Kyushu, the large peninsula which constitutes the southern end of Japan, was one of the most prized and disputed territories during the era known as the Japanesde Warring Period. Divided between supporters of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to the north, his enemies to the south and unaligned feudal lords in between, this peninsula boasts a particularly high concentration of major castles, especially around Shimabara Bay. Among the largest and best of these is Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto on the east side of the bay; Shimabara Castle on the Shimabara Peninsula on the west side of the bay; and Karatsu Castle on the northwest side of Kyushu.
The large land mass at the southern end of Japan, Kyushu, is almost an island connected to the rest of the country by a narrow isthmus. This effectively isolated Kyushu from much of the warfare that ravaged Japan throughout most of early history. The first century of the era known as the Japanese Warring period left Kyushu relatively unscathed, though the construction of Kumamoto Castle in the 16th century may have portended things to come.
The 16th century witnessed two major events in Kyushu: the arrival of Francis Xavier and Christianity in 1549; and the arrival of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his armies in 1595. Hideyoshi had already conquered most of the rest of Japan, and had his sights set on Kyushu at the end of the 16th century. Soon after his arrival he became suspicious of the growing Christian community and instituted the first persecution of Christians in Japan.
Things began to heat up in Kyushu in 1600, when the forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his enemies clashed at the Battle of Sekigahara. A decisive victory for Hideyoshi, this secured the northwestern corner of the island for the Shogunate. A flurry of castle construction followed, both by Hideyoshi and his enemies. Karatsu Castle and Kokura Castle were both founded in the immediate aftermath of the battle, and Shimabara Castle a few years later.
The staggering costs of the construction of these new castles led to great unrest in the early 17th century, and to outright rebellion in the 1630s. The greatest of these was the Shimabara rebellion, in which many of the rebels are believed to have been Christians. The siege of Shimabara Castle led to the slaughter of nearly forty thousand defenders and innocent bystanders. This event drove most of the local Christians into hiding, and nominally ended the feudal wars in Kyushu. The surviving castles are a stark reminded of nearly five decades of warfare.
Kumamoto Castle was founded in 1467 and is one of the oldest standing fortresses in Kyushu. Although partially damaged during a rebellion in the 19th century, most of the castle is still standing, including the great central keep. Kumamoto is most distinguishable among the castles of Japan from its compact layout and absolutely immense lower stone fortifications which are among the largest in the country. The entire site has just undergone a major restoration which was completed in 2008. Kumamoto Castle is located near the city center of Kumamoto, approximately foty miles east of Nagasaki. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.manyou-kumamoto.jp/castle (official website).
Karatsu Castle was built at the height of the Warring Period and is more reflective of the style of castles built throughout Japan during the era. Consisting of large, multi-walled compound, a great central pagoda-type keep packed in by smaller buildings, Karatsu resembles a smaller version of Himeji Jo. Standing on top of a small hill, the entire site is hemmed in by a thick stand of trees which gives the castle a fairy-tale feel. Karatsu Castle is located just south of Karatsu City, approximately 35 thirty-five miles north of Nagasaki. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.karatsu-kankou.jp (official tourism website of Karatsu City).
Shimabara Castle is the youngest of Kyushu’s major fortresses. Most of the original castle, except for the lower stone walls, is actually long gone. The central keep, the tallest standing in Kyushu, is actually a 20th century reproduction completed in 1964. It is home to a museum with exhibits on the Shimabara rebellion and Japanese Christianity. Shimabara Castle is located approximately twenty miles east of Nagasaki. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: http://visit-nagasaki.com (official website).
Most of Kyushu’s great surviving castles are on the northern half of the island. The northernmost is Kokura Castle in Kitakyushu. Also, not too far away on Shikoku Island, are several excellent feudal fortresses, notably Matsuyama Castle and Uwajima Castle.