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Live like a 17th-century Japanese ruler with a stay at Ozu Castle

A warrior welcome, a private chef, butler service and exclusive use of Ozu Castle is all yours with a private stay at Japan’s first overnight castle experience.

There’s a unique Japanese castle experience hidden away in south-western Ehime. Circled by mountains and steeped in history, Ozu is a 700-year-old Edo-period town famous for its preserved machiya townhouses, minka residences and Ozu Castle. This historic landmark dates back to the 14th century, rises four storeys tall and overlooks the Hiji River. Now, after renovations and refurbishments, Ozu Castle is open to overnight guests wishing to immerse themselves in the bygone era of the Kato daimyos, rulers of the Ozu domain.

People dressed as 17th century Japanese warriors
A warrior's greeting at Ozu Castle © Image courtesy of Ehime Prefecture

Ozu Castle Town

A visit to Ozu isn’t a typical ‘tourist’ experience. It’s a quiet and authentic pocket of rural Japan where the locals are friendly and tourists are rare. Built alongside the Hiji River, Ozu once flourished as a manufacturing hub for water-based production, such as washi paper, silk and vegetable wax during the Edo and Meiji periods. It wasn’t until the early 20th century – when electrification and railroads spread throughout Japan – that Ozu’s prosperity began to falter. An ageing population and economic downturn threatened to wipe Ozu from the map until a plan was enacted by local groups to restore the city and its buildings, relaunching Ozu as a cultural tourism destination. Today, premium accommodation options now occupy the restored machiyas and minkas, landmark attractions have been reactivated, and small businesses have begun to thrive.

The initiative has earned Ozu international acclaim. It won the Good Design Award from the Japan Institute of Design Promotion in 2021, and in 2022 was selected as one of Green Destinations’ Top 100 Stories. The town, also known as the Little Kyoto of Iyo (the ancient name of Ehime Prefecture), was awarded first prize in the ‘Culture and Tradition’ category among Green Destinations’ 2023 Best Practice Stories. However, the biggest drawcard is the overnight experience at Ozu Castle.

people dressed in traditional Japanese clothing
Dressing up in traditional attire for the grand entry at Ozu Castle © Image courtesy of Ehime Prefecture

Ozu Castle

Operated by luxury hotel brand Nipponia, Ozu Castle is one of only a few traditional wooden castles left standing in Japan and the first castle ‘hotel’ in the country. Careful rehabilitation works were undertaken to restore the landmark to its former glory and led to the creation of the luxurious and immersive overnight guest experience in the donjon – the main tower. As the castle is currently a functioning tourist attraction, Nipponia brings in all food, furnishings and guest amenities, especially for overnight stays.

A traditional tea house in Japan
Garyu Sanso © Image courtesy of Ehime Prefecture

The Ozu Castle experience begins from the moment guests arrive in Ehime Prefecture’s capital, Matsuyama, where guests are met at the airport or JR station and enjoy the one-hour drive to Ozu in the comfort of a luxury vehicle. Upon arrival, guests are invited to step back in time to the 17th century and are given the option to dress in kimonos or samurai armour for their journey to the castle. As the sun sets on Ozu and the castle closes to the public, a samurai troop bearing Ozu banners escorts guests – who ride on horseback – to the castle. A matchlock rifle salute and a key ceremony mark the start of your reign as acting castle lords.

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Japanese food on a table
Dining at Ozu Castle © Image courtesy of Ehime Prefecture

The overnight experience includes private butler service and a chef, a private lounge and a bathhouse, and exclusive use of the castle and its two turrets. Traditional sleeping arrangements are set up for guests with futon bedding on tatami mats. Dining at Ozu Castle is an entirely personalised affair with ingredients requested by guests prepared, cooked and interpreted through the lens of traditional cuisine. After dinner, guests are invited to sample local sake in the Koran Yagura, a turret where samurais once gathered to survey the land. Breakfast is served at Garyu Sanso, a Michelin-star traditional tea house overhanging the river, with a beautiful garden reserved exclusively for guests staying at Ozu Castle.

Those who seek further insight into the history of the castle and the town can witness the 1617 Sadayasu Kato takover. This immersive dramatic reproduction of Sadayasu Kato, the first Lord of the Kato family, taking over Ozu Castle in 1617 encourages guests to take part in scenes and accede the office of castle Lord to Kato himself.

Prices for the Ozu Castle overnight experience start from ¥1,000,000 (around AUD$10,300) for two people.

Experiences in Ozu

Take some time to wander around Ozu and discover the cultural experiences unique to this region.

  • Ohanahan Street retains original Edo-period structures that were once home to merchants and samurai.
  • Pokopen Yokocho showcases a selection of retro-pop memorabilia from 1950s and 1960s Japan.
  • Ozu Red Brick Hall was once a bank built in 1873 but now sells local crafts, such as washi and Tobe ware.
  • Try a morning yoga session at Sanrō-den Hall in the Sukunahikona Shrine.
  • Join a meditation session in Buddha Hall at Nyohoji Temple, a zen site on Mt. Tomisu that is more than 350 years old.
  • Kayak or cycle along Hiji River on e-bikes to take in the scenery.
  • Visit an artisan workshop and learn how to make washi paper, gild and craft paper lanterns.
  • Take a cruise on the Hiji River on a yakata-bune boat and sample local fare while sailing the watercourse.
A boat floating past a shrine on the river
Hiji River Cruise © Image courtesy of Ehime Prefecture

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