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Castle Hitoyoshi Castle

This article is in the series Walking the Japanese Castles
Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城) is located in Hitoyoshi City, Kumamoto Prefecture, on the banks of the Kuma River (球磨川). It was constructed in the late 12th century by Sagara Nagayori (相良長頼, 1177-1254), a vassal of Minamoto Yoritomo. It is a National Historic Site and listed among Japan's Top 100 castles.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Stone walls built along the Kuma River, castle paths covered in grass and moss, and towering cedar trees bristling in the wind: Hitoyoshi Castle has all the beauty that perfectly harmonises with nature.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)


The history of this castle is linked to that of the Sagara clan which governed the territory for 35 generations. At the beginning of the Kamakura era, Minamoto Yoritomo transferred Sagara Nagayori of Tōtōmi Province (nowadays Sagara in Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture) to Hitoyoshi where he served as a land steward (地頭 jitō) and ordered him to establish a fortification.


Sagara family crest
Around 1470, Sagara Tametsugu (相良為続, 1447-1500), the 12th head of the clan, expanded and reinforced the castle. His son, Sagara Nagatsune (相良長毎, 1469-1518), invited stonemasons from Bungo Province (part of present-day Ōita Prefecture) and had them construct magnificent stone walls.

Under Yoshishige (相良義滋, 1489-1546) the Sagara expanded into Ashikita (芦北) and ruled over the three territories of Kuma (球磨), Yatsushiro (八代) und Ashikita. However, in 1581 Yoshiharu (相良義陽, 1544-1581) was defeated by the Shimazu in the Battle of Minamata and had to surrender all Sagara territories except Kuma. In 1587, Yorifusa (相良頼房; 1574-1636), Yoshiharu's son, surrendered to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had conquered all of Kyūshū and became his vassal. Hideyoshi confirmed the clan's right to rule Kuma.

In the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), the Sagara first sided with Hideyoshi, but then joined the Tokugawa forces and thereby secured their rule over the new Hitoyoshi Domain until the Meiji Restoration. The main enclosure (本丸 honmaru) and the second enclosure (二の丸 ninomaru) of Hitoyoshi Castle, the moat, and the main gate were completed in 1601. The castle was demolished in 1872 and only the stone walls were left intact.

The castle is located at the confluence of the Kuma and the Mune rivers (胸川). While the honmaru was built on a hill (on the eastern side of Mizunote Bridge, see the photo below), the western enclosures and the samurai mansions were situated on a flat section west of the hill.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Based on a map of the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan. The location of enclosures is estimated.

Visiting the castle

I parked my car on the parking lot next to the City Hall and explored the areas west of the hill on foot.

① The site of Ōtemon (大手門), the main gate

Otemon was constructed along the Mune River.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

A small embankment next to Ōtemon.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

There were impressive stonewalls constructed along the Mune River.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

② The restored Tamon Turret (多聞櫓 Tamon yagura) next to Ōtemon.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

③ The Corner Turret (隅櫓 Sumi yagura) at the confluence of the Kuma and the Mune rivers.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Hitoyoshi Castle History Museum (人吉城歴史館 Hitoyoshi jōrekishikan)

The museum has exhibits of Hitoyoshi Castle and the Sagara clan. Its highlight is the basement constructed by Sagara Seibei Yorimori which was discovered during archaeological excavations in 1997. The purpose of the basement which holds a well is unclear although it is assumed that it did not serve as a warehouse. Such castle basements are very rare and unique. Visitors can see the well on request.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

⑤ The site of the Odaidokoro (大台所跡)

Around the Hitoyoshi Castle History Museum, there were several castle facilities such as the Odaikoro (kitchen), stables, warehouses, as well as samurai residences. It is now an open square.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

⑥ The ruins of the former palace (御館跡)

At the foot of the castle hill were administrative buildings and a palace. It now houses Sagara Shrine (相良神社 Sagara-jinja)

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Mushagaeshi Wall (武者返し石垣 Mushagaeshi ishigaki)

After a conflagration in 1862, Western-style fire-proof stonewalls were built around the palace. "Mushagaeshi" means literally "warriors returning". In Japan, this type of stonewalls only exists in 19th-century structures such as the Shinagawa Daiba battery, Hakodate Goryokaku and Tatsuoka Castle which were constructed at the end of Edo Period.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Mizunote Gate (水ノ手門 Mizunotemon)

Several piers were constructed around the castle, proving that the Kuma River played a vital role in transporting goods and staples such as rice. The largest pier was the one in front of Mizunote Gate.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Oshita Gate (御下門 Oshitamon)

It was also called the "Lower Gate" and the only entrance to the main enclosure.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Sannomaru (三の丸), the third enclosure.

Sannomaru held the storehouses where salt was stored during sieges.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

The stairs leading up from the third to the second enclosure.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Ninomaru (二の丸), the second enclosure.

With its imposing cedar trees, it looks more like a shrine rather than a castle. This was the location of the daimyō's mansion.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

⑫ The Honmaru (本丸), the main enclosure.

The main enclosure is quite small. Usually, this was the location where a donjon would be constructed, a symbol of the daimyō's power. The noble Sagara clan, however, with a history dating back to the Minamoto built a Gomadō (護摩堂), a Shingon prayer hall, instead. It contributes to the slightly mysterious atmosphere prevailing in the whole castle.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Gomon Bridge (御門橋 Gomonbashi)

This is a multi-legged stone bridge built in 1766.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

In the Middle Ages, Hitoyoshi Castle was built on the hill southeast of the current castle site and comprised smaller castles such as Nakahara Castle (中原城) and Uehara Castle (上原城).

A moat at the northern side of the main enclosure

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Nakahara Castle (中原城 Nakahara-jō)

Nowadays a waterworks facility, it is no longer open to the public. Uehara Castle (上原城 Uehara-jō), on the other hand, is covered by dense vegetation and I was not able to confirm the existence of any remains or structures.

Hitoyoshi Castle (人吉城)

Date of visit: 18 October 2013


  • Address: Fumoto, Hitoyoshi-shi, Kumamoto
  • Transportation: 20-minute walk from JR Hisatsu line Hitoyoshi station
    2km from Kyushu Expressway Hitoyoshi Interchange via Prefectural Route 54
  • Parking: Next to Hitoyoshi City Hall, or Hitoyoshi Castle Historical Museum (free: Spot 'P' pointed on the above map)
  • Other sights: Hitoyoshi Sightseeing Spots (Japanese: Hitoyoshi Hot Spring Sightseeing Association)
Next article in the series 'Walking the Japanese Castles': Ichiuji Castle
Previous article in the series 'Walking the Japanese Castles': Kakuto Castle
About author
Hiroto Uehara
Hiroto is an ordinary Japanese office worker, but his true mission is searching for castles on the weekend.


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