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Kumamoto Castle

Near the end of the Hollywood blockbuster “The Last Samurai,” U.S. Civil War veteran Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) and samurai Katsumata (Ken Watanabe) charge on horseback against government forces positioned atop a country hillside — only to fall beneath the withering fire of Gatling guns. And so ends Japan’s samurai rebellion.

But fans of history know the scene should have gone like this:
The samurai attack not a hillside but an enormous castle. Inside is not an overpowering government force armed with the latest weaponry but rather a small garrison, both outnumbered and surrounded. The attack does not finish in a blaze of glory, but continues into a 50-day siege, which ends with the castle in flames. But the garrison refuses to surrender and government reinforcements arrive to beat the samurai back.

Thus is the true climax to the Seinan Rebellion of 1877, on which the “The Last Samurai” is based. While the samurai fled to their stronghold in what is now Kagoshima Prefecture — where they finally met their end — the scene of the rebellion’s climax exists in spectacular form even today: the tall and majestic black castle of Kumamoto.

The city of Kumamoto (population 670,000) lies in the center of Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu. The area is widely known for smoldering Mt. Aso, an active volcano just an hour’s drive from the city, and for the fresh spring water that trickles from Aso’s slopes. This pure water has fostered a thriving integrated circuit industry which has made Kumamoto Japan’s “Silicon Valley” of sorts. While the city itself is booming, popular sights such as Suizenji Park, designed to emulate the 53 stages of the old Tokkaido road between Kyoto and Tokyo, or the tomb of renowned sword master Musashi Miyamoto are reminders of Kumamoto’s rich cultural heritage.

But the largest reminder of all sits on a hilltop in the city center. The keep of Kumamoto Castle rises 30 meters above the ground and, bathed in spotlights at night, dominates the cityscape. Even now, the castle seems the watchful guardian of the city and its people.

Kumamoto Castle was built by samurai lord Kiyomasa Kato between 1601 and 1607. A native of the Nagoya area, not Kumamoto, Kato was known as a ferocious warrior under first Toyotomi Hideyoshi and later Ieyasu Tokugawa, Japan’s first shogun at the start of the reclusive Edo Period. For his fealty, Kato was rewarded with sizable property in Kumamoto, in those days called Higo, and from Kyushu he led Japanese forces on military expeditions into Korea. After being recalled from Korea, he began constructing Kumamoto Castle in the year after the famous battle of Sekigahara, which marks the unofficial end to Japan’s war-filled Sengoku period, during which the nation was slowly unified.

The castle Kato built is formidable. The grounds cover 98 hectares and have a circumference of nine kilometers. The outer castle walls feature 49 turrets and 29 gates. Inside stand more walls with 120 wells, dug to provide defenders with water.

The castle walls — both inside and out — were constructed of enormous stone blocks, which fit together like pieces of a puzzle for giants. One wall continues in a straight line for 250 meters, making it the largest such castle structure in Japan. In addition, all walls were designed to have the top stones curve outward. This structure prevented the walls from being scaled and — as samurai attackers in the Seinan Rebellion discovered — rendered the castle virtually impregnable.

In the center stands the castle’s main stronghold — the keep. Rare for Japanese castles, the Kumamoto Castle keep, as well as other castle buildings, is mostly black, with slate roof tiles and wood stained the color of charcoal. Its massive size and this distinct color have resulted in Kumamoto Castle being regarded as one of Japan’s three greatest castles, along with Osaka and Nagoya castles.

Today the keep serves as a popular museum of Kumamoto’s samurai days. Inside are exhibitions of armor and swords, as well as displays of uniforms and weaponry used during the Seinan Rebellion. Visitors can also climb up to the castle top for a panoramic view of both castle grounds and the city of Kumamoto. The grounds are dotted with cherry trees and when they blossom in the spring, the castle is overrun with crowds of picnickers.

In the Seinan Rebellion, samurai forces unhappy with their loss of status in the unfolding Meiji era government marched north from present-day Kagoshima under the leadership of Saigo Takamori. The force engaged the small garrison of government troops in the castle in what the samurai hoped would be a quick victory. Outnumbered and surrounded, the garrison persevered through 50 days of fighting, at the end of which the castle was torched. Still the garrison refused to surrender and government troops finally arrived to lift the siege and drive off the attackers. These troops hounded the samurai back to Kagoshima, where Saigo — revered as a hero in Japan for his wisdom and leadership and the inspiration behind the Katsumata character in the movie — committed suicide. The rebellion died with him.

After the long battle, Kumamoto Castle lay in ruins for almost a century. It was at last rebuilt by the city of Kumamoto in 1960 as a tourist attraction. More restoration is currently under way, with plans for the castle to be returned to its exact 1607 Kiyomasa Kato form in 2007, on what will be the castle’s 400th birthday.

For a trip to Kyushu, the imposing Kumamoto Castle is one sight not to be missed. The castle is a 15 minute street car ride from Kumamoto Station or a 40 minute bus ride from Kumamoto International Airport.

Of course, finding the castle is no problem. Grand and stately, it is impossible to overlook and would indeed seem a castle made for the movies. So why not a sequel, The Last Samurai, Part Two? Hollywood could rewrite history again.