Ichijodani Castle Town
Ichijodani: A Sengoku Period Castle Town
I've visited hundreds of castles, old towns, and historical sites throughout Japan, and I found Ichijodani to be one of the most impressive sites I've ever visited, despite its lack of original structures. In order to give this amazing historical site the recognition it deserves and to share some of my excitement, I have created a slightly more detailed profile than I normally would. The actual albums for these castles also contain sub-albums with many more photos. I've tried to link into some of those where it makes sense so please also click into the other albums that interest you.
The entire city of Ichijodani should rightfully be considered a National Treasure(1). Since it was first discovered over 50 years ago, excavations have uncovered the plans of this unique Sengoku Period castle town, along with countless relics (over a million to date; 2,000 of which have been designated National Important Cultural Properties). Nowhere else can we imagine a townscape of samurai and merchants, priests and craftsmen, creating a thriving metropolis in the depths of such a beautiful mountain valley.
Ichijodani is the Pompeii of Japan(2), lost to time in a great event, now revealing the secrets of an ancient city frozen in time. This is really important: "frozen in time". While we have some magnificent castle towns of the Edo period (Hagi, Matsushiro, Iwamura, Kanazawa, Sasayama), they would have continually evolved from any Sengoku roots, not to mention any recent modernizations and developments. Especially in the Edo period, after the separation of classes, you'll find merchants in the commercial areas and samurai in the samurai areas, but in no other castle town will you find such a mix of people living together as in Ichijodani.
It all began in 1471, when Asakura Takakage seized control of Echizen Province during the Onin War. The Ichijodani Valley was the ideal place to build what would become the largest castle town in the country at that time. It was an easily defended valley located near the crossroads of the Mino Highway to Owari (Nagoya) and the Hokuriku Highway (connecting Kanazawa to Kyoto). Asakura built a fortified residence in the middle of the valley with a mountain castle behind it. As the Onin War (1467-1477) ravaged the capital city of Kyoto, aristocrats, artisans, and others of high art and culture sought refuge in Ichijodani, and the power and influence of the Asakura continued to grow. They strengthened ties with the Azai of Odani and earned the trust of the Ashikaga shoguns. Ichijodani prospered as its population grew to rival Kyoto and Sakai.
Akechi Mitsuhide even sought refuge with the Asakura when he fled the conflicts in Mino Province. Little is known about Mitsuhide's 10 years in Ichijodani, but he lived about 3km away from the Kamikido along the Asakura Highway which was a shortcut to the Hokuriku Highway and the fastest route to Kyoto. He studied the medical knowledge of the Asakura and became close to the future shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki. Yoshiaki, after fleeing from Nara through Omi (see Wada Castle (Koka)), resided in Echizen under the Asakura's protection for three years including 9 months in Ichijodani in 1567. The relationship that began here may have been an important key to Akechi's eventual betrayal of Nobunaga, but that is a story for another time.
Ichijodani is not just a castle and a town, but an entire network of fortifications surrounding the Asakura's capital.
~Asakura Yakata 朝倉館~
The center of the city was the palace of the Asakura. This fortified manor itself is enough to rival some castles and was thought to be just smaller than the shogun's palace in Kyoto. Water moats and earth embankments run along three sides of the compound, while the fourth side is the mountain itself. A horikiri type moat behind the yakata serves to separate the palace from the mountain and provides an escape route either to Nanyoji and the northern exit of the castle or behind the other residences and out to Kamikido. Escape routes up the mountain also allowed for a quick flight to the mountaintop castle.
The Karamon Gate at the entrance to the grounds is not original, but dates from the Edo period when it was erected at Sho'un'in Temple by the Fukui daimyo to honor the memory of Asakura Yoshikage, the last of the Asakura lords. It was later moved to this site as the gate of the palace ruins (see main photo above).
On the ridge above the palace is the Yudono Garden, one of the 4 famous gardens of Ichijodani.
On the other side of the great tatebori moat, at about the same elevation as the Yudono Garden, is the Nakano-goten. This was the residence of Yoshikage's mother. It has embankments and a stone entrance on the south side. On the east side is another embankment and a karabori ditch.
Just beyond the stone-walled entrance and stone-lined walkway along the Nakano-goten is an area known as the Jadani. From the Eirinzuka (tomb of Asakura Takakage) to the valley floor is a series of terraces that housed the homes of high-ranking vassals and family members. From Eirinzuka, you can also follow a trail through the deep ditch along the back of Asakura Yakata to the Nanyoji Temple. Nanyoji was the kimon'yoke of Ichijodani, protecting it from evil spirits flowing down from the northeast.
Continuing south from these terraces across a small mountain stream is the Suwa Yakata, the palace of Yoshikage's wife. It's interesting that his mother's residence was much closer and surrounded by other family members than his wife's. Despite the distance, the Suwa Yakata had the largest and most beautiful of the four Asakura gardens.
These residences are all high enough to have panoramic views of the valley and the castle town. It must have been a fantastic sight to behold.
Four Asakura Gardens
Across the valley, the ruins of 18 Muromachi Period gardens have been found at the villas of the Asakura family and other samurai. These are important artifacts for learning about the gardens of the elite in the Muromachi Period, as many other gardens were likely altered over the years. These are mostly stone and pond gardens with large stones that emphasize the strength of the Muromachi Period warlord and samurai. They also strongly mimic the style of the Ashikaga's gardens in Kyoto, a bold statement to the many guests they entertained from Kyoto.
Around the Asakura Yakata, four gardens in particular have been restored and nationally registered as Special Scenic Spots of Japan (特別名勝). The photos I've seen online and in books look much nicer than what I was able to photograph that day. Perhaps it was too early in the spring to enjoy it, or the recent efforts to cut down more trees have killed some of the moss and plants around them. The Nanyoji Garden, in particular, looks a little less manicured than in the past, with a dried up pond and many weeds.
~City Gates 城戸~
The city of Ichijodani was sealed off at both ends of the valley by fortifications called Kamikido (Upper Gate) and Shimokido (Lower Gate). The areas of the castle metropolis were often referred to as "between the kido" or "outside the kido". When Akechi Mitsuhide and Ashikaga Yoshiaki lived in Ichijodani, they also lived "outside the kido" south of Ichijodani, since they were not vassals of the Asakura.
The Shimokido (Lower Gate) closes the northern end of the valley at its narrowest point, where it is only 80 meters wide. This is the main entrance to the city and close to the trade routes. The high embankment prevents you from seeing inside the castle city. The gate itself is an imposing doglegged stone entrance with some of the large stones weighing 40 tons.
The Kamikido (Upper Gate) is a huge earthen embankment 5 meters high and 100 meters long at the south end of the city. The hill on the east side of the Kamikido was also the site of a yagura that watched over the roads into this gate.
There were a number of yagura watchtowers around the city, but only the Tsukimi Yagura has been preserved or signposted in any manner.
~Castle Town 城下町~
5 generations of Asakura ruled for 103 years. At Ichijodani's height, it was just smaller than Kyoto or Sakai and was a center of art and culture. People came from far and wide to visit the fabled city. The ruins of the bustling castle town can be seen mostly on the opposite side of the river from the Asakura Yakata, where you'll find the outlines of samurai residences, temples, workshops, and more scattered throughout the valley.
There are many natural springs and water resources in the valley. Stone-lined waterways and drainage ditches crisscross the city. Possibly due to these moist, soft conditions, most of the town's walls, even for simple buildings, are built with a stone foundation and foundation stones for pillars, rather than the relatively more common and easier to construct hottatebashira (posthole) type buildings.
Restored Town 復元街並
The highlight for most tourists is the restored street of the castle town. It might be easy to dismiss it because of the theme park-like atmosphere, but the buildings are beautifully rebuilt on their original sites and show many features of a Sengoku Period castle town that was quite advanced for its time. The street recreates the original castle town atmosphere with pounded earth walls (tsuijibei) and gates around the samurai residences. On the river side of the street, you'll find middle class samurai houses and a merchant district that have been accurately reconstructed. On the mountain side of the street, you can see the outlines of the huge palaces of high ranking vassals of the Asakura clan and even a Noh stage. Some gates have also been rebuilt in different styles to model the typical gates of samurai houses at that time. I found it incredibly interesting that the merchants and middle class samurai residences were intermingled in the same area as these great palaces. Anyone who lived "between the Kido" was treated as a samurai and was a vassal of the Asakura. Even the pottery maker who lived "between the kido" kept armor and weapons ready in case they were needed.
These are just a few photos to highlight the main features of the town. Please see the full albums for many more.
Restored Middle Class Samurai Residence 中級武家屋敷
One fully restored samurai residence includes the gate, house, detached tea room, storehouse and outhouse. Click the link to follow through for more photos. In the first picture below note the drainage and the large stepping stone (shakudani ishi) and remember that stone for later in this article. Next to this restored samurai residence are the ruins of two similar ones.
Merchant Houses & Shops 町家群
Upper Class Samurai Residences 上級武家屋敷跡
Only a few gates and walls have been rebuilt here, but you can easily imagine the immense size of these homes and find the remains of walls between the residences, wells and more.
Town Ruins 城下町跡
Where the valley has been excavated, the stone foundations of buildings, walls, walkways, stone-lined drainage ditches, and countless wells have been preserved so that you can walk among the ruins. We can realistically see with our own eyes and imagine what the thriving city must have looked like, with full-size walkways and all the features in their original dimensions. It is a treasure chest for historians. One of the things you may notice are the many stone box shapes. Every home in Ichijodani had its own well. You may also notice some bluish tinted stone slabs in front of the gates and doorways of houses or even in the middle of the sidewalks. These are a special stone from this area called shakudani'ishi (笏谷石). The stones take on a deep green hue when wet. The stone was used for onigawara roof tiles, wells, and many other daily use items. Shakudani'ishi stoneware has been found as far away as Hokkaido and was one of the important sources of income that made the Asakura wealthy. See the second photo below and the first photo above of the restored samurai residence for such walkway stones.
Near the Shimokido end of the valley there is evidence of several artisans who made drink wares. This area is called the Fukubemachi. On the opposite end of the valley near the base of the Suwa Yakata is an area called Yonezu where kilns and implements for working metals have been found. It is confirmed they made sword fittings here. In both cases, it is interesting that these craftsmens' homes and shops are positioned among upper elite samurai residences giving further evidence of the egalitarian nature of Ichijodani.
A few other ruins of interest around the town include the Anyoji Temple outside the south side of the castle near the Kamikido. A palace for future shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki was erected here. Along the hillsides are also the ruins of other residences which may have been those of his staff or those of Anyoji Temple since they are technically "outside the Kido" of Ichijodani. Any direct vassals would have lived inside the town.
Near the Umadashi Trail to the Ichijodaniyama Castle are the ruins of two samurai houses in an area called Gondono. There is also an interesting series of terraces that lead up to the trailhead of the Umadashi Trail to the castle. It seems striking that there must be something castle related with these unusually flattened areas and some stone wall-looking remnants. In fact the foundation stones of storehouses and some samurai residences have been uncovered on these terraces as well. The area is called Uedono but is not signposted and barely marked except in the most detailed publications.
~Ichijodani Mountain Castles 一乗谷の山城~
For the last part of our tour, we'll visit the mountain castle(s). The main mountain castle is 410m above the valley floor, making it one of the larger elevation changes among mountain castles. There are three routes to the castle. One from near the Shimokido (longest but least steep), the Umadashi Trail (original main entrance), and one from Eirinzuka (shortest but steepest) just above the Asakura Yakata. For this trip, I chose the original main entrance to the castle.
The Umadashi Gate takes its name from a series of terraced areas called Uedono or Umadashi, where the foundations of warehouses and samurai homes have been found. Given the vital location, these must have been reliable vassals.
Komihanachi Castle & Kojo Castle 小見放城と小城
Partway up from these terraces, about 1/3 of the way up the mountain, are two satellite castles (dejiro) called Komihanachi Castle and Kojo Castle. Komihanachi Castle guards this important road to the main castle. Kojo Castle is just over a small valley and guards the road to the Asakura Yakata. I could not get to Kojo Castle this spring. It was much too overgrown and the ground was too muddy and slippery.
Ichijodaniyama Castle 一乗谷山城
Ichijodaniyama Castle is unique for such a high mountain castle because it had large areas with normal living quarters. Mountain castles of that time were usually just fortified lookouts or used in a siege, not comfortable long-term living quarters. Climbing up the Umadashi Road to the top of the mountain, the first main area you encounter is the Senjojiki, a 1,500-square-meter bailey (also known as the Honmaru Bailey) that housed a palace similar in size to the Asakura residence on the valley floor.
The Kannon Yashiki is another 400-square-meter bailey that may have housed a temple, but could also have been used as a central fortification or command post in the event of an attack. It has a commanding view of the valley below.
The Tonoi Bailey, just past the Kannon Yashiki, may have provided living quarters for troops or guards and also offers commanding views of the south end of the valley including the Kamikido.
Above this level is the top ridge of the mountain. The Ichinomaru, Ninomaru and Sannomaru Baileys extend along this ridge to the southeast. This section represents a typical ridgeline mountain castle, but one of the most fascinating features is that the northeast face of the mountain is lined with over 130 unejotatebori trenches! Obviously, the Asakura assumed any attack on this mountain redoubt would have come from outside the valley. Unfortunately the mountain side is steep and heavily wooded so most of these vertical trenches are difficult to see, but there are a couple places where some wading through the vegetation will get you into the trenches where you can experience climbing up and down these ridges. They may not look like much today, but imagine if these were much deeper, they would have been a formidable defense! Tatebori, especially many in parallel like this, prevent the easy back and forth movement of attackers and forces attackers into firing lanes.
~Ichijodani Rises From The Ashes 灰から生き返る一乗谷~
Asakura Yoshikage was appointed regent by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki, who asked for his help in defending the capital against Oda Nobunaga. Asakura also allied himself with the Azai to oppose the growing power of Oda Nobunaga. In 1573, after sending reinforcements to the Azai, Nobunaga redirected 30,000 troops to Echizen Province. They burned Ichijodani for 3 days and nights, leaving nothing standing. Asakura Yoshikage fled Ichijodani and commited seppuku at a temple in nearby Ohno. Nobunaga's general Shibata Katsuie was given the Asakura lands, but he chose Kitanosho Castle as his base because of its proximity to the ocean. The ruined city of Ichijodani was abandoned and lost to time. Winter snows soon covered the valley and the abundance of natural springs deposited rich silt that covered the remains of this once prosperous city. Eventually, it became rich agricultural land and rice fields flourished where craftsmen and samurai once thrived.
In the early 1930s, as manpower gave way to machines, the blades of agricultural machinery were being damaged by the many stones in the valley. People dug into their rice fields and uncovered the outlines of ancient settlements, and the legends of Ichijodani began to resurface.
Early excavations in 1967 revealed much more of the once-great city than anyone had expected. The outlines of buildings, residences, gates, gardens, and temples came to life. Thousands upon thousands of artifacts were unearthed, revealing a prosperous and cultured metropolis. Everyday utensils and pots, craftsmen's tools and implements, aristocrats' fine combs and mirrors, and countless inkstones, metal ornaments, armaments, and even the pieces of at least 6 shogi sets allow us to glimpse the lifestyle of all classes of Ichijodnai's inhabitants. Artifacts from as far away as Thailand, Malaysia, and China paint a picture of a wealthy, sophisticated city that surpassed the legends of old. It is a Sengoku treasure trove unlike any other in Japan.
The discoveries continue today. In 2022, the new Asakura Historical Museum was opened on a site 1.5 km south of the castle, near the river and train station. During the excavation of the museum site, an ancient stone road from the castle town to the river and the nearby temple was uncovered. The road was probably raised and fortified against erosion, as the area is prone to flooding. This road supported active trade and transportation throughout the year, so part of it has been preserved in the Asakura Museum. Who knows what other discoveries are hidden around the greater metropolis of Ichijodani?
I used to think that if I could go back in time, I would choose to live in Takatori Castle, but now I think I would choose Ichijodani. All of these photos represent a 2-day trip to Ichijodani, and I still did not have enough time to see everything I had planned. In fact, the trip was cut short by rain on the first day. It started raining on the way back from the mountain castle (photos of Uedono and Gondono are in the rain), and I was quite wet by the time I cycled back to the station.
I will definitely re-visit Ichijodani this fall. If you get an early start, it is a very doable day trip from Kyoto and, believe it or not, I still have a few sites of ruins left to see. I also want to cross the western ridge to see what is really up there, visit the ruins of Akechi Mitushide's residence, and a couple other locations. OK, maybe I need two more days...
In total I took over 1700 photos and spent over a month of my "free time" sorting photos, reading about Ichijodani, and putting this article and associated albums together. I feel like I could do even more with it, but will put it aside for now. Maybe after a future visit I will add more to this.
So, What is Ichijodani Castle?
This is a somewhat difficult question. It is generally used to refer to the entire valley and all assorted fortifications, but once you start digging into it, these are several distinct castles that could be highlighted. I've seen books/articles that show the gate to the Asakura Palace but talk about the mountain castle and I've seen materials that only talk about Asakura Yakata and restored town. I also have one that digs into the valley in deep details and splits it up into 9 城館 (castles & fortifications). I think at the most basic, you could call it one castle at the valley floor and one mountain redoubt, but that really does not do it justice either. I split this into what I consider fortifications that could stand alone.
Ichijodaniyama Castle - The mountain castle, also known as Ichijo-jo (一乗城). It's so high that while being a great mountaintop fortress it is not an effective fortification for the town/valley below. Komihanachi Castle and Kojo Castle are satellite castles that defend two routes into the mountain castle, but are not effective for fortifying the town nor the mountain castle.
Asakura Yakata - This was what I really debated most. Is it part of the town or a standalone castle site? Originally I put it in the town thinking of a castle and sogamae, similar to Odawara Castle, but the two are distinct fortifications in their own right. The Asakura Yakata and the mountaintop castle are a much enlarged version of the typical valley/flatland Fortified Manor or castle and a mountaintop redoubt that we often see in the Sengoku Period. I draw the line at separating out the Suwa Yakata and Nakano Goten. They would not be effective standalone fortifications. They are not part of Asakura Yakata either but I put them here as sub-albums for convenience.
Ichijodani Castle - This is what I call the fortified town (城塞都市). It is another set of fortifications that grew up around the town including the Shimokido, Kamikido and any assorted fortifications and watchtowers intended to protect the city in a coordinated manner. There were a number of yagura watchtowers on hills around the town, some with a horikiri or a little embankment around them, but these are not capable of standing alone as one castle so they make up part of the town defenses.
- 朝倉氏の城郭と合戦 (図説日本の城郭シリーズ15)
- 一乗谷ハンドブック (official free brochure)
- 福井県立 一乗谷 朝倉氏遺跡 博物館 Guide Book
- シンポジウム・中部大名の城と城下町②新視点 朝倉氏の山城 資料集
(1) Special Historical Site (特別史跡) is basically the same as National Treasure for historical sites, but National Treasure sounds much nicer. Special Historical Site is a step above National Historical Site, just as National Treasure is a small subset of and a step above Important Cultural Properties.
(2) When I first wrote this, I really thought I had coined a new term "Pompeii of Japan". Unfortunately, I've since seen it referred to the same elsewhere now too. Oh well, at least it justifies my original impression.
© This article is copyright by Jcastle.info. Please do not reproduce without permission. If you use any quotes, ideas or context from here please provide credit and a link.