Nakatsu Castle: provincial river guardian

Nakatsu Castle, with its moats fed by tidal sea water from the Seto Inland Sea, is one of Japan’s three so-called “seaside castles”. The others are Takamatsu Castle in Kagawa and Imabari Castle in Ehime. Nakatsu Castle sits on the Yamakuni River delta, about half a kilometer south of the river’s mouth, the tidal river also serving as one of the castle’s moats.

Construction of the castle began in 1587, when this region was assigned to the care of a daimyo feudal lord named Kuroda Yoshitaka (1546-1604), his reward for campaigning with Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598). Siting the castle on a major river on the Kyushu coast of the Seto Inland Sea is an obvious strategic choice; the town of Nakatsu developed as a result.

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Alas, the original castle fell victim to fire in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion, a civil rebellion during the turbulent times when Japan was modifying its political system to modernize and fend off Western domination. But the castle’s donjon was reconstructed in 1964. Since no plans for the original Nakatsu Castle could be located, the plans for Hagi Castle in Yaguchi Prefecture were used. Interestingly, the original Hagi Castle was also destroyed after feudalism was ended in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century. Aficionados of Japanese castles who want to see what Hagi Castle once looked like have to travel to Nakatsu to do so.

During the 90-plus years that the castle’s stone ramparts stood alone, the central courtyard became home to Okudaira Shrine, which still stands to greet visitors to the castle.

The interior of the reconstructed castle (open daily 9:00-17:00; JPY400) is a museum featuring antique armor, old maps and exhibits on rangaku (lit. Dutch learning), the Japanese word for western knowledge brought to Japan by Dutch traders during the Edo Period (1603-1868). There is also another small museum with historical exhibits just off the castle courtyard.

The view from the top floor of the reconstructed castle enables visitors to truly appreciate the wisdom of putting the castle on the Yamakuni River: the Seto Inland Sea to the north and the broad plain with mountains in the distance to the south.

Much of the castle’s original grounds have become modern park facilities, including sporting facilities, playgrounds and picnic areas.  This is also a small traditional-style garden, Horai-en, at the southern end of the castle grounds.

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Completely unrelated to the castle, but worth a visit if you’re in the area, is the childhood home of Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), several minutes walk east of the castle. Fukuzawa was born a low-ranking member of Nakatsu’s Okudaira clan (presumably the same Okudaira as the shrine in the castle courtyard) but went on to become a leading intellectual of the Meiji Restoration and founder of Keio University. His face has appeared on the ten thousand yen note for several decades, although that is scheduled to change in 2024.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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