Tamozawa Imperial Villa (Nikko): Comprised of a 1632 villa and an 1899 expansion, this 106-room villa was the home of a prince who later became emperor. You can learn about traditional Japanese architectural details and lifestyles of the aristocracy on self-guided tours, and unlike Japan's other imperial villas, it does not require a reservation.
Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto): Popularly known as the Crow Castle due to its black color, this small castle boasts the oldest donjon (keep) in Japan (more than 400 years old). A moon-viewing room was added in 1635, and exhibited inside the castle is a superb collection of Japanese matchlocks and samurai armor dating from the mid-16th century through the Edo Period. Volunteer guides stand ready for personal tours.
Nijo Castle (Kyoto): One of the few castles built by the mighty Tokugawa shogunate as a residence rather than for defense, Nijo Castle is where the shogun stayed whenever he was in Kyoto. It's famous for its nightingale (creaking) floorboards that warned of enemy intruders. The castle is considered the quintessence of Momoyama architecture.
Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto): Home to Japan's imperial family from the 14th to the 19th centuries, this palace is praised for its Heian design and graceful garden. Good news for travelers: Guided tours of the palace are free.
Katsura Imperial Villa (Kyoto): Built in the 1600s by a brother of the emperor, this villa and garden are considered to be among the best -- if not the best -- in traditional architecture and landscape gardening. More than anyplace else, the villa illustrates the life of refinement enjoyed by 17th-century nobility, when leisurely pursuits included such activities as moon viewing.
Himeji Castle (Himeji): Said to resemble a white heron poised in flight over the plains, this is quite simply Japan's most beautiful castle. With its extensive gates, moats, turrets, and maze of passageways, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has survived virtually intact since feudal times. If you see only one castle in Japan, make this the one.
Matsue Castle (Matsue): This 17th-century castle features a five-story donjon with samurai gear and artifacts belonging to the ruling Matsudaira clan, with many Edo-Era attractions just outside its moat.
Matsuyama Castle (Matsuyama): Occupying a hill above the city, this 400-year-old fortress boasts good views over Matsuyama from its three-story donjon as well as a collection of armor and swords of the Matsudaira clan.
Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto): Although a ferroconcrete reconstruction not nearly as huge as the original, this massive castle is still an impressive sight, especially at night when it's illuminated. It's famous for its curved walls, which made invasion virtually impossible. The interior houses a museum with palanquins, armor, swords, and other artifacts of the former ruling clans.
Shuri Castle (Okinawa Island): One of nine historic structures in Okinawa that collectively make up a World Heritage Site, this castle with Chinese and Japanese influences was the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which thrived for about 500 years.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.