I used to think all castles in Japan looked the same until I started paying attention to history, art, and traditions. So when I planned this recent trip to Japan, I decided to include Matsumoto City, the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture, in our itinerary. Originally, our trip was exclusively just within the mountainous Gifu Prefecture, but when I saw photos of the Matsumoto Castle, I figured it will be worth travelling another couple of hours from Hirayu Onsen.
Mastsumoto Castle, locally referred to as “Matsumotojō“, is one of the top 3 most beautiful original castles in Japan, next to Kumamoto Castle and Himeji Castle. In contrast to the white Himeji Castle (known as the White Heron), Matsumoto Castle is black, and is also known as the Crow Castle. It is built on a plain instead of on a hill. It was built during the Sengoku period, or the “Warring State” period during Japan’s civil unrest. It started as a simple fort but was later on strengthened with defensive works in the late 1500s.
The castle grounds are enclosed by 3 original moats. The main keep, built between 1593-1594, was declared a national treasure in 1952.
Upon entering the castle, we took off our shoes. Climbing up the stairs was no easy feat as the steps were awkwardly high and narrow.
The tenshu (donjon tower) was used primarily for warfare. The second floor was where the armory was kept, and where the warriors assembled. It had distinctive warrior windows at the east, west and south walls. I brooded over the openings used by archers and the ishiotoshi (stone drops). The openings were very strategic and gave a good vantage point on all angles surrounding the castle, and the ishiotoshis must have not given any chance for climbers of the castle to succeed.
The third floor was dark and had no windows and was considered to be the safest area as it was likewise a secret and could not be seen from the outside. The fourth floor was temporary private area where the lord stayed during emergencies. The fifth floor was where the tactical meetings took place.
The sixth floor lies 22.1 meters above the ground and is covered by tatami mats. This floor was designed as the warlord’s headquarters if the castle was under attack. On this floor is a shrine for the goddess of the 26th night of the month, Nijoruku-yashin. Legend has it that on the 26th of January, on the year 1618, a young vassal on duty had a vision of a woman dressed in beautiful clothes handing him a bag. She told him that if the lord of the castle enshrines her with 500 kilos of rice on the 26th of each month, she would protect the castle against enemy and fire. It is believed that because of this bag, the castle was preserved and is now the oldest of its form.
The view from the sixth floor was spectacular – I saw the distant mountain ranges surrounding Matsumoto. How lucky for the locals to be waking up to these mountains everyday! I’d imagine the views would be beautiful in every season.
My favorite part of the castle would be the Moon-Viewing Wing which is connected to the Main Tower’s west side. These days, there are only two castles in Japan with a moon-viewing room: this, and Okayama Castle. The room was built during an era of peace following the warring states period, and had vermilion balcony with openings to the east, north and south. It also has a vaulted ceiling. As I looked out from the room, I daydreamed it was a tranquil night, crickets softly chirping, and I was looking out from the balcony. Oh how beautiful the sight must be!
I wrap up this post with a mood that longs for the big bright moon. This is what I’m listening to as I write this.