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Matsumoto Castle        Maps     Video     Nagano Index | Winter Sports Index

This historic castle is an original construction, and one of the 4 castles in Japan to be listed as national treasures - the others being Himeji, Inuyama, and Hikone. While more like a fortified palace than a castle, Nijo Castle in Kyoto is also worth a visit.

History of Matsumoto Castle:

Matsumoto Castle, view across the moat Formerly called Fukashi Castle, it was a branch castle of the Ogasawara family during the long period of the warring states. At the time there was already a marketplace on the east side of the secondary citadel, but the area to the west consisted entirely of swampland. Full scale construction of the structure we can now see began in the 1580's, only Inuyama Castle is older. The Ishikawa family became the daimyo of the area serving Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and it was the Ishikawa's who promoted and carried out the development of the castle town. The main donjon that dominates the castle was constructed between 1593 and 1594 by Lord Yasunaga, the second daimyo provided by the Ishikawa family.

Bridge to Matsumoto Castle entrance
Bridge to Matsumoto Castle entrance
Although today it is public parkland, in the late 16th century and for most of the history of the castle, it was surrounded by a triple moat and strong ramparts. The inner citadel and the secondary citadels served as retrenchments, while the tertiary citadel formed an outer fortification. All told, the castle covered an area of 390,000 square meters (39 hectares/96 acres). Within the retrenchment were the facilities for the fiefdom and its daimyo, including the donjon, main residence of the daimyo and numerous storehouses for munitions, valuables and records. In the less secure outer fortifications were the homes of elite samurai - those who formed the daimyo's personal guard and his advisors. This area was surrounded by another earthen wall (designed to withstand cannon fire) that was some 3.5 kilometers in circumference. Adding to these defences was another moat, which completely surrounded the ramparts. The only way to enter or leave the castle was through two heavily fortified gates called Masugata and Umadashi.

Matsumoto city seen beyond the grounds of Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto city seen beyond the grounds of Matsumoto Castle
Beyond this is the castletown of Matsumoto. You will notice when walking around the town that there are few crossroads - most intersections are L-shaped or T-shaped, this was quite deliberate in that era, in that it further aided the defence of the castle, providing extra fields of fire to draw an enemy into (though at the expense of the town burning down during the battle). The Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are located on the east side of the town. To the west were the samurai and the merchants. The merchants were forced to live in one of three areas according to their social ranking and/or occupation - three neighbourhoods on the main street, ten on the byroads, and 24 narrow alleyways. The samurai was also divided into middle class and lower class neighbourhoods - and these were actually separated by a gate.

Memorial to the preservers of Matsumoto Castle
Memorial to the preservers of Matsumoto Castle
We are lucky that we are able to see the castle in its original state. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the new Japanese government was so pressed for cash that it decided to demolish the castle, and sell the timber and the iron fittings for whatever could be obtained. This was also the fate of many other castle throughout Japan at the time, as the castles were high maintenance, and yet of no military value in an age of shell firing weapons. A local man named Ichikawa Ryozo rescued Matsumoto Castle from the auctioners, and local citizens purchased the castle in 1878. However due to lack of funds they were unable to maintain it. By 1902 the main donjon was developing a dangerous tilt, and Kobayashi Unari, who was the headmaster of Matsumoto Middle School, led a successful fundraising and restoration campaign to save it.

During the war, Matsumoto was the location of an aircraft manufacturing plant owned by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and a key transportation hub, however the castle and city escaped the destruction that hit most Japanese cities of equivalent size, and many that were far smaller. At the end of the Allied Occupation in 1952, the castle was designated a national treasure, and its maintenance assured.

The most interesting part of the castle is the main donjon/keep. To enter you first pass through a separate minor keep called Inui Kotenshu (because it stands inui or northwest of the main tower) that from the outside appears to have three stories but actually has four, the hidden floor concealing defences. This minor keep is structurally independent of the main tower but is connected via a roofed passage. Look closely at the round wooden pillars, these were rough hewn by a hand tool shaped like an axe (the entire castle being made by impressed labour) from hemlock, spruce, and fir trees. There are 10 round pillars supporting the 1st and 2nd floors, 12 pillars support the upper floors.

Matsumoto Castle buildings The castle has a unique architecture that does not exist elsewhere in Japan - apart from the roofed passageway between the main tower and Inui Kotenshu, the tower is connected to two smaller keeps - the Tatsumitsuki-yagura and Tsukimi-yagura which will be explained later. The roofed passage is level with the floor of the Inui Kotenshu, but you will notice that you need to descend about 1 meter as you go through the "warrior running passage" or mushabashiri. This is due to efforts to conceal defences, and confuse infiltrators. Entering the main keep, the first floor of Wataru-yagura is 1.4 meters lower than the "warrior running passage". The mushabashiri is 50 centimeters lower than the 1st floor's main level. You will also notice that it is wider than other passages in the castle, as it was designed to allow samurai in full armor to run, carry and reposition weaponry, and redeploy. If the passageway is not crowded with other visitors (best time to visit is often late in the day when Japanese tourists have already departed for the souvenir shops) have a careful look at the pillars supporting the outer wall - you will notice that the wall is slightly curved. This is because the wall follows the stone foundation below, strengthening the structure for when earthquakes occur.

You are now on the first floor of the main keep. Have a close look at the pillars on this floor which covers an area of 12.95 meters/42 feet x 10.9 meters/36 feet. There are very small holes which indicate that there used to be internal walls, as the floor was divided into different storage rooms for food, gunpowder, projectiles and other weaponry. Some visitors find the castle slightly claustrophobic, but as the internal walls have been removed and the numerous holes in the outer wall let in natural light, it is nothing compared to what is must have been.

Teppozama and Yazama holes on outside walls of Matsumoto Castle
Teppozama and Yazama holes on outside walls of Matsumoto Castle
Speaking of the holes, as you walk through the donjon you'll start to notice holes carefully positioned in the walls, through which you often get wonderful views of the moats and the distant snow covered northern alps. Matsumoto Castle was built some 50 years after the introduction by Portuguese traders of firearms into Japan. For this reason the walls of the turrets (Nurigome-zukuri) are thick enough to withstand bullets, and the defences were built in depth. As firearms were also used to defend the castle, the donjon has 55 square holes called teppozama, from which matchlock muskets (and in some cases small cannon) could bring fire to bear on an assaulting force. Look closely at the teppozama as you will notice that on the inside they can be pivoted slightly, enabling a samurai to swing the barrel at a wider angle to cover fire lanes and bring enfilade fire upon attacking troops. Some were positioned to maximise the use of hazama guns, which has a longer barrel and could be fired with a more powerful charge, these could provide effective fire at ranges of 300 meters. In addition there are 62 long rectangular loopholes called yazama - positions from which samurai could fire arrows at an enemy. These days the teppozama and yazama are mostly used by visitors for "aiming" cameras. The only holes that do not provide good camera angles are the ones called Ishiotoshi. This does not mean that the holes are useless, it means that they were designed to enable defenders to drop rocks onto enemy attempting to scale the walls - smashing their ladders and sending them plummeting into the moat below.

Stairs inside Matsumoto Castle
Stairs inside Matsumoto Castle
Watch your head as you climb the staircases, the samurai were generally smaller than the visitor's to the castle today. You will soon notice that the staircases are not connected to each other and are randomly located. They are also extremely steep (55-61 degree incline) and narrow. This is deliberate - making it more difficult for someone to quickly ascend the floors and providing more security against infiltrators.

Gun/Rifle display
Gun/Rifle display
The second floor has identical dimensions to the first, and was partitioned into 8 rooms. This time it was not for storage (weight would have caused a problem for the floors) but for samurai to stay in during emergencies and alerts. These days it is host to an interesting gun museum, the Teppo Gura. All of the guns, armor and other weapons you will see here were the personal collection of Akahane Michishige, a local citizen, who built the collection with his wife Kayoko over a period of more than 30 years. The collection was donated to the city in 1991. Akahane was a member of Japan's Firearms and Swords Inspection Board of the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Society of Firearms History of Japan, and an expert in the field. Most of the weapons are in working order, as Akahane was a skilled rifleman and a member of the Rifle and Muzzle-loader (Matchlock) Shooting League and maintained the weapons personally.

The main articles in the collection are matchlocks manufactured in the period from 1543 (when guns were introduced by the Portuguese through Tanegashima island) through to the late Edo period during the long Tokugawa peace. In total there are 141 guns of different design, caliber and period, and 230 pieces of armor. Of particular importance in the collection are the "Tanageshima Matchlock", and the "60 Momme Zutsu", which played an important role during the massive battle for Osaka Castle in 1615. All of the weapons were made in Japan during a century in which enormous changes took place, both in Japan's social and political organization and modernisation prior to the closing of the country and 250 years of relative isolation.

Cannon in Gun Museum Lattice shutters in Matsumoto Castle Hidden floor of Matsumoto Castle
Cannon in Gun Museum Lattice shutters in Matsumoto Castle Hidden floor of Matsumoto Castle

Also on the second floor, have a look at the lattice windows (also viewable on the fourth floor if the gun museum is too crowded). Called mushamado or warriors windows, they are hinged so that they can be easily opened or closed - either by pushing them outwards or pulling them in. Matsumoto is deep in the mountains, and strong colds winds, heavy rain and snow was part of life here. If the castle is not crowded, streams of light pour through the lattices, illuminating the dark interiors and creating beautiful designs on the floorboards. This is in stark contrast to the third floor, which is actually called "dark" floor kurayamijuu because it has no windows. This is a hidden floor, invisible from the outside and used for storing food and munitions for the floors above - making resupply easier through the two staircases leading upstairs than if all stores had to be brought up from the first floor. The lack of windows is why the castle tower appears from the outside to have only five floors instead of six.

Matsumoto Castle in winter
Matsumoto Castle in winter

The fourth floor is a completely different style to all to the others. It has fewer pillars, more windows and light, and a higher ceiling to give it a spacious feel. Even the pillars have been carefully planed until they are smooth - in contrast to the rough hewn timbers below. The lintels, curtains and floding screens suggest that the large space could be divided into three rooms and a surrounding corridor, this was probably the daimyo's chamber.

The fifth floor was designed for the leaders of the castle garrison to use as a conference room to coordinate defences and decide on tactics. It has 30 pillars (all are original) and windows on all sides, to provide observation of the defences and better views of signals. The staircase leading up to the sixth floor would have been particularly busy, for during a battle the garrison commanders would have communicated with the daimyo himself - who commanded from the top floor. The sixth floor is 22.1 meters/72.5 feet above the entrance and commands wonderful views. You will notice a few steel supports and fittings - these are from some restoration work completed in 1955.

Panorama view out back of Matsumoto Castle Shrine in the rafters of Matsumoto Castle
Panorama view out back of Matsumoto Castle Shrine in the rafters of Matsumoto Castle

Once you are up on the top floor, look up into the rafters for a small shrine. On January 26th 1618, one of the young vassals on guard duty had a vision in which he saw a woman dressed in beautiful kimono. The woman handed him a brocaded bag and said "If the daimyo enshrines me with 600 kilograms of rice on the 26th night of each month, I will protect the castle from fire and enemy". It's a strange dream, and may suggest something about just how cold it can be in a wooden castle without a heater in mid winter. Those were superstitious times, but every month the rice was enshrined as directed, and it still is even today. The rice is now wasted though, after it is enshrined, it is eaten - one of the perks of working in the castle today. It is still believed that the offering is the reason why the castle has survived intact.

Tsukimi-yagura, the moon viewing room
Tsukimi-yagura, the moon viewing room

On the way down, visit the Tsukimi-yagura or Moon Viewing Wing. This wing is attached to the main tower on the western side and has openings to the east, north and south. While the rest of the castle is a fortress, this wing has a beautiful red vermilion balcony and was designed not for defence, but for entertainment and relaxation. It was built by Matsudaira Naomasa, a grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu who was the daimyo of Matsumoto during the 1630's. By this stage Japan was at peace, and the struggle between the Tokugawa and the Toyotomi long since decided in the Tokugawa's favor. The wing has a living room feel to it and sophisticated appearance, it was built to entertain and impress visitors, and still does. Only Okayama Castle and Matsumoto Castle have a moon viewing wing, and it is a big hit with visitors. It is also popular with the local pigeons, who like to fly in and rest of the rafters every now and then. To protect the beams, the staff place small plastic bags on top of the rafters to collect the pigeon droppings, and simply clean it out whenever necessary. It is not hard to imagine the daimyo and his samurai taking a slightly more vigorous and less tolerant approach to such guests.

Before you leave take a walk around the moat, which apart from huge colored koi, is often home to many swans including black swans, and provides you with excellent views of the keep.

How to get there

Matsumoto Castle at night
Matsumoto Castle at night

To get to Matsumoto: The easiest way to get to Matsumoto is by train. From Okazaki station, take a train to Nagoya on the JR line, then transfer to the JR Chuo line at Kanayama. Total fare as of 2004 was XXXX0 yen. Travel time xx hours and xx minutes. To see more of the region than just Matsumoto City though, you will need to use road transport. If you plenty of time on your hands almost all of the sites are relatively easy to visit by bus - simply ask at the tourist information center at Matsumoto station. To see all of the sites in say, 2 days though, its easiest to drive. Matsumoto is not a large city and the roads are good and the traffic light.

Tours - Japan Discovery visits Matsumoto Castle.
Click here for more information regarding when Discovery visits this destination.

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