If someone says the magic word 'castle', what image springs to mind? Perhaps you think of the mystery-soaked monuments that cast their long shadows across medieval Europe. Or perhaps you think of the English king Arthur and the court of Camelot.
But Europe holds no monopoly on castles. Asia hosts scores. Here are five of Asia’s most striking and strange castles, which transcend bricks-and-mortar, and border on marvellous. Their haunting, massive presence evokes the sound of drums and thunder.
China Gate, Nanjing
China Gate is one of China’s biggest existing ancient castles. Also intricately wrought, China Gate served as the south gate of Nanjing hotels in eastern China, on the Yangtze River during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Built in 1366 with a Ming Dynasty tycoon buried under it, China Gate stretches over 100 meters from east to west. The fortress’ mighty bulwarks played a key role in several wars.
Whenever Nanjing was stormed by invaders, with devilish cunning, China Gate defendants let the enemy in. The defendants then shut the four arched doors. That meant that, split, the enemy could be picked off one by one. So China Gate was a portal to death, or the afterlife.
Himeji Castle, Kansai
Japan's most remarkable castle, Unesco-listed Himeji is also called Hakuro-jo or White-Heron Castle. Thank its shining white exterior and alleged resemblance to a bird taking off.
The castle dates back to 1333. It is seen as the finest surviving example of early Japanese castle architecture with its network of 83 buildings boasting advanced feudal age defensive systems.
Himeji was badly bombed in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Most of its neighbourhood was razed. One firebomb actually landed on the castle’s top floor but happily failed to explode. The castle endured unscathed.
Note that now, however, Himeji is undergoing renovation. So before you visit Himeji Castle, you might want to check the state of play www.himejijo-syuri.jp/en/index.html.
Nijo Castle, Kyoto
Unesco-listed Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto home of Tokugawa Ieyasu: the first shogun of the Edo age (1603-1867). Gigantic, Nijo Castle embodies the shogun’s military and political power.
The shogun’s grandson developed the castle, tacking on a five-storey keep. After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle served as an imperial palace for a spell before being given to the city and opened to all-comers as a historic site. Stone walls and moats surround Nijo Castle’s daintily landscaped grounds.
Monte Fort, Macau
Mammoth Monte Fort was built between 1617 and 1626, finished during the reign of Emperor Xizong in the Ming Dynasty. Each of Monte Fort’s four sides stretches some 100 meters.
The stupendous square castle played a key role in saving Macau from Dutch invaders who arrived in 1622. That was the only time that Monte Fort’s cannons were fired. Monte Fort then served as the home of a Macau military bigwig before morphing into a forbidden military zone. Monte Fort now contains a museum.
Kellie's Castle, Malaysia
Splendidly odd, Kellie's Castle owes its existence to Scottish tycoon William Kellie Smith, who came from a village called Kellas.
In 1890, at 20, Kellie Smith arrived in Malaya and met an estate owner called Alma Baker, who had won concessions from the state government to clear vast expanses of forest in Perak, Peninsular Malaysia’s second largest state.
With the fat profits made from his venture with Baker, Smith built a resources empire. Then, on the back of his vast fortune, he built Kellie's Castle in Indian style.
Smith’s wild card castle – a mansion really – can be reached from the main road through a bridge running across a stream. Besides being allegedly haunted, Kellie's Castle apparently hosts hidden rooms and secret underground tunnels: a massive cabinet of curiosities.