Hitoyoshi Castle Ruins, Kyushu

Hitoyoshi Castle is not as well known as other castles such as Kumamoto or Nagoya but the history of this castle is much longer and has quite an interesting story.  It is ranked in the top 100 castles of Japan probably due to its long history and importance for administration and trade in central Kyushu.  It is in the southern part of modern day Kumamoto prefecture.  It was in a strategic location during medieval times on the boarders of Higo, Satsuma and Hyuga provinces.

The castle was originally built in 1199 by Sagara Nagayori during the Kamakura Period and I doubt there are are many other castles in Japan that are older. The Sagara then went on to occupy the castle continuously for over 670 years, 35 generations!  The Sagara were granted land by Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo and the Satsuma clan was established by Yoritomo’s son Tadahisa.  Despite a few quarrels between the two clans they were basically allies allowing the Sagara line to remain unbroken for so long.

A map showing the layout of the castle complex at around 1830.  The castle uses the Kuma and Mune rivers as a natural moat.  Access to the castle was only possible by boat and one bridge to the west.   The hill to the rear acted as a natural defensive structure and walls were built along the river banks.

Most of the castle complex sits on flatland alongside the rivers but the main castle structures were built up on the hill. From this photo you can see how steep the climb is up to the higher levels which consisted of the honmaru, ni no maru and san no maru.

Looking up to the san no maru and ni no maru.

There is only one access to the honmaru.

The view of Hitoyoshi town and Kuma river from the honmaru

Otemon on the north side of the castle complex. Just behind me here is the Kuma river.

Rebuilt Horiaimon but the stone steps and wall are original.

The castle went through several rebuilds and expansions.  The first evidence of a large scale Sengoku Period castle appeared in 1470 when Sagara Tametsugu was lord. In 1589 Sagara Nagatsune began large scale renovations of the castle.  By 1644 all work was completed.  As with the fate of many castles during the Meiji period it was dismantled in 1872 and only the stone walls remained.

Some rebuilding has occurred.  The Sumi yagura has been rebuilt and sits on the corner where the two rivers connect.  The Tamon yagura has also been rebuilt and sits on the Mune river to the west of the castle complex.

Text and photos by Stuart Iles.