Countless castles may not be your thing, nor their history for that matter. Yet, to allow your mind be seeped with tales of the rise and fall of lords and their samurai. To grasp how castles were structured to best fend off the enemy. To experience the remnants of their evolution from symbolic regional center into ‘castle towns’ and further morphing into a big city like Tokyo. Or to witness their disintegrated but-not-forgotten castle ruins. 

Your senses will soon become heightened and you’ll view these structures and their surrounds as brimming with photographic angles and perspectives to document to your heart’s content.

Today, many castles are actually steel-reinforced concrete replicas. Within the Kansai region, however, Himeji Castle and Hikone Castle are considered original and, along with Osaka Castle and Takeda Castle, are listed in the Top 100 Castles of Japan. Add Momoyama—also known as Fushimi Castle—and these five offer you a broad spread of varying castle aesthetics within the Kansai region.

Best is, you can visit them all over a few days, travelling by train. And aside from packing your camera gear (a standard 24-70mm lens offers the best versatility), add a pair of good walking shoes as there may be some traipsing to the best view points.

Takeda Castle Ruins (Above the Clouds)

Located in the city of Asago in the northern part of Hyōgo Prefecture, this palace-style castle was completed in 1441. Then, not long after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, it was abandoned when the castle’s forces came up against the Tokugawa clan. The castle disintegrated, but the remaining stone foundations that form the Takeda Castle ruins are impressive.

At just over 1,100 feet (353 meters) above sea level, Takeda Castle’s nicknames—’Floating Castle in the Sky’ or the ‘Machu Picchu of Japan’—emanate from the bank of clouds that most often envelop the ruins in the sunrise hours during fall. This almost mystic setting is best viewed (and photographed) by walking 30 to 40 minutes up the rather steep trail from the Ritsuunkyo parking lot.

Photography tip: Check the weather—you want clouds! Use a polarising filter, set your ISO to < 400, aperture priority around f16. Check your histogram and if you have blown-out highlights, use exposure compensation to alter the exposure.

Himeji Castle

This is one of Japan’s most beautiful feudal castles—and a Unesco World Heritage Site—set on a hilltop in the city of Himeji, Hyōgo Prefecture. Its fort foundations date back to 1333 and, after centuries of remodelling and additional new structures, the castle is today often called Hakuro-jo or Shirasagi-jo, based on the stark white exterior and resemblance to a bird taking flight.

As original castles were destroyed or lost through war and natural disasters, traditional wood and stone were replaced with more modern materials during reconstructions. Who’d have thought though, that the Himeji Castle oil well (Abura-Kabe, built in 1581 on the way to the fifth gate) used a mixture of sand from the nearby mountain, pea gravel, rice porridge, and rice-washing water that would render as hard as modern-day concrete!

Photography tip: Play around with various perspectives that include the white heron resemblance of the castle. You can take more tightly composed textural shots too—of the family crests depicted on the roof tile ends or the ‘holes’ in the walls, shaped to suit weapon types and positioned per stance: standing, prone or kneeling.

Osaka Castle and the Surrounding Park

Set amidst the high-rise buildings of Kansai’s largest city, Osaka Castle is a historic and famous landmark with construction starting in 1583. Today, it boasts a complex network of moats, walls, and turrets—plus 13 structures designated as cultural assets—all surrounding the huge central tower. You’ll be in awe too of the massive stone wall moat that stands nearly 66 feet (20 meters) high and an incredible 295 feet (90 meters) wide.

The surrounding park extends over 15 acres (six hectares) with wide grassy lawns and a colourful grove of 4,000 plum, peach, and cherry trees—a beautiful backdrop for any hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spring celebration and keen photographer.

Photography tip: You can shoot the stature of these Japanese castle walls from the park level upwards. The Nishinomaru Garden during hanami is great for capturing street-style moments, with food vendors and taiko drummers adding extra flavour to your compositions. As evening falls, the castle is (indirectly) lit up for some moody/spooky shots, or bounce your flash on any lingering picnickers, with permission obviously, as you call out “Sumimasen!” (Excuse me!).

Momoyama, AKA Fushimi Castle

Constructed over two years from 1592 as the retirement palace for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Momoyama is located in the Fushimi ward of Kyoto—and a great day excursion from Japan’s cultural capital.

As with all castles, it also faced destruction and changing ownership, and the current castle is, in fact, a replica constructed in 1964 near the original site. Of greater interest is the fact that the famous Golden Tea Room has its walls and all implements covered in gold leaf, befitting a feudal lord and chief Imperial minister. 

The floor of a corridor—where Torii Mototada and his troops committed seppuku (a ritual suicide) after defending the castle for 11 days—was dismantled and became the blood-stained ceiling in three Kyoto temples (Yogen-in, Genko-an and Hosen-in)!

Photography tip: The grounds are often quiet, so photographing the Momoyama Castle façade and twin keeps without any human element can make for a profound stock-type image, in both landscape and portrait orientations. A lens hood may help reduce reflection in the tea room, or you could use a polarising filter and then post-edit.

Hikone Castle

A national treasure from the Edo period and one of the only 12 Japanese castles with the original keep, Hikone Castle is located near the shores of Lake Biwa, Shiga prefecture. Construction was ordered by Ii Naokatsu in 1603, completed in 1622 and noteworthy that in 1868 the Emperor requested this castle not be dismantled when many others were scheduled for demise.

Photography tip: Including the castle’s mascot, Hiko-nyan (a cat with a samurai helmet) can add an especially kawaii (cute) element to your images. He appears almost daily in a show at the front of the museum.

Read our Japan Travel Guide to delve deeper into the fascinating history, art and culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.

This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.