Visiting Matsumoto in Japan’s Nagano prefecture for the first time was a bit like dipping my toe into the ocean, realising that I wanted to wade into the water, plunge in, swim about, float, relax – stay awhile.
Only my first time, my only time in this small historic city dating back to feudal times, was limited to 48 hours and focused mainly on using it as a base to head off to the nearby mountains to see snow walls (see my 18 September, 2021 blog ”Japanese Snow Walls Delight”).
Matsumoto dates back to the Henian period from 794 to 1185, with its first official recorded in the 4th century. It has a rich and varied history that would take a lot more than this blog to detail. There’s plenty of information on the net, so I’ll leave the history fans to check it out. Suffice to say, this is an ancient town, once famous as a merchant centre and for the exquisite silks it produced. Samurais reigned here along with the ninja they employed, and you can still see their homes and influence.
Before visiting, I knew that Matsumoto had one of the best castles in Japan. Matsumoto castle, also known as the Crow Castle, was built in the 1500’s originally as a fort. It is a designated ’national treasure.
So my secondary objective in visiting Matsumoto was to visit the castle and climb its levels to the top tier.
It was designed to look fearsome, but is in fact a stunning beautiful castle with attractive architectural lines . It was unusually built on flat land (ie: not on a hill) and surrounded on three sides by what look to me like a moat, but described locally as ditches. Its black painted wooden castle keep is the oldest of its kind in the world.
Those interested in old techniques of Japanese carpentry will find it a joy to examine up close.
This castle has plenty of Samurai magic. It is the oldest six storey castle in Japan. But only five levels can be seen from the outside! The ‘extra hidden’ floor resembles a loft and you can see it when you are inside the castle above the third floor. It is the area for samurai soldiers to rest and where they could keep their food and powder supplies – presumably if the castle was being attacked. In peaceful times Samurai actually lived in houses in and around the Castle grounds.
I naively thought that a quick visit included in my crowded 2019 itinerary to take in the mountains and the castle should do it for Matsumoto! And perhaps it would have if I hadn’t fallen in love with this delightful place, nestled on a fertile plain at the foot of the towering Japanese Alps.
I notice a lot of tours pass through Matsumoto with a brief stop over to check out the castle. Like me, the organisers seem to underestimate how interesting this place is. The castle is not its only attraction. Matsumoto is full of boutique shops, cafes, museums, galleries and restaurants. It’s a very walkable and attractive city. Making the best of my short time there, I was up and on the streets with my camera by 4.30 am, and I felt perfectly safe strolling by myself in the CBD.
The first thing I noticed on arrival at Matsumoto railway station was that this is a city of flowers, and that immediately puts you in a relaxed mode. The street scape was full of flowers and beautiful shrubbery. It was spring, and many beds were being planted, while others were already flourishing. Small streams ran through major streets, and workers were hard at work to ensure they were kept clean. This is an immaculate little city.
After booking into our hotel (the Richmond – a good budget hotel with all the basics) – we headed straight to Matsumoto castle. The Richmond is walking distance from the railway station, and the castle walking distance from the hotel. The castle is only about a 20 minute walk from the Station – if you don’t get diverted by the interesting sights along the way! I love places when I can walk easily.
MORE ABOUT MATSUMOTO CASTLE
Local volunteers provide free guided tours of the castle – they won’t even accept tips! They are active from April through until the beginning of November between 10am and 3pm. They can be found at a ‘guide station’ near the entrance of Castle-Park, and can assist in English, French, Spanish and Chinese. It’s first come, first served – so my advice is to go early.
Because of our schedule, we arrived mid afternoon when the guides were finishing up for the day and their tours had finished. However, one of the guides offered to stay on to show us around. Hospitality in Matsumoto – full marks!
There can be long queues to get into the castle, but when we were there, our line moved along quite quickly to the entrance where you leave your shoes at a basement level and climb several original stone steps to the ground level.
From the ground floor you continue in your socks or bare feet up worn wooden steps through the various upper levels – stairways deliberately made steep to hinder any invaders who made it into the castle. I wonder what the occupying samurai would have thought of the crowds of modern day visitors, from throughout the world, swarming through their fortification?
The second floor of the main keep features a gun museum, Teppo Gura, with an interesting collection of guns and other quite frightening weapons from Samurai times. I’m not sure how they weilded their swords wearing all that armour – though apparently a lot of effort went into the design to make it flexible for the wearer.
Matsumoto castle was the heart of the Matsumoto Domain under the Edo Period’s Tokugawa Shogunate. It was formerly known as Fukashi Castle and was renamed Matsumoto castle in the late 1500’s when it was gradually extended and improved to what you see today. It has had 23 different lords from six different ruling families.
What I really like about Matsumoto Castle is that it isn’t all about fortifications and civil wars. It has a touch of romance and science with a moon viewing tower (Tsukimi-yagura), built during the peaceful time of the early Edo period. Unlike the rest of the castle, this tower doesn’t have any defence equipment. Three sides of the tower open to the north, east and south. It’s a very simple and tranquil room, with only pillars and wooden sliding doors that open to allow people to enjoy seeing the moon rising from the east. There is also a handsome vermillion-lacquered railing called “hanekouran. The moon viewing room is worth climbing up the steep steps to see it.
These days, Matsumoto has an autumn moon viewing festival centred at the castle to celebrate the harvest moon. It is usually held around September.
Your effort in climbing up inside the castle is rewarded at the top with an excellent views of beautiful gardens, the moats and beyond to Matsumoto city. Gorgeous!
I thought I could cover Matsumoto in one blog – mine was, after-all, less than a 48 hour visit. But as I write, I realise I still have so much to share with you about this wonderful place – such as its passion for frogs and clocks.
I hope to have Part 2 of A CASTLE, FROGS, CLOCKS AND MOUNTAINS up on my blog by the end of this week.