Osaka Castle is easily the best castle I’ve visited. The enormous tower, magnificent gardens and moat, and variety of authentic historical structures are almost comparable to the imperial palaces. More excitingly, they can all be entered and explored fully.
Osaka’s history is interesting. Just a short distance from Kyoto, and boasting an impressive and important port, the city has always existed right on the periphery of history. Great battles have been fought and great lords quartered in this place, but it doesn’t have the official or imperial importance of Kyoto or Tokyo.
While imperial residents in the past and present capital cities are mysterious and closed off, Osaka castle is an open museum. The main tower isn’t technically the same historical building of old -- the castle has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times – but the historical relevance is celebrated and maintained.
Approaching from a distance, the main castle tower still impresses even among the skyline of modern Osaka. Part of this is no doubt because it is situated in the centre of a wide open park, but even so the eight-storey concrete structure is large enough today.
The gardens are filled with grassy fields, trees and flowers of every kind, water features and a variety of food stalls. Takiyaki and onomiyaki stands rub shoulders with hot dogs, fried and ice cream. Couples take pictures among the cherry trees and friends sit under the sun on picninc blankets.
Best of all, most of the exterior is completely free. To come and sit in the park on a summer’s day, under the impressive sight of the castle, is an option available to everyone in Osaka. Only to enter the historical buildings do you have to pay a fee.
The outer buildings, guard towers and store houses, are historically interesting but not especially exciting. Highlights were an authentic matchlock rifle that was available to touch, hold and pose with, and a model defender posed by a window.
The castle itself was much sexier. A gorgeous example of classic Japanese architecture, the castle features an extraordinary observation deck at the top with museum exhibits following on each floor down from there.
Amusingly, there was a long, slow queue for the elevator despite the availability of a spiral staircase right next to it. For the sake of not walking up eight floors, people seemed to be queuing for up to an hour.
The deck did offer some wonderful views. Right in the middle of Osaka, enormous glass buildings stood over the clear waters of the moat. Although the building is actually a more recent construction, the feeling of being at the highest point of a feudal world is inescapable. Looking out over the world, it was hard not to feel like a samurai warlord.
The exhibits inside describe the building of the many iterations of the castle, while also sharing wonderful works of art and the life’s story of the Shogun who originally constructed the first version. Most impressive were small dioramas onto which holographic actors were transmitted, re-enacting key scenes. It felt highly futuristic.
Over the road from the castle is the Osaka Museum of History, built on the top three four floors of an enormous ten-storey building with a window running along one whole edge. This gave great views of the castle as I came down the escalator.
The museum itself held wonderful arrangements of costumes, armours and dioramas. It was impressive and inherently informative, but there wasn’t very much at all in the way of English text so I’d be hard pressed to recommend it equally to all tourists.
The worst part for me was making my way down the last six flights of escalators. As I tried to step onto an escalator while simultaneously setting up a podcast on my phone, my brain suddenly broke. I forgot how to step onto moving staircases and every time after that I was like Mr Bean or that scene in Elf. I repeatedly came close to disaster. I have no idea what happened to me.