You may have noticed a lack of castles on our trip: no Imperial Palace in Tokyo, no Nijo Castle in Kyoto, no Osaka-jo Castle in Osaka. It’s not that I have anything against castles per se, but rather that I can’t quite drum up the interest to visit such a crowded place if all I’ll get in return is a concrete-and-rebar replica or a flat-out ruin. True, not all of them are replicas or ruins, but a lot of them are crowded. With so much history lying about in Japan, why would I want to spend time on a reconstruction? Well, maybe one reason: a reconstructed castle with a lovely garden park can make a good place to have lunch. Enter the Ikeda Castle Ruin.
We after our jaunt at the Instant Ramen Museum, we were supposed to go see momiji, the crimson leaves of maples settling in for a long winter’s nap. Unfortunately, planning a trip around a capricious natural phenomenon is inherently difficult, and it only gets worse when that trip crosses eight time zones. Far from travelling with the momiji down the length of Japan as I’d planned, we seemed to pull it along three or four days behind us. It wasn’t just me: a temple just outside Ikeda City had planned a momiji festival for the same day we were in town, but hardly a red leaf was to be seen in town or on the mountains. Dammit, climate change!
But it seemed that maybe we weren’t totally doomed; a gaggle of charming old men helping tourists at the train station suggested we try the castle ruins, as it was close and supposedly had good momiji even now, before the rest of the city. We set off to find it, buying rice balls and other snacks at 7-11 for a picnic lunch.
Now let’s fast forward a bit, past the part where we got insanely lost in not-the-fun-kind-of-way. (I promise you’ll have good directions to the castle below.)
The sleepy town seemed to get sleepier as we approached the big gate to the castle ruins park. It felt like not a tree branch or cloud moved, everything too content with the fun day it had been already. We stepped through the gate in the high stone walls and found a well-manicured park with winding gravel paths, a large koi pond, and just enough momiji to shake a stick at. Toward the southwestern corner sat the castle “ruin,” a reconstruction of the castle keep that sat here from at least 1334 to 1580. Although there are no records of what the castle originally looked like, it’s been reconstructed based on a combination of archaeological evidence and known castle design from the Sengoku Period.
We settled on a bench and tucked into our lunch, starving after an hour’s walk just trying to find the place, then threw away our trash and stepped forward to explore the castle. There were no guides and few signposts to hinder the imagination. We walked the veranda and gazed at the koi, then climbed the narrow stairs to the spacious second floor. The fine-grained wood was smooth and cool, invisible joints holding all together. Little narrow spaces appeared everywhere, begging you to explore and hide. A large bronze bell hung from the rafters. Probably once used to rally the keep for fire or attack, it was now silent.
The view from the top was exquisite: rooftops in blues and blacks stretching away into the distance, the mountains rising on the horizon like the resting form of a god. Although the day had grown dim with a sheet of clouds, the sun pierced through in honey-colored spurts as they drifted slowly, slowly to the east.
Below, other visitors had gathered to feed the koi and enjoy the cool air. I watched their tiny forms from the castle watchtower, bending and rising, the koi ascending and diving in response. As I walked down for a closer look, the koi made the water boil in their anticipation of even more food. A grandfather leaned on the railing as his grandson crouched nearby, tossing little pellets of fish food into the water. We struck up that old conversation–“Where are you from? How long are you here? Having a good time?”–as the boy eyeballed me askance. I said hello, and was met with further reticence. The grandfather told him to respond, and he did, though clearly still suspicious. The grandfather laughed, but I’m sure the boy got a bit of a talking to later about being polite.
Two hours flew by as we explored the garden and the castle, the cool of day deepening into the cold of evening. It was time to go back to Osaka for dinner, and on to Hiroshima tomorrow. We found a long stairway down to the street and bid the castle goodbye.
Address: 3-46 Shiroyamacho, Ikeda City, Osaka Prefecture, Japan 563-0052
Get There: From Ikeda Station (Hankyu Takarazuka line), walk north on Route 9 (the large road on the east side of the station that runs perpendicular to the tracks). Follow Route 9 for about half a mile through four stop lights, including the stop light directly in front of the station. Take the slight right at that fourth stop light. This will take you down a winding single-lane road. The park is about a quarter mile up the road on your right.
- Get your GPS on. Ikeda is a cute little labyrinth. We literally wandered an hour trying to find this place, despite directions from three or four people. We only got there in the end because the last person walked us to the front gate. I did my best with the directions, but set up a map just in case!
- Be aware that the park is closed Tuesdays and during the New Year’s holidays. Hours are 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. November through March and 9:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. April through October.
Based on my diary entries from November 17, 2013.