After touring Ishii Miso Brewery, I made my way to Matsumoto Castle, a main attraction in this foothill city that is known for onsens and as a gateway into the Japanese Alps. Matsumoto can be easily accessed via high-speed train from Tokyo (2 hrs).
A National Treasure of Japan
Matsumoto castle as most castles in Japan is not what you would see in medieval European cities. In line with Japanese aesthetics, most castles are made of wood and stone and conform somewhat to Feng Shui principles. Matsumoto castle has a black exterior and a beautiful wood interior. The scalloped ceilings with black tiles and contrasting white stucco walls are absolutely beautiful!
Most castles in Japan have been burned down and restored several times and interestingly enough were not built for emperors, but lords or “shoguns” of a particular region and were not often used as main residences, but more as a display of wealth and a last resort compound to defend against enemy attacks. Several, like Matsumoto castle, have been recognized as a National Treasure of the country and remain a popular attraction for foreigners and locals alike.
A Castle for Defense
Matsumoto castle is surrounded by a moat and an expansive garden in the back as well as around it. Back in the day, there were several more moats and walls that protected different parts of the city. The enemies would have to conquer these sections before getting to the castle, providing plenty of time for the lord and his army of samurai to haul up in the castle for a last attempt to defend the city against other conquering lords.
Matsumoto castle is a peculiar one as it has a hidden floor (look for the sloped roof detail under the top floor) which was used as a sleeping quarter by the army of samurai of Matsumoto. From the outside, the 6th floor is cleverly concealed in the architecture of the castle to ensure that the enemy could not attack it while the samurai slept.
Everything in Japanese castles was built for war. There are often several weapon storage spaces, the stairs are much higher than your normal steps (the enemy army could not run up it very easily, specially with armor on) and there are several defense posts for arrows, stone drops and what surprised me the most: guns. The latter was introduced to Japan by the savy-sailing Portuguese and used widely by the samurai. Who would have thought it?
The lay of the land and other useful information
The castle is easily accessible by foot from the train station or you can take a tourist bus from Matsumoto train station.
The cost of entrance to the castle is minimal (U$6) which was often my experience when visiting tourist sites in Japan.
For those who love to collect tickets and souvenirs, the castle offers stamps at the main gate and there is a booklet available for children to collect the stamps of several castles.
You can take a picture with a samurai or a ninja at the entrance of the castle. They even hand you props to make the picture cooler. Lol! And the awesome thing about Japan is you can hand your DLSR camera to anyone, anywhere and they know exactly how to work it. Not stereotyping people, true story!
A good level of mobility is required to visit the inside of the castle as the steps are quite steep and narrow and there is no other way up or down.
At the entrance, you will be handed a plastic bag for your shoes. You must carry it all 7 floors of the castle and at the exit, recycle the bag in one of the appropriate bins.
Wear shorts/pants. Short dresses or skirts will be quite uncomfortable and difficult to climb the stairs. I wore a skort and was glad it was mid-lenght, but still wished I had shorts or pants on. Also don’t be afraid to descend using your bottom. Specially in the last two floors, the steps are quite higher and narrower and can cause a little vertigo. Better be safe than look good!
Have you visited Matsumoto castle? What was your experience like?