My Paradise: Hunting Japanese castles . . . in Korea

by Marvin Haynes
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In a mountainous land where static fortifications have for centuries protected narrow defiles, arduous communication routes and strategic heights, castles have long been a notable feature of Korean national and local defense systems.  Korean castles and their remains can be found scattered around the nation in various states of disrepair and restoration.  Few visitors to the land of the morning calm realize, however, that there are yet another, very different set of remains dotting the countryside.

In 1593, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, military ruler of a united Japanese Empire, invaded the Korean Kingdom, at that time ruled by the Yi Dynasty.  Ostensibly as a means to a larger invasion of China, the small Korean peninsula was seen as little more than a stepping stone to greater honor—and an easy victory for the samurai.  While Japanese armies defeated their Korean opponents in battle after battle leading to the Japanese occupation of nearly the entire country, the small Korean navy dominated their foes, cutting sea lines of supply and communication.  The simultaneous rise of aggressive and vengeful guerrilla groups in rear areas exacerbated the logistical situation, bringing the samurai advance to a screeching halt.  The combination of these threats led directly to the decision to fortify Japanese lines of communication through the construction of castles.  Most of these strongholds were designed to defend the key ports along the Southern Coast from the Korean Navy.  As well, others protected primary supply routes connecting Busan with Seoul from the sudden attacks of Korean guerrillas.

By the time Hideyoshi passed away and the last Japanese forces withdrew from the peninsula in 1598, the Japanese had constructed some 18 castles in Korea, primarily in the Southeastern or Gyeongsang Province.  While all of these structures were eventually destroyed—the stone reclaimed for building material—the remains of these once mighty bastions can still be found by the intrepid traveler.  The current state of these sites ranges from those more-or-less left intact to those where only the stone foundations and heavy Japanese landscaping remain.  Additionally, with Korea gaining in national wealth and a growing desire to care for historically significant locations, at least one of these sites is being re-constructed to the high standard visible in the Seoul City walls and Namhan Mountain Fortress.

I’ve always had an interest in East Asian history and by extension historical sites, but one of the most memorable trips my wife and I have made was a themed adventure based out of Busan.  During that short week, we visited sites related to the Japanese invasion of 1592-98 and along the way, discovered for ourselves several of these forgotten ruins.

The first we visited was Seosaengpo Waeseong (“waeseong” is a Korean word meaning essentially “Foreign Castle”) on the East Coast almost midway between Busan and Ulsan.  The original castle protected a small but strategic harbor with long walls leading up to a strongpoint atop the nearby hill which dominates local terrain.  Land reclamation has moved the coast about a kilometer away and so the castle now lords over the surrounding farmland.  As with many of these castle ruins, the lower stone walls have long since been torn down, their contribution to later settlements clear as we walked through a small village of very old homes built upon suspiciously recognizable stone foundations.  However, the further you walk up the hill, the more of the castle masonry remains intact.

We proceeded up along the western wall, clearly visible once you leave the main road and park your vehicle.  A steep walk leads up through the first recognizable gate complex and you instantly find yourself inside the squared, fan-tailed stone-work typical of Japanese castles.  Each succeeding ring of walls becomes more discernible and you continue to walk up hill until finally you find yourself in the first bailey, containing the central “tenshudai” (a Japanese word indicating the stone base supporting a castle’s main citadel).  The walls of this inner sanctum are still remarkably intact and truly beautiful set against the local greenery.  All the more so when you enter the final gate.

The tenshudai is little changed from the appearance it would have had upon construction in 1593.  The wooden superstructure is, of course, long gone, but instead, the visitor happens across one of the more beautiful—if not surreal—sites I’ve been fortunate enough to discover in Korea.  Cherry Blossom trees have been planted within that final circle of walls and arriving when we did in mid-April, we were treated to a dusting of petals which fell silently as we toured the inner bailey.  This gentle shower became a near-blizzard with each gust of wind and we were coated in the beautiful little flowers by the time we left the top of that hill.

We next visited Ungcheon Waeseong about an hour’s drive West of Busan.  This was once one of the largest Japanese castles in Korea, protecting another strategic harbor with its long walls stretching down steep slopes.  Additionally, since the original builder, Konishi Yukinaga, was an early convert to Catholicism and brought a priest along with him, this castle is believed to be the site of the first-ever Mass conducted on Korean soil.

As with Seosaengpo, the castle is nearly impossible to see from the road network, the entire hill being so overgrown with vegetation.  That said, the long hike up the ridge quickly rewards the visitor with at first low, stone remains of one of the extended outer walls of the castle which once protected the harbor below.  This linear construction grows in height and breadth as you continue up the hill, becoming a formidable obstacle about 2/3 of the way up the slope when the ruins of the castle proper begin to rise up out of the forested hill.

Ungcheon features multiple large gate complexes, ruined, but clearly recognizable.  Passing through a succession of these leads to a fairly expansive inner bailey, built flat to facilitate the deployment and protection of large samurai units within.  Another gate complex leads to the tenshudai ruins—little more than a stone foundation—and a breath-taking view of the coastal waters to the South.  As before, land reclamation has moved the coastline away from the castle’s protective embrace, but not far, and the panorama of small islands jutting up through the beautiful waters makes for an unforgettable site.

Finally, we traveled west to Suncheon Waeseong, midway between Yeosu (where the legendary Korean Admiral Yi Soon Shin once maintained his fleet headquarters) and Jinju City in South Jeolla Province, site of several large-scale battles.  This castle site is most notable for the ongoing restoration project there, providing an unrivalled view of what these Japanese castles looked when they were built.

Designed to facilitate an assault on Jeolla Province—virtually untouched during the first Japanese invasion—it was constructed on what appears from ground-level to be a rather unimpressive ridgeline.  Built for the purposes of what modern military planners would call reception and staging, this was another very large castle with expansive baileys designed to shelter very large troop formations.  Low ridge or not, from the top of the beautifully restored tenshudai, the location offers a commanding view of both sea and land approaches from all directions.

The unweathered stone used in the restoration effort is clearly noticeable, especially where it joins and blends with older wall sections.  The re-built baileys offer the clearest picture yet of what these stone walls were “supposed” to look like.  While only a small portion of this massive fortification has been restored to date, it is certainly the most important and impressive part, offering visitors a slightly different feel than the other, ruined castle sites.  As with the other sites, land reclamation has altered the coastline, turning the sea entrance into an estuary.  Still, enough of the original geography of the castle and surrounding land persists to give a clear indication of why this spot had been selected.

Our trip to Busan certainly included many more sites than those outlined here, all generally related to the destructive Japanese invasions of 1592-98.  Our visits included major battlefields like Jaseongdae and Dongnae in and around Busan as well as Ulsan Fortress in the city of the same name.  We also took the opportunity to visit the charming Imhaejeon Palace and historic Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju as well as a full-scale replica “Turtle Ship” at Yeosu.  There is simply so much to see in South Gyeongsang Province, especially in the vicinity of Busan city, that a week was far too short to take it all in and we’ve sworn to return.

Traffic in Busan city is the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere.  Travelers intent on taking in the historic sites should resist the temptation to stay at any of the fine resorts along beautiful Haeundae Beach as driving in and out of the city each day was painfully difficult.  Instead, pick hotels closer to intended destinations and move from one to another as the trip progresses.  Additionally, for Department of Defense personnel, the little-known U.S. Navy Base at Jinhae offers more affordable fuel and an Exchange, as does, of course, Camp Walker in Daegu.  With careful planning, these two bases can facilitate an enjoyable and cost-effective trip to South Gyeongsang Province and all the historical touchstones this region holds.

Regardless of how you do it, a trip to this part of Korea offers much for anyone trying to better understand this 2,000 year old civilization and the events that brought it to where it is today.  With just a little bit of research, one can easily find such historical gems scattered about the country and learn a little more about what makes Korea and Koreans tick.

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