoration for reasons of preservation, education, and tourism. In my opinion, the Kinojo Castle site achieves a good balance between restored and untouched history, which is another reason I rate this place highly and respect the way in which the site has been developed.
If you appreciate history that is much older than what you often get to experience in Japan, want to see a unique type of Japanese castle, or just looking for an easy hike in the midst of stunning views, then try and include Okayama’s Kinojo Castle as part of your next Japan travel itinerary.