One of 12 original castles in Japan that survived orders to be demolished in the early Meiji era, this very unique castle is situated on a mountain next to a very small town in a rural area of Okayama prefecture. This was the first castle I ever visited in Japan and one of the most memorable days I’ve had travelling this country.
In this article:
- Walking through Takahashi
- Exploring Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
- Walking down Mt. Gagyu from the castle
- History of Bitchu Matsuyama Castle and Mt. Gagyu
- How to get to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
- Opening hours and admission cost
- Traveler’s tips
- Other things to do in Takahashi
- Things to do near Takahashi and Okayama city
You’ll truly get off the beaten tourist path with a day trip to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle (備中松山城) and (高梁市) Takahashi. The route up Mt. Gagyu to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is a 1.5 hour walk before arriving at 430 meters above sea level to Japan’s highest mountain castle.
Starting at Takahashi station, strolling through the town is a great way to break up the normal big-city experience people have when they come to Japan (seeing Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and maybe Hiroshima). In this article, I’ll show you through the town via some temples and sakura lined streams, a walking route up to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle, around the castle itself and then back down again for a bite to eat!
Walking through Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture
Bitchu Takahashi station is in the middle of Takahashi and is the starting point for most visitors to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle.
Yakushi-in (薬師院) is in the town, just a few short blocks from the train station. The temple isn’t very big, but its features take on very traditional Japanese form. Set into a hillside supported by a stone wall it almost mimics Bitchu Matsuyama Castle itself. Next to Yakushi-in is Shoren-ji Temple, so you can enjoy two sites within minutes of each other.
Being a mountain town next to a river, there are many sakura-lined streams funneling their way into the Takahashi River (高梁川). We were lucky enough to visit in the days leading up to full bloom of the cherry blossoms in Takahashi and enjoyed many scenes like this one…
On the outskirts of town the mountain path begins. It is possible to drive part of the way or take a taxi to a parking area on the mountain, otherwise it’s an easy hike up Mt. Gagyu to Bitchu Matsuyama-jo. While the castle at 430 meters above sea level sounds high, the town of Takahashi itself is 200 meters above sea level… doesn’t sound so big now does it?!
Exploring Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
After a short hike, on approach to the castle the first thing you see is it’s winding/stacked walls. After paying the ¥300 entry fee and entering the castle grounds it’s time to explore. The castle is small, just two stories high, but being an original castle the entire place feels and looks very authentic.
Early photos can be found outside the castle and more photos and artifacts are inside. On the lower floor inside the castle is a kind of mini-museum, showing the history of the castle and info on its past renovations (it’s had 3 in the last 100 years).
The castle is built in an Meiji era style and looks like the buildings of the historic Bikan district in Kurashiki, which is only about 40km away. You can enter the castle’s main keep and explore the two floors inside. There are many shielded/slit windows (called yasama, used for arrows) where you can get a great view of Takahashi and the river below.
Inside the castle on the lower floor are many interesting relics from the castle. My favourite were the shachiko (pictured below) – they seemed so much larger when standing next to them (compared to seeing them on the roof of a castle).
Now I don’t know exactly why the castle has survived for so long – probably because of its remoteness – but the fortifications and position of this castle would have made it very easy to defend and a nightmare to attack. There is a twisting maze of several layers of walls. Along the tops of walls are holes for riflemen or possibly the pouring of hot sand or oils.
There are many vantage points for viewing Takahashi from Mt. Gagyu. The photo below was taken from a lookout just outside the castle walls. You can also get a great view through the yasama (windows with slits used by archers) on the top floor of the castle keep.
Walking down Mt . Gagyu from the castle
The route back down the mountain to Takahashi is a very easy stroll which follows a road most of the way. This is where you get to see some very inaka (Japanese for countryside) scenes. Levels of rice fields, cherry blossom lined streams and old Japanese farm houses are just some of the unique things you’ll walk past which you wouldn’t see in the cities.
History of Bitchu Matsuyama Castle and Mt. Gagyu
Outside the castle walls is this large sign with a history of castle. Below the photo is a transcript of the sign.
Mt. Gagyu is designated as a national forest. It is also valuable as a natural botanical garden, containing more than 1,000 different species of plants.
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is located on Mt. Gagyu at 430 meters above sea level, making it the highest mountain castle in Japan. The ruins of the castle, the donjon, the turrets and a section of the surrounding mud wall have been designated as important cultural properties.
The evolution of Matsuyama Castle began when Saburo Shigenobu Akiba built a fort on Omatsuyama in 1240. Later Kurozaemon Muneyasu Takahashi, an officer of the area, enlarged the fort to include Komatsuyama, the castle’s present site. When Motochika Mimura became a feudal lord of the region, Matsuyama castle* was enlarged again and the site extended to cover the entire mountain. With the help of the Mori clan, Motochika Mimura conquered the whole Bitchu area but was forced from the castle and killed when the clan discovered that he had betrayed them.
In 1600 Masatsugu Kobori and his son Masakazu came to the area as the officers of the Tokugawa Shogunante and repaired the castle as part of the efforts to turn Matsuyama into a castle town. The next feaudal lord, Katsutaka Mizunoya, rebuilt the donjon, turrets and other gates in addition to building Onegoya house on the southern side of Mt. Gagyu where public affairs were administrated. The Mizunoya contributed to the development of the area by arranging the castle town and expanding the Tamashima district.
In 1744 Katsuzumi Itakura became lord of Matsuyama castle, followed by a succession of eight Itakura lords who ruled the castle for a period spanning 126 years. The order to abolish castles early in the Meiji Era left the castle in ruins, but a citizen’s group was set up in 1929 to preserve the castle and repair the turret. After this work was completed the Takahashi City authorities repaired the donjon turret and mud walls. Matsuyama Castle was designated as an important cultural property in 1950 and in 1957 the government began restoring the castle to its original state. Restoration was completed in 1960**.
March 1990, Bitchu Matsuyama Castle Administration Office.
*Bitchu Matsuyama castle is sometimes referred to as Matsuyama castle, which is less often used as it is confused with Matsuyama castle in Matsuyama city, Ehime Prefecture. ** The most recent restoration took place in 2003.
For more details on the history of the castle, see Japan Castle Explorer’s Bitchu Matsuyama Castle page.
How to get to Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
From JR Okayama station a Japan Rail Pass can be used to take the local train to Bitchu Takahashi station. JR Okayama is a major station (the bullet train stops here) and is about halfway between Osaka/Kyoto and Hiroshima. At JR Okayama station, find the JR Hakubi line. There’s a train about every 30 minutes during the day and the trip takes 56 minutes.
If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, or would like to get to Bitchu Takahashi station 20 minutes quicker, take the Limited Express Yakumo, which costs ¥730 and takes 34 minutes.
From the station you can take the easy option of a taxi to the castle parking area. Taxis will be outside the station, the fare should be around ¥1300 and from the castle parking area it’s a 20 minute walk to the castle.
If you are walking, you can use this walking route map from Bitchu Takahashi station to Bitchu Matsuyama castle.
Opening hours and admission cost
Opening hours: The castle is open from 9am to 5:30pm from April to September and from 9am to 4:30pm from October to March. The only days it is closed is for the New Year period of December 28 to January 4.
Admission cost: Entry is ¥300
- If you’re doing the walk, grab a bottle of drink and some snacks from the Lawson across the road from the Bitchu Takahashi station via the west exit.
- If this will be a day trip and you’re travelling from and returning to JR Okayama station, you can leave your bags in lockers at JR Okayama station for the day. I use them often, found at just about every major JR station across Japan. Costs start from around ¥300.
Other things to do in Takahashi
Eat at Joyfull
If you’re looking for a decent meal and have never heard of or tried Joyfull, check out this restaurant. Joyfull is a 24 hour restaurant serving western style food. It’s a relatively cheap place to eat and it’s interesting to see how western food is represented in Japan. There are Joyfull restaurants all over Japan (Saizaria is another similar chain with Italian food).
The restaurant is a 10 minute walk south from Bitchu Takahashi station. View Joyfull’s Takahashi restaurant on Google Maps.
Visit local shrines and temples
- Yakushi-in and Shoren-ji Temple are a few minutes walk east of the station.
- Raikyu-ji Temple is on the way to the castle from the station.
Visit samurai residences
There are two samurai residences north of the station, on the way to the castle. Orii Samurai Residence and the Haibara Samurai Residence are very close to each other.