One thing's for sure about 16th and 17th century Japan: They loved their castles. The nation is still dotted with white donjons that once housed feudal lords. Though, here's a little secret: A good number of those most majestic castles now contain little of the original keeps and turrets.
So, for the traveler fascinated with history -- true history -- here are castles retaining original buildings -- the ones that have somehow survived in earthquake-prone, World War II-enduring Japan.
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Himeji Spreads Its Wings
Located in Himeji city in Hyogo prefecture, this castle is so magnificent in history and successful in preservation that it made the UNESCO World Heritage list. The towering wood structure is fortified with 83 buildings that UNESCO calls "the finest surviving example of early 17th Japanese castle architecture." With its five-tiered donjon, the former stronghold is considered the largest original remaining castle in Japan. You can thank feudal lord Ikeda Terumasa for overseeing the massive construction effort that supposedly took the work of 24-million men, according to the Japan National Tourism Association.
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On the opposite end of the size scale, we have Marugame castle. It's a sturdy stronghold that proves you shouldn't mess with the little guy. The castle in Kagawa prefecture is the smallest of Japan's original dozen donjons, but that doesn't mean it's any less important. Sitting atop a towering hill that's adorned with a folding fan-shaped stone wall, the handsome white castle overlooks the city of Marugame and the Seto Inland Sea. It was built in the 1600s under the direction of daimyo -- or feudal lord -- Ikoma Chikamasa, who ruled over what is now Kagawa prefecture. At the bottom of the castle, craftsmen can be seen making traditional “uchiwa” style fans.
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Far to the north, we have Hirosaki castle in Hirosaki city, known for its cherry blossom viewing in spring and Neputa Festival of Lanterns in August. Built as a five-story castle under the supervision of Lord Tsugaru in the early 17th century, the structure was struck by lightning in 1627 and rebuilt not long after with a three-story donjon, according to JNTO. Fall and winter are also good times to visit the castle to see the chrysanthemum, maple leaf, and snow-lantern festivals.
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If you meet someone from Nagano, he may still refer to the city as the place that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, thinking you otherwise wouldn't know where the area is. But far more impressive than that bit of athletic trivia is Matsumoto castle, which dates back to 1504. Construction on the castle began that year by feudal lord Shimadachi Sadanaga and was later continued by Lord Ishikawa Kazumasa and his son, according to JNTO. Officially considered a national treasure, the six-story castle is one of the oldest donjons still standing in the nation, though it was, like many of Japan's castles, restored in the early 1950s.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Built in 1537 by Oda Nobuyasu, this national treasure stands about 80 feet tall in Inuyama city in Aichi prefecture. The city is also known for its river rides and isn't far from Nagoya.
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Regarded as a national heritage castle, the ornate Hikone castle began construction in 1602 in Shiga prefecture. Its three-tier donjon remains similar to when it was built and stands near Lake Biwa.
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Built in the early 1600s under the leadership of feudal lord Horio Yoshiharu, Matsue Castle has five-tiers and stands about 98 feet high. The structure is in the western Shimane prefecture, also known for its Lake Shinji, Matsue Vogel Park -- rich in flowers and birds -- and the Horikawa sightseeing cruise.
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Located in the most southern prefecture in Shikoku, Kochi castle was completed in 1611 but flattened by a fire in 1727. Don't worry, though, it was rebuilt 25 years later, making it still pretty old. This handsome structure is one of many reasons to visit Kochi, which boasts deliciously seared, but raw bonito fish dishes called "katsuo no tataki" and the Yosakoi festival in August featuring 20,000 dancers.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Located in the coastal prefecture of Fukui in central Japan on the Sea of Japan, Maruoka castle dates back to 1576 when it was built on the order of feudal lord Shibata Katsutoyo. Most of it was flattened by an earthquake in 1948 and rebuilt seven years later, according to JNTO. The structure is not too far from Fukui city.
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The small Bitchu-Matsuyama castle in Okayama was first built in 1240 and the actual donjon, later, in the 1600s. It's justifiable to visit, as nearby Okayama city is a bustling little metropolis full of shopping and restaurants and highly accessible by the Shinkansen bullet train.
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The towering Matsuyama castle located in the hot-spring city it's named after, takes you back to the days of the samurai with its museum-quality exhibits of the warriors' wears and weapons. The castle's beginnings can be traced back to 1603 in Ehime's capital when construction began, but it wasn't completed until 1627. A fire claimed much of the donjon that was rebuilt in the mid-1800s.
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And in the region of the Matsuyama Castle, it's worth the visit to the historic, albeit small, Uwajima castle in southwest Ehime prefecture, whose capital is Matsuyama. Built under the leadership of military commander Todo Takatora, the three-tiered donjon dates back to 1596.