Translated by Hilary Keyes
Japanese Encyclopedia: Jōkamachi (Castle Town)
Written by MATCHA
Jōkamachi have at their heart a castle which has defined the history of the region, such as Himeji and Nagoya. Let's take a closer look at these historical cities.
Jōkamachi is the term used to describe the towns that sprung up around castles throughout Japan. From the Sengoku era to the Edo era, each region had their own daimyō (ruling feudal lord) who had their own castle that these towns developed around.
What Traits Set Jōkamachi Aside?
Jōkamachi towns played a large role in the defense of the castle and as such throughout them various defense schemes can still be found. For example, moats, earthen embankments, stone walls, houses built so snugly against one another that there are no gaps between them, blind alleys and dead ends, all have been built so as to confuse enemies and defend the castle from attacks.
Another line of defense were the buke-machi, the areas with warrior residences that were closest to the castle. The next ring out from that is that of the houses of traders and merchants, followed by the temples in the teramachi and so on. Each ring outward used to represent the social status and occupation of the people that lived in it. The town of Gofukumachi (呉服町) in Fukuoka prefecture is a remnant of these times as it was a prosperous dry-goods and fabric district. "Fuku" means clothing.
Thanks to the high number of these jōkamachi, their division and townscape, the majority of the buildings that remain today were once warrior's residences that look remarkably similar to what they did in the Edo era, leading many of these cities to be called Little Kyotos. With such a sense of history, old festivals and such longstanding customs that must be protected and passed down to future generations, living in the "daimyō's home territory" is viewed as a source of pride. The area itself has a dignified atmosphere.
Scenery Marked by the Traces of Former Ages
Image from Run Through The End Of The Edo Era In Retro Fushimi & Ryōma Shopping Streets (Japanese)
If you want to experience the atmosphere of old Japan, there is no better place than the ancient capital, Kyoto. On the land surrounding Fushimi Castle and Nijō Castle you can find many popular attractions where you can truly enjoy the air of the past.
Hyogo prefecture's Himeji city is home to Shirasagijō, or Himeji Castle, and is perhaps the most famous of the remaining jōkamachi. Along the 400 years since it was constructed, this precious castle has been continually repaired and lovingly preserved so that it stands proudly over the city even now.
In Kanazawa city, Ishikawa prefecture, traces of the affluence and glory of this castle town may still be seen in their magnificent gardens, of which Kenrokuen ranks as one of the top three most beautiful gardens in all of Japan. It escaped the fire-bombings of World War Two and still retains to this day the appearance it had when it was a samurai's residence.
Other well-known jōkamachi are Osaka, Nagoya and Sendai. Essentially all of the modern metropolises were castle towns once upon a time. Little Kyotos may be found in Kamo city (Niigata), Obama (Fukui), Tatsuno (Hyogo), Onomichi (Hiroshima) and so on.
That being said, the charms of jōkamachi towns are not only found in their castles nor are they solely in the former warriors' residences. Traditional crafts, sake breweries and other food cultures as well as other longstanding customs are protected in these areas, making castle towns the best place to gain a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and its continuous inheritance. Moreover, there are schools, museums and archives in these areas where you are given the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in their history.
These castle towns have a somewhat different feel to them than other cities in Japan. If you would like to experience the slow passage of time as you enjoy sightseeing and delicious local foods, you should head to any of the many castle towns that have been mentioned here.