Kumamoto Castle towering over the city of Kumamoto (Photo courtesy of Kumamoto City Tourism Policy Division)

Wed, Jan 8, 2020

Kumamoto Castle: An impregnable fortress, now a symbol for hope and recovery

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

By Anna Seitz / CIR for Kumamoto city

I can still remember coming to Kumamoto for the first time more than a year ago. On my way to city hall, I could make out a tall silhouette towering above the main street from the hill. I couldn’t help but feel moved by the sheer presence of the castle tower (tenshukaku), its black and white tiles beautifully contrasting with the lush green trees on the castle grounds. Even now, whenever I catch a glimpse of the castle walking through the city, my heart skips a beat.

Built in 1607 by Kato Kiyomasa, Kumamoto Castle is said to be one of the three most important castles in Japan. This is evident not only from the size of its grounds and buildings, but also from its architecture and artistic design. Known for being an impregnable fortress, many secrets and legends surround each and every aspect of the castle complex. For example, the famous curved stone walls, called mushagaeshi, were designed to be insurmountable for intruders, hidden passages and rooms were used to ensure a safe evacuation route, and dozens of wells and even edible tatami-mats were included in strategies to survive long sieges.

When Saigo Takamori was unable to take Kumamoto Castle after days of battle during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, he was quoted: “I did not lose to the imperial troops, but to Kato Kiyomasa.”

Kumamoto Castle main keep before the 2016 earthquake (Photo courtesy of Kumamoto Prefectural Government Tourism Division)

While the undeniable historic significance and incredible architecture draws in tourists from all over the world, there are many more reasons why Kumamoto citizens are proud of their castle. They come here for cherry-blossom viewing parties in spring and to make their first shrine visit on New Year’s Day. They feel at home and secure in their everyday life as if they are being watched over by the elevated towers. What’s more, for the last three years, the castle has also become a symbol for hope and recovery.

As cynical as it sounds, it’s easy for a tourist to forget about the dreadful earthquakes that struck the city in 2016. Even though more than five-thousand residents throughout Kumamoto Prefecture still live in temporary housing after losing their homes, it’s difficult to imagine the damage from numbers alone. I moved to Kumamoto two years after the disaster, and the first time I was confronted with the aftermath was when I paid the castle-park a visit. Right next to the entrance, under a smaller turret, a big hole was gaping in the wall. Stones and pebbles had cascaded out from behind the main blocks, forming a pile of rubble on the ground. Naïve as I was, I wondered why the reconstruction workers would leave this castle wound untouched. However, walking around the sprawling castle grounds made me realize just how much damage the earthquakes had caused. If the ‘impregnable castle’ had suffered this much, how horrible had the disaster been to the residents of the city? It is both incredibly sad and fascinating to observe the toppled towers and decimated stone walls, as well as the reconstruction efforts underway.

Damage of the castle walls right after the 2016 earthquake (Photo courtesy of Kumamoto Castle Head Office)

The restoration committee has chosen to reconstruct the castle by measuring, cataloguing, and replacing every fallen stone in a project that will take over 20 years to complete. Despite the time, this deliberate decision is an expression of the utmost respect and adoration the citizens have for the centerpiece of their city.

Many damaged areas around the castle are still left untouched in 2019 (Photo courtesy of Kumamoto Castle Head Office)

For now, the restoration work is focused on the main keep, but while we all wait for the public re-opening in spring 2021, visitors can see the castle up close thanks to the new special walkway that opened last September. Personally, I can’t wait to finally walk through the main castle tower and breathe in the rich history within the fortress that has symbolized strength and durability throughout the ages.

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Anna Seitz

Anna is a second-year German Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) living and working in Kumamoto city. She was born in Mannheim, a city close to the sister city of Kumamoto, Heidelberg. In university she majored in East-Asian studies and education. In her free time, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing boardgames.

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