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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.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle appears to have five storeys, and stands on top of a stone wall above a moat

the view approaching the castle grounds

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.

A man in full samurai armor blocks entrance with his sword, in front of Matsumoto Castle.

samurai warrior

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 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.

Matsumoto Castle, including both of the added wings

Matsumoto Castle

The emphasis in Matsumoto 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.

The form of a fish decorates each peak of the roof of Matsumoto Castle.

a roof detail on the castle

The 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.

A piece of the wall extends out, allowing soldiers inside to drop stones on invading forces, at Matsumoto Castle.

a stone drop

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.

Matsumoto Castle affords views over the whole city of Matsumoto to the mountains beyond.

a view from high in the castle

The only room that seemed 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.

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.

a row of shop buildings in Matsumoto

some of the shops on Nawate Street, by the river Metoba

Not far from the 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 1870’s, it functioned until the 1960’s and has since been restored.

My first impression was of a typical Victorian schoolhouse. Looking more closely, I could see how the architects had combined Western elements with Japanese, especially in the front entrance.

The entrance to the Kaichi School in Matsumoto is in a Victorian style, but the adornments are Japanese, like the dragon above the doorway.

The entrance to the Kaichi school: notice the Japanese motifs in the details.

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?

old-fashioned wooden desks are lined up two by two in a classroom in Kaichi School, Matsumoto

a schoolroom in Kaichi School

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.

What comes to your mind when you think of the word “castle”?

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