Japan Travel Blog April 2015: Matsumoto Castle

If I could name one country that has mastered the art of combining breathtaking nature with history and technology, then Japan certainly has done it. They’ve done it with such a sense of zen and order that amazes me at every turn. It’s never a surprise to find that in the middle of a busy metropolis there will be a historical structure that stands proudly, asserting that it belongs to this present time as much as everything else while still maintaining that obvious contrast of being from another era.

It was another glorious springtime day in Japan when we paid a visit to Matsumoto City, in Nagano. Since it is surrounded by mountains Matsumoto is known as quite a scenic city, but we didn’t tour around the city proper. We jumped straight to the city’s main sightseeing stop– Matsumoto Castle (松本城).

Matsumoto-jo is a National Treasure and is said to be Japan’s oldest castle. It’s been standing for 400 years, and the efforts to preserve it as far as I can see have been nothing short of superb.

Compared to most other fortresses in Japan, Matsumoto Castle has the distinction of being one of very few castles built on flat land. Typically, fortresses are built in areas where nature can offer some additional form of defense, such as between rivers or on top of mountains. Built on a flatland it tends to be quite exposed, which is why there was a need for Matsumoto Castle to be surrounded by strong high walls and a triple moat.

Upon walking inside the Kuromon (Black Gates), you will immediately spot the keep across the castle grounds. This castle is said to have been standing since the Sengoku period, built sometime towards the end of the 1500’s. Historically, the castle has been passed on to one family to another depending on who was assigned to be in power in the area at a certain period of time. The families who lived here have improved and added to the castle to make it what it is today.

There was a time when the keep was in such abandon that it had begun to lean precariously as if about to fall. But a local school master by the name of Kobayashi Unari raised funds to restore it. And a good thing too. Now this castle is also known as the Karasu-jo or “Crow Castle” (烏城) due to its black exterior.

Remember this area below. Just follow the path from the Kuromon and you will see it. You will probably want to stop here for rest and refreshment after climbing up the castle. 😉

When entering the keep, you will be asked to remove your shoes. There is a plastic bag provided so you can carry your shoes around with you as you go. It’s up to you whether you wish to walk barefoot or with socks on, but since the stairs here are very steep I would suggest walking barefoot to avoid any slipping.

And I’m not kidding when I say the stairs here are steep. You literally have to take huuuge steps upward to climb the stairs. (I can’t imagine anybody wearing a kimono being able to navigate through this castle.) Also, if you’re tall like me, best keep your head down. I was so busy watching my steps that I forget about the wooden beams overhead. I hit my head so many times!

The interior of the keep maintains its original wooden interiors, mostly built using wood from either hemlock, spruce, or fir trees. It’s so rustic and being in here truly makes you feel like you’ve stepped into some alternate space in time.

The top floor was a little underwhelming for me because it was a simple observation deck with the four cardinal directions plastered on the walls. But if you look up towards the beams of the ceiling you will notice a shrine there for the Goddess Nijuroku-yashin.

There’s actually quite an interesting bit of legend surrounding this shrine:

On a cold January night in 1618, a beautiful woman appeared before one of the castle’s guards. She gave him a bag of cotton and told him she was Nijuroku-yashin, the Goddess of the 26th night of the month. She also told him that if the owner of the castle will enshrine her with 500 kilograms of rice, and give her offerings on the 26th day of each month, the castle will prosper and will be protected against fire and enemies. Then, she levitated towards the top of the castle’s tower and disappeared. Once the castle’s lord heard the story he decided to build a small shrine on this tower’s ceiling and followed the goddess’s instructions.

Well I guess there might be some truth to that legend since to this day the castle remains to be one of the best-preserved castles in the country!

Now throughout the castle’s levels is a gun museum called Teppo Gura, which features guns, armor and other weapons collected by a private citizen, Akahane Michishige, for more than 30 years. The collection was donated to the city in 1991 and was set up inside the castle.

And speaking of weapons and guns, the most fascinating thing to me about the castle are the windows where previous warriors of the castle would mount their defenses against anybody who came to attack. Below is one of the windows used by archers to shoot arrows without being exposed. Since the opening is so small the archer will be protected from a possible counter-attack too.

It was good exercise climbing all the way to the top, but if you aren’t in the best physical shape maybe a stroll through Matsumoto Castle’s gardens is a better option. I liked watching the people milling about the grounds and the park from one of the keep’s windows.

But it’s even better to get to walk around the gardens. Had I arrived two weeks earlier, I have no doubt I would have been in awe of this place. At the peak of hanami, Matsumoto Castle would have come to life with so many sakura, among other trees and plants.

The Japanese take the exercise of remembering their rich past and their roots quite seriously. They want their past to go hand in hand with their present and future. All the good and bad moments of their history have helped them evolve into the nation and the people they are today, which is why they put so much value in it. In recalling where they come from they will be unable to forget who they are. It’s quite admirable really.

I thought I’d talk a little about the hotel we stayed in before we headed off to Matsumoto, because it’s quite a lovely hotel if I may say so. It belongs to famous hotel chain Daiwa House Group, and here in the Nagano area we stayed in the Shinshu-Matsushiro Royal Hotel.

Armed with a spacious and well-decorated lobby, the people you will often see milling about here are not men in suits but men in traditional onsen robes. This is after all a hotel with a bathhouse inside. As for the rooms, you have the option to go with traditional Japanese tatami rooms, or Western style rooms with normal beds.

We spent only an evening here but the dinner we were treated with was full of my favourite things, namely seafood! The food was fantastic as usual. This set is another of my favourites from all the set meals we had.

I’m not so sure if this is the leg of a king crab, but there is so much flesh in these!

A bowl of cold soba is always nice, but this rice-wrapped fish ball in a sweet and sour sauce was delicious as well.

Spending time inside the hotel during the evening in the onsen is relaxing, but in the morning you most definitely want to be outside. The surrounding area is simply a magical expanse of trees and misty mountains. It’s nice and quiet out here, and I feel like I could sit cross-legged in the parking lot to meditate all day long surrounded by this nature.

In fact, at the very front of the hotel stands a shidarezakura or weeping cherry blossom tree. You don’t even need to go to far. After snapping a few pictures, make sure to take a moment to just breathe in the fresh air and appreciate the beauty of the sakura.

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