Visiting a castle in Japan is one of those must do things when you visit Japan. Many people, like me, are interested in seeing these amazing castles while travelling Japan and will visit a handful, walking away in sheer awe at the beauty and strength of these iconic structures. Other people, like Daniel O’Grady, the man behind Japan-Castle-Explorer.com, see as many castles as possible and are passionate about the history of Japan’s castles – and he’s also very keen on sharing that info with the world…
This article will take a look at the Japan Castle Explorer site and then get some insights from the man behind it all.
Site Showcase – Japan-Castle-Explorer.com
Interactive Map Explorer
The first thing I saw of this in-depth site was the castle explorer map – http://www.japanese-castle-explorer.com/map.html – and it’s still the first place I go to plan my next castle visit. The map uses Google Maps’ API for very accurate map data, with castles overlaid on top.
Because the controls are very similar to using Google Maps, the map is very easy to use. After 10+ years working in the digital industry, with formal education and training in user interface design and interactive principles, I can say this map has an excellent user interface…
- Icons for the different types of castles:
- The red icon is a castle with an original keep.
- The gray icon is a castle with a reconstructed keep.
- The gate is a castle with a gate or a turret but no keep.
- The stone foundation icon is a castle with no keep, gate or turret.
- Quick info box showing the castle’s vital stats, with links to photos/info, 3D virtual tour (if available) and best view (zoomed in satellite pic). The info box is displayed on the map after you click on a castle which makes for a great user experience – not too much jumping between map and castle info page.
- Link to the current map state, so you can bookmark exactly what you’re looking at.
- Easy share options and the standard Google Maps functions (zoom, pan and map view: satellite; hybrid; street; terrain).
- Photo overlay – the photos are all user submitted and castle related.
- The map even works well on the iPhone – super handy for when you’re out travelling!
Castle Profile Page
At the time of writing, there are over 140 castle profile pages on the site. The depth of information about each castle is stunning:
- Usually 10 or more photos of the castle and its features,
- Many profile pages have a video, taken by Daniel himself,
- Detail about the type of castle and its location,
- History and timeline, including associated clan/s,
- Historical recognition (i.e. Important Cultural Property, UNESCO World Heritage, etc)
- Other castles in the area,
- Blog posts about the castle, and
- My personal favourite, the castle rating matrix!
So whether you’re a tourist looking for a castle and where it is, or a history buff wanting to learn as much as possible about each castle, all the info you need is on (or accessible from) the one castle profile page.
Take a look at Kumamoto castle’s profile page for a great example with lots of pictures, HD video, extensive history and timeline and even a virtual 3D tour!
The rest of the site…
The standout of the site is easily the map and castle profile pages, but there is so much more to the site.
There are various ways to browse the castles (by condition or region, and castle videos) and photo galleries organised by feature (main tower, turret, interior, etc). The site is really well organised, giving you the ability to find exactly what you need.
The blog is regularly updated and there’s even a shop with castle related paraphernalia!
The site itself has an amazing backend, allowing all this data to come through nicely, and announced in a recent blog post (read I’ve been a very busy boy) the site is now responsive – mean it has a different layout for iPhone/smartphones, iPad/tablets and computer screens – making it easy to use on just about any device!
Interview with Daniel O’Grady of Japan-Castle-Explorer.com
Daniel is very active online and I started chatting to him on Twitter (@jcexplorer) when I moved to Japan in 2011 – probably because we’re both Aussies who don’t mind a beer. I’m constantly getting questions through japantravelmate.com from soon-to-be-Japan-tourists about cool things to do in Japan and always say “go see a castle” and point them to Japan Castle Explorer.
So I fired off an email to Daniel to see if he would do an interview, to get some insight into the man behind the scenes and what castles are the pick of the bunch in Japan. He gladly accepted a 5 question interview… check it out below (I’m ‘JTM’ and Daniel is ‘JCE’):
JTM – Tell us a little bit about yourself.
JCE – Well, first I’d like to thank you Dean, for inviting me to this interview, so thank you. Okay. So, I’m an Aussie who has been living in Japan since 2001. And, it was my interest in Japanese castles, shrines/temples and also martial arts that brought me here. I found someone special early on so that’s why I’m still here.
With regards to my hobbies, which is most likely what you and the reader will be interested in, I enjoy castles (as mentioned), cars (real ones, not expensive, unattainable ones) and making websites. Lately, I’ve been going full-tilt with a car-spotting website (wasabicars.com) which I’m finding much pleasure and satisfaction in. Cars “come to me” as it were. With castles, I have to go to them.
JTM – What’s the first Japanese castle you visited?
JCE – The first castle… Well, I remember it as if it were just yesterday. It was Fukuoka castle, and I saw it the day following my arrival in Japan. It was epically underwhelming. The pictures of castles I’d seen up until that time had huge gracefully-curved towers, exotic gates and all the rest of it. The ruins of Fukuoka castle were quite flat looking, and the only semi-interesting part of the castle that I saw that day was closed off for repairs that wouldn’t end up starting for many years to come.
I think the major contributing factor for my disappointment was that I simply didn’t know anything about Japanese castles. I just liked how they looked, and Fukuoka didn’t look anything like what I liked. Now, and after all those years of travelling to castles and learning about them, Fukuoka is one of my favourites.
JTM – What’s your favourite castle?
JCE – The first one that springs to my mind is Kumamoto castle.
Here’s an interesting fact: you will be blown away! If you can stand it though, I suggest you avoid entering the central tower (the “keep”). The same goes for castles like Osaka castle and Nagoya castle. The spectacle of these places is that grand and beautiful tower with all its layers and curved gables. Inside you will only find disappointment, and that disappointment will take the form of the interior of a 1960’s, concrete building. Enter these concrete reproductions at your peril.
Oops, getting back to Kumamoto castle, the grounds are huge and there is so, so much to see in and around the castle.
JTM – Hypothetical:
A traveller asks you what are the best castles to see which are off the normal tourist track, but still easy enough for tourists to access, what do you recommend?
JCE – I’d suggest heading to Shikoku, the smaller of the four major islands. In Ehime Prefecture (West-coast) there are the castles of Matsuyama, Ozu and Uwajima, and there’s plenty else to do in Ehime.
The castle of Matsuyama is more-or-less complete.
Ozu is a modern but faithful reconstruction.
And finally there’s Uwajima with what would have to be the most charming main towers in the land of the rising sun.
JTM – Can you spill any secrets about the future of Japanese Castle Explorer?
JCE – More video! But, I don’t think there’ll be any major developments. I really can’t imagine any feature that will top the interactive map. Seriously, even when I look at it, it surprises the hell out of me! There will be some additions of castles & information when I’m able to travel next, but that’s about it.
Be social – connect with Japanese Castle Explorer:
Japan Travel Mate’s Castle Adventures
I’m a castle fan myself, here’s a couple I’ve visited: