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This undated photograph is one of the few surviving images of Morioka Castle. Photo: Seiyoin Temple collection

Japanese city aims to restore 16th-century castle – but no one knows what it looked like

  • Morioka, in northern Japan, was the seat of the Nanbu clan of samurai warriors hundreds of years ago, before a castle was built there in the 1500s
  • Officials hope to restore some of the building, long since destroyed by fire or knocked down, but unclear about its appearance, have asked the public for help

A local government in northern Japan is appealing for blueprints, photographs and floor plans of a 16th-century castle that once dominated the strategically important city of Morioka, as it hopes to restore the tower and a series of walls to their previous glory.

The city authorities have set up a project office to oversee the ambitious plan, with officials scouring local historical organisations, museums, shrines and temples for any documents that might shed light on the exact dimensions of the castle.

It was built over a period of around 36 years from 1597 but subsequently badly damaged by fire the following year, and eventually knocked down in 1874.

The research has already uncovered around 50 documents that can provide references for the original building, said Yoshihiro Kikuchi, a senior member of the project team.

However, as only around 10 were of real help, the city announced a reward for anyone who might be able to provide information that provides a fuller picture of how the castle looked in its heyday.

“Most of the buildings of Morioka Castle were demolished in 1874 and no one has direct knowledge of those days,” Kikuchi said. “Even if materials were created at the time, they may not have survived to the present day. They may have been lost during relocations or when buildings were renovated, they may also have been lost in disasters, such as floods and fires in the city.”

Kikuchi said he ideally hopes to find old photographs or blueprints that show the castle’s design and detail the exact size and location of all buildings within its walls.

In September the city offered 10 million yen (around US$70,000) for documentation that would make a decisive contribution to the rebuilding project. There was an immediate response from across the region and beyond, Kikuchi said.

History buffs re-enact the days of the samurai outside Japan’s Nagoya Castle. File photo: Simon Rowe

Regrettably, he said, none of the new data that has so far emerged has proved to be the critical key to solving the precise dimensions of the castle. Yet he is far from downhearted and insists the team will keep looking.

Modern-day Morioka was traditionally the seat of the Nanbu clan, samurai warriors who ruled over a large swathe of the Tohoku region of northern Japan for hundreds of years. The castle dominated the valley of the Kitakami River, which starts in the surrounding mountains and flows south towards Edo, now known as Tokyo.

The castle and surrounding community also controlled the strategic Oshu Kaido highway to the far north of the country as well as a route that crossed the mountains to the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Sea of Japan to the west.

The region saw extensive fighting between rival clans as far back as the early Heian period (794-1185AD) until the Nanbu clan emerged victorious.

People visit Nagoya Castle in central Japan in 2020. Experts believe Morioka Castle could have similarities to this one. Photo: Kyodo/File

Historians suggest the castle’s design drew heavily on Nagoya Castle, which is hundreds of miles away, although disaster struck Morioka a year after its main structures were completed, with fire tearing through the wooden “tenshu” main keep.

It was never rebuilt, and the Nanbu clan used a three-storey tower and a network of other buildings within the castle walls until everything was dismantled in 1874, during the early Meiji era.

The site was opened to the public as a park in 1906 and, in 1934, the clan donated it to the city. Three years later, the ruins were designated as a national historical site.

The castle was on a hill about 300 metres long and 100 metres wide, with rivers protecting two sides.

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The ramparts were of white granite and many still remain in place, with initial work focused on strengthening these foundations. The main courtyard is square and measures approximately 60 metres on each side.

Today, the site is still a park, with the stone foundations a tantalising hint as to what the castle one looked like – and what it might look like again in the future.

A survey of local people in 2011 determined that most wanted the castle to be rebuilt as a symbol of the city. The aim, the city says, is to enhance the pride of local people in an eye-catching structure of historical importance and attract visitors to the region.

The kind of environment Japan’s samurai warriors would have roamed, centuries ago, which locals and visitors alike still enjoy today. Photo: Robin Takashi Lewis/File

“Restoring the buildings and other structures that once existed at Morioka Castle will enhance the symbolic importance … and create the look and atmosphere of a castle town,” Kikuchi said. The restoration methods used will be an effective way to increase historical understanding, interest and the value of the ruins, he added, “to pass them on to the next generation”.

The city has not yet drawn up a firm timetable for the rebuilding, with discussions also needed with the national government. Similarly, the full cost of the work has yet to be ascertained, although Morioka hopes to obtain funding nationally and is also considering seeking donations and applying for subsidies.

If the castle is reconstructed, “it would create a historical landscape with a three-dimensional and spatial atmosphere of the past”, Kikuchi said.

The hope, he added, is that it becomes a place of learning for visitors and local people alike.