Your typical Japanese castle can be done in one of two ways: you can get it in black, or you can get in white. White, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the more common shade; it’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly again, the shade of Japan’s most famous castles – think of Himeji Castle, Edo Castle (in Tokyo), and Osaka Castle. My personal favourites, on the other hand, are those of the black variety, the likes of Matsue Castle, Matsumoto Castle (in Nagano), and, of course, Kumamoto Castle, on the island of Kyushu, in southern Japan.
The origin of the castle stretches back to 1467 CE, but of the first fortress to be built in this location, little is known. The castle you see today came into being in 1588, after its creator, Katō Kiyomasa, was made a daimyō (feudal lord) by his pal and ally, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who was also the chief imperial minister responsible for unifying Japan – it pays to have friends in high places).
Katō Kiyomasa went all out with his castle. When finally completed, 22 years later, Kumamoto Castle was more than a kilometre in length from north to south, and measured over 1.5 kilometres in length from east to west. And it had been designed with such superlative defensive capabilities that it was widely considered to be impregnable.
Which might have been the case in the late 16th Century and early 17th Century, but by the late 19th Century it was no longer true, as demonstrated by its utter destruction during the Satsuma Rebellion.
The Satsuma Rebellion
Kumamoto Castle played a key role in the Satsuma Rebellion, which saw the tradition-bound samurai rebelling against an imperial government hell-bent on modernisation – who had just abolished the special privileges of the samurai class. Japan was suddenly overrun with out-of-work warriors, all idle and suffering from wounded pride. It didn’t take much to get the rebellion going.
The Satsuma army (i.e. the samurai army) laid siege to Kumamoto Castle in 1877. The siege lasted 53 days, during which time the occupants of the castle were reduced to eating raw horse flesh – a food source they discovered wasn’t half-bad, and which they continued to do, voluntarily, even when the siege was over. Raw horse meat – also called sakura niku (cherry blossom meat) as it is a beautiful shade of cerise – is now a delicacy enjoyed across Japan (I tried horse sushi on one occasion, and confirm that it is delicious).
Kumamoto Castle was burnt to the ground during the Satsuma Rebellion; little remained on the site but rubble, until 1960, when the current concrete reconstruction was built.
The 2016 earthquake
In 2016 a powerful earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter Scale, struck Kumamoto City. Fifty people were killed, and the castle sustained extensive damage; walls toppled, roofs came crashing down, turrets collapsed.
The damage has set back restoration work by decades. Repair work on the main tower is scheduled for completion in 2019. Restoration of the castle in entirety won’t be completed until 2036.
Practical information and how to reach Kumamoto Castle:
Kumamoto Castle lies within the city of Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu. Kumamoto is now on the Japan Rail (JR) network, and can be reached by shinkansen (the Bullet Train). More transport info here.