Sakura castle

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The road leading up from the main gate of the National Museum of Japanese History. These stone walls are probably modern constructions, however.
  • Built: 1610s, Doi Toshikatsu
  • Type: Hirayamajiro (flatland/mountain castle)
  • Demolished: 1871
  • Status: Ruins and excavations
  • Location: Shimousa province
  • Japanese: 佐倉城 (Sakura-jou)

Sakura castle was the main castle of the lords of Sakura han (in Shimousa province); nine different clans held the castle over the course of the Edo period, as the shogunate appointed different rôjû (Elders) to hold this strategically located territory, well-placed to help defend Edo from attack. From 1746 onwards, the castle (and the domain) was held by the Hotta clan, relocated to Sakura from Yamagata han; for the remainder of the Edo period, they enjoyed a rank/income of 110,000 koku.

Today, very little remains of the castle; the site has become the home of the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku).

History and Layout

Members of the Chiba clan held the territory, and a fortress on the site, during the late Sengoku period. This early version of the castle is said to have been first built by Kashima Mikitane, a relative or retainer of the Chiba, resulting in the castle being called Kashimayama castle at that time. Chiba Tanetomi (1527-1579) held the fortress for a time, and Chiba Shigetane was castellan when the site was besieged during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Odawara Campaign in 1590; Chiba Kunitane considered moving his base of operations to Sakura, but ultimately did not, as Tokugawa Ieyasu gained power and granted the castle to Doi Toshikatsu.

The Edo period castle was then built on the site by Doi Toshikatsu, in the 1610s. It sat on a highland which extended to the east and west, surrounded in some parts by a moat, and in other parts by dry moats and earthen embankments. The castle overlooks two rivers, the Kashima-gawa and Takasaki-gawa, the first of which flows into the Inbanuma (Inba marsh) nearby; the rivers serve as additional defensive measures beyond the manmade moats.

The castle town below was divided into merchant districts and samurai districts, with the layout of both castle and town developing out of defensive plans put into place by the lord of Sakura in 1610.

Sections of the castle were surrounded by a 260 meter long, 4-5 meter wide, dry moat known as the obi kuruwa. This included sections of precipitous cliff drops, and areas where wood or stones could be dropped down upon an incoming enemy force. The design of this defensive perimeter was meant to steer enemy forces into a limited set of access points, including one known as the musha hashiri ("warriors' run"), where they could be more easily and directly encountered by Sakura's defenders.

The castle's Ôtemon (大手門), also known as the Otemon (追手門), on the west side of the compound, served as the main front gate of the sôkuruwa, an area of samurai homes within the castle walls. A wide road (広小路) extended to the west from the gate, toward another major area of samurai homes, where in fact a number remain today, along with a few sections of road said to be essentially unchanged in appearance since the Edo period (with the exception of the asphalt roadbed itself).

Traveling towards the honmaru (central bailey) from the Ôtemon, one would first come upon the san-no-mon (third gate), within which lay the san-no-maru (third bailey), where the homes of the domain elders (karô) were located. The gate itself was two stories high, three ma deep, and six ma wide, and was used to store various equipment.

Traveling deeper into the compound, one would next come across the ni-no-mon, or ni-no-omon ("second gate"), which was used as a storage space for weapons. It was two stories high, three ma deep and eight ma wide. Beyond the ni-no-mon lay the ni-no-maru (second bailey), which housed various administrative buildings for the governance of the domain.

The final east-facing gate marking the entrance to the honmaru was called the ichi-no-mon or ichi-no-omon ("first gate"). It was two stories tall, eight ma wide, and four ma deep.

The honmaru contained a tenshu (main keep), goten (lord's residence), and three towers, known as the sumi yagura ("corner tower"), dô yagura ("bronze tower"), and daidokoro yagura. The sumi yagura was also known as the sankai yagura, on account of it being three stories (sankai) tall, while the daidokoro yagura (lit. "kitchen tower"), also known as the fumei yagura (unknown, or unclear, tower), may have been used to store or prepare food. The bronze tower was so named because of its bronze roof tiles. A two-story, square, six-tatami tower, it was a gift from the shogun to Doi Toshikatsu, who had it moved to Sakura from the gardens of Edo castle. The tower was originally three stories tall, and is said to have been built originally by Ôta Dôkan. The site is today bare and empty, with the exception of foundation stones of each of the structures, and the still very visible shaping of the earth to form a bailey.

Elsewhere in the compound, a gate known as the shiikimon ("beechwood gate") faced north, towards the umadashi, a sort of entrance barrier typical in front of castle gates. The gate was three ma deep, and seven ma wide. Within this gate was the shiiki kuruwa, an area of samurai residences, which also included a path known as sugizaka (cedar slope), and a Shinto shrine known as Akiba Shrine. The main buildings of the National Museum of Japanese History are located within this section of the site.

The castle compound also contained within it a Shingon Buddhist temple called Enshô-ji, and a Shinto shrine called Atago Shrine. The former was destroyed in the anti-Buddhist policies of the Meiji period, while the latter was moved into town.

The rear gate of the castle faced the commoner neighborhood of Tamachi, running along the Narita kaidô (highway). This gate was thus known as the Tamachi-mon, and the spot where it stood is quite close to the location of the modern-day main entrance gate for the National Museum of Japanese History compound, as cars drive in directly off of the Narita kaidô. A slope formerly led directly up from here to the Atago Shrine, and was thus called Atago-zaka (Atago slope).

The castle was dismantled in 1871 along with the abolition of the han, and in 1873, the first Imperial Japanese Army training grounds in Japan was built on the site; stonework from the dismantled castle was re-purposed in the construction of barracks, a military hospital, and other structures. The military base was demolished following World War II, and in 1964, the site was declared a public park. The National Museum of Japanese History was established on the site in 1983. Some elements, including parts of the moat, dry moat and embankments, and some sections of foundation walls are still visible today, but no buildings (let alone a main keep) survive or have been reconstructed.


  • Signs onsite.

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