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Groovy Osaka: The Forgotten Strongholds

When you are walk around Osaka Castle, you’re not just walking around Osaka Castle. There are layers of history under your feet.

By 5 min read

According to Osaka tourism statistics, well over one million people visit Osaka Castle each year. It’s a great example of traditional Japanese castle architecture, and it’s in the heart of one of the busiest cities in Japan. This makes it an easy stop for business people who want to see historic places but don’t have much time away from their business obligations.

While this is the site of many famous battles and historic events, very few people realize that Osaka Castle was not the first castle at this particular site. That’s not including the fact that Osaka Castle itself was rebuilt on several occasions. There are two other important historic fortifications at the site of Osaka Castle.

Naniwa Palace

As you walk past the Osaka Museum of History, which is a block away from Osaka Castle, you can see Naniwanomiyaato Park. It’s a relatively plain park with large open spaces, great for playing catch or other games with friends. However, if you wound the clock back to 645 AD, you wouldn’t be playing games there unless you were Japanese royalty.

It was the time of the Early Middle Ages in Europe. On the other side of the world from the Byzantine Empire, the Empire of Japan was facing a major change. Empress Kogyoku’s son had caused a stir and she didn’t want the political fall out. In an effort to save face, she abdicated the throne and let her brother, Kotoku, take control.

Kotoku moved the capital from Yamato, present day Nara, to a new place he called Naniwa. This new capital was most of present day Osaka, though the name is now associated with the city ward of the same name. This is where things start to get a little confusing. The park where Naniwa Palace once stood is not actually located in Naniwa ward, and the two Naniwas actually have different kanji. The historic Naniwa shares the same kanji as Namba (難波), a major city center in modern day Osaka. A different set of kanji is used for the Naniwa ward (浪速区).

Kotoku built a large palace complex at Naniwa, very little of which survived over the centuries. Naniwanomiyaato Park commemorates the finding of a roof tile and other traces of the palace through the use of historic texts and meticulous excavations. The park has an elevated structure where the palace may have stood, but for authentic artifacts, one would need to visit the Osaka Museum of History. While no remains of nearby settlements have been found, it is possible that newer buildings and fortifications erased the existence of older ones.

Emperor Kotoku’s reign ended with his death 9 years later. His sister, the former Empress Kogyoku, took on a new name, took back the throne, and moved the capital back to Yamato. In the last part of her reign, Kogyoku, now known as Saimei, moved back to Naniwa. As history would later prove, the palace site attracted leaders seeking solitude in their later years. After her reign, the capital was again moved. About a century later, Emperor Shomu rebuilt Naniwa Palace. However, after that, Naniwa Palace faded into obscurity.

Ishiyama Hongan-ji: The Fortress of the Revolutionary Ikko-ikki

By the time Christopher Columbus had sailed the ocean blue in 1492, there was an established group of monks, priests, farmers, peasants, and others who were simply tired of the samurai aristocracy. This group, called Ikko-ikki, had already overthrown the aristocracy in Kaga Province, which was a first in Japanese history.

Most of the members of Ikko-ikki were followers of Rennyo, the head priest of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. While Rennyo preached pacifism, he did nothing to stop the Ikko-ikki. In fact, he often took advantage of their protection. In 1496, the elderly Rennyo moved to Naniwa. Atop the remains of the ancient capital, which were on a “large slope,” or “Ozaka” (大坂), he built a small temple and sought to retire in relative isolation, not unlike the ancient royals who built their palace there. However, he was not granted the solitude he sought. His followers came in droves and built up a large city around his small temple.

After Rennyo’s death, the temple, called Ishiyama Hongan-ji, became the center for Jodo Shinshu. Ishiyama Hongan-ji evolved into a massive fortified stronghold, considered impenetrable at the time. About 100 men were always on patrol, with hundreds more on standby. For 80 years, Ishiyama Hongan-ji kept the samurai at bay with their strategic location and ties with clans.

In 1576, Oda Nobunaga started what would become the longest siege in Japanese history. After 11 years, the Ikko-ikki surrendered and the entire fortress was burned to the ground. There is speculation that this may have been done by the Ikko-ikki themselves to prevent Oda from benefiting from the defeat. The defeat marked the downfall of the Ikko-ikki, but their resistance and persistence during the siege proved the value of such a strategic location.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was so inspired, he began building his own castle on top of the ruins only three years after the siege. This castle is what became known as Osaka Castle.

So when you are walk around Osaka Castle, you’re not just walking around Osaka Castle. There are layers of history under your feet. You are walking in the footsteps of ancient royals, revolutionary monks, and all those who time has otherwise forgotten. It’s now up to us to remember them.

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