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Built for his ninth son by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, Nagoya Castle was completed in 1612 and served as both a strategic stronghold on the Tokaido Highway and a residence for members of the Owari branch of the Tokugawa family for almost 250 years, until the Meiji Restoration ended their rule in 1868. A shrewd and calculating shogun, Tokugawa forced feudal lords throughout Japan to contribute to the castle's construction, thereby depleting their resources and making it harder for them to rebel. Although Nagoya Castle was largely destroyed in World War II (only three turrets and three gates escaped destruction), the main donjon and other structures, rebuilt in 1959, are almost carbon copies of the original. Like most reconstructed castles in Japan, this replica is made of ferroconcrete, yet it's still impressive from afar. Inside, the 20m-high (66-ft.) donjon is thoroughly modern and even has an elevator up to the fifth floor, where you have fine views of Nagoya and beyond. The castle houses treasures that escaped the bombing during World War II, including beautiful paintings on sliding doors and screens that once adorned the castle's Honmaru Palace (destroyed during World War II but presently being rebuilt the traditional way without the use of nails, a painstaking process that will take 10 years). Also on display are flintlocks, swords, helmets, and exhibits relating to the castle's construction and what life was like during the Edo Period.

Atop the donjon roof are two golden dolphins, replicas of those that perished during World War II and long thought to protect the castle from dreaded fires. The dolphins each weigh about 1,190 kilograms (2,650 lb.) and are made of cast bronze covered with 18-karat-gold scales. Incidentally, the dolphin on the south end -- the favored, warmer side -- is considered female, while the one relegated to the colder northern side is male. Through the centuries, the dolphins' gold scales have been stolen three times.

East of the castle is Ninomaru Garden, laid out at the time of the castle's construction, converted to a dry Japanese landscape garden in 1716 and today one of the few remaining castle gardens in Japan. Besides providing a beautiful setting, it served as an emergency shelter for the lord in case of enemy attack. Stop by the Ninomaru Tea House -- it's said that if you drink tea here when it's made with a golden kettle (available only on Fri), 5 years will be added to your life. That should allow you ample time to linger, but otherwise you can tour the castle and grounds in less than 1 1/2 hours.