Matsumoto: My first Japanese castle
I chose to visit Matsumoto because I love castles. I’ve seen many in Europe, so this was an obvious choice in Japan. There are a few other things to see in Matsumoto, but the castle is the big draw, and, judging by the hordes of tourists shuffling through the castle with me, it’s a popular spot for day trips for local tourists.
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Nothing like any castle I had ever seen, the sight of it from the outside made me eager to see the rest.
First I had to get past a samurai warrior guarding the approach to the castle, waving a sword threateningly.
Actually, he’s there to entertain the tourists, looking fierce as he poses for pictures. I’m pretty sure the armor is plastic.
Matsumoto Castle dates back to the end of the 1500’s, or at least the main building does. Much of the rest is a reconstruction. After taking off our shoes, we visitors—and there were many of us, since it was a weekend—padded our way through the entire castle, climbing up and then down again through a series of six floors.
Walking through Matsumoto Castle was a particular delight for me, since I was barefoot. As I walked, I began to notice the old, bare floorboards beneath my feet: the unevenness and character of each one. Some were worn so that I could feel the grain of the wood. Some flexed a bit and squeaked as I put my weight on them. They seemed to be telling me their age.
The emphasis in Matsumoto Castle is on how this complicated building was constructed, and how it has been maintained. Some of the original support pillars, for example, are still doing their job, more than 400 years later.
Matsumoto Castle was built primarily for defensive purposes. The various windows on different levels served specific purposes: some for watching for the enemy, some for archers, some for using firearms. There are openings called “stone drops” facing downwards to allow soldiers to drop stones on top of invading enemies. One floor, the third, is a hidden floor in that it has no windows and is invisible from the outside, making it a good place to stay during a battle. Even the floors with windows are dark, with their unadorned, heavy, dark brown wood walls, floors and heavy-beamed ceilings.
There aren’t any furnishings in the castle. It wasn’t built to live in except in emergencies, so only the fourth-floor living space was made particularly attractive. In any case, Japanese dwellings didn’t have much in the way of furnishings other than tatami mats, futons and cushions. There are a few displays: a gun collection, a samurai suit of armor, a piece of wall to show how it was built.
The only room that looked at all attractive to me seems an afterthought: the “moon observatory scaffold” has sliding doors on three sides which can be opened for moon viewing. With its lacquered walls and arched ceiling, it feels open and airy and far lighter than the rest of the castle.
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Other things to see in Matsumoto
Nawate Street in Matsumoto city is a row of older buildings along the river. This pedestrian street is an attractive place to shop for gifts or to have a drink or meal. The temple opposite is also worth a quick visit. Nakamachi Street, too, is a pleasant strolling area, with its traditional black and white architecture and attractive shops.
Not far from Matsumoto Castle is a sight that drew me out of curiosity: the former Kaichi School. I hadn’t planned to visit it, but its description as one of the oldest elementary schools in Japan intrigued me. However, it’s not that old; built in the 1870s, it functioned until the 1960s and has since been restored.
My first impression was of a typical Victorian-era schoolhouse. Looking more closely, I could see how the architects had combined Western elements with Japanese, especially in the front entrance.
The building contains rather dry displays of old teaching materials—textbooks, exercise books, and so on—and exhibits on the architecture of the building. Little of this is labeled in English so it didn’t mean much to me, but I liked seeing the reconstructed classroom. Classrooms are pretty much the same all over the world, aren’t they?
I was happy to have visited Matsumoto for a day, but a day was enough. Unless you’re a teacher and want to visit the Kaichi School, the castle is the main attraction. It won’t take more than a couple of leisurely hours to visit.
Visiting Matsumoto Castle
You can take a train from Tokyo in about 2½ hours. From Matsumoto train station, you can walk to Matsumoto Castle in about 15 minutes.
Matsumoto Castle is open 8:30-17:00, but you can’t enter after 16:30. Admission: ¥610 ($5,50/€5).
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What comes to your mind when you think of the word “castle”?
He does look fierce! Loses its ferocity when you know it’s plastic though, Lol!
I wasn’t sure, but I suspect it was plastic. Must have been hot as hell in there, though!
Great write up Rachel. FYI the armor is likely made of strengthened lacquer wood.
Wow, so it’s authentic?
It would probably be a modern reproduction I would think.
But I mean authentic materials. Still must have been terribly hot!
It is difficult to imagine a support beam being 400 years old and still doing it’s job. The warrior is impressive and the detail on the roof is gorgeous.
Thanks, Jan! There are beams that old here in Holland still holding up buildings, though not the size of these in Matsumoto!
Gorgeous photography! Congratulations!!
Wonderful tour, I wished I visite. I went to see the ones in Nagano, Osaka and another caste which I can’t seem to remember. This one is fantastic!
I saw this one, Himeji (which is even more impressive–I’ll post about it soon), and what’s left of the one in Kanazawa (much less impressive). This one was my first, though, and so unlike my preconceptions about what castles should look like!
Very cool. Definitely not what we usually think of as a castle, but very impressive.
Exactly! You picture turrets and crenellations and stone, right?
I wouldn’t normally have associated castles with Japan but this looks like a great place to visit.
There are lots of them there, in various states of repair. But my 3½ weeks was definitely not enough!
Matsumoto Castle certainly looks like a complicated structure. The story of its construction could be interesting, but I think I would have been disappointed to see nothing but empty rooms.
In Japan none of the historic buildings I visited were furnished except for whatever was built in, and tatami mats on the floor sometimes. I think it’s because they never would have had much in them, just tatamis, cushions to sit on, and some low tables. In Korea they’re more likely to furnish a historic building: cushions, low tables, but also cupboards and chests of various sorts.
During our 2010 visit to Japan, we visited the Black Castle outside Osaka. It looked very much like your photos of Matsumoto Castle, including the complicated layout and defensive elements.
I didn’t visit Osaka, except that one evening to the stadium to watch a baseball game. But seeing two very different ones–Matsumoto and Himeji–was enough for me! Especially after Himeji, anything else would disappoint!
What a refreshing difference from European castles! I would love to go to Japan if it weren’t too expensive! Hopefully, in 2017! Thanks for peaking my interest.
It’s not nearly as expensive as its reputation! If you’re careful, for example, you can eat perfectly good food at small street stands for well under ten euros a person. Most of the time I managed to keep it to under six euros.
I didn’t know Japan had castles. It looks more like a temple..! However, when I think of a castle, I think of draughty rooms, fire-place, heads being chopped off. That sort of thing! And even though, we have castles in Germany where I live, I tend to think of an English one instead LOL!
Well, I”m sure the rooms are drafty! I didn’t see any fireplaces, if I remember correctly, and didn’t hear anything about heads being chopped off, but that Samurai did seem capable of it! You’re right about what you picture, though. I still picture medieval stone castles with crenellations and slit windows and turrets and a moat.
They likely would’ve used a traditional hibachi for warmth in winter.
Yes, I assume so. I know that single story houses had little sunken hearths in the middle of the room, but they couldn’t do that in a multi-story wooden structure like this.
I’ve never before heard of Matsumoto or Japanese castles. Thanks for taking me along! I do definitely enjoy European castles, so this was an enhancement.
I must say that the Matsumoto Castle is not what I think of when someone says castle. I just remember all the beautiful castles we have seen in Europe – mostly Germany. Some appear to have jumped right out of a fairy tale.
I know what you mean! And yet it was built for the same purpose as any medieval castle in Europe: to protect against enemy attacks. But that’s the beauty of travel, isn’t it? Questioning assumptions!
This really looks nothing like you would imagine a castle, apart from its grandeur. Japanese architecture has a particular scale, simplicity (despite the decorative touches), and geometry, which I always find very pleasing to the eye.
I agree! The medieval European ones tended to be more utilitarian, I think. These (Matsumoto and Himeji, at least) seemed to manage to be strong and defensible but to be beautiful at the same time.
We loved Matsumoto castle. I can always remember the Castle of the Count in Ghent, Belgium because Gordon noticed in the restoration that the handrails had been put on the wrong way. Something about need one hand to hold on to, and the other to hold their sword.
I don’t remember that one in Ghent, but I know what Gordon was talking about. People in Europe built circular staircases in a way that made them easier to defend. The attackers, moving up the stairs clockwise, had the center pole on their right. That meant they had little room to wave a sword with their right hands. The defenders, moving downwards counter-clockwise, had the center pole on their left, so they could swing a sword better with their right hand. Presumably that castle in Ghent had it backward!
OMG, I saw that samurai warrior too! That’s too funny. When did you visit? I was there in 2015, which is awfully long ago… I really want to go back.
I think it was 2015 too! In the summer. I took a sabbatical and took 2 solo trips: first to Guadeloupe and Martinique, then to Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. It was SO much fun!