Dating from 1594, Matsumoto Castle claims the title of the oldest castle in Japan. While the title of oldest castle is debatable, Matsumoto Castle is a well-preserved historic gem.
The castle sits in a valley surrounded by the mountains of Nagano prefecture. In addition to the name Matsumoto-jou, the castle is also called karasu-jou, or Crow Castle. The black laquer curved roof of the castle resembles a crow taking flight.
Matsumoto Castle History
From 1467-1603, several factions of samurai fought for control of Japan. This period was known as the Warring States (Sengoku) period. Matsumoto was positioned between lands controlled by two powerful samurai clans, the Takeda and the Uesugi. In 1504, Shimadachi Sadanaga, a relative of the Takeda clan, built a castle called Fukashi-jou.
Fukashi-jou was owned by the Takeda clan until the clan was defeated. The victorious Tokugawa Ieyasu gave the castle to Ishikawa Norimasa. Tokugawa Ieyasu would go on to unite Japan and end the warring states period.
Norimasa and his son built the three main towers of the modern Matsumoto Castle on the site. The Ishikawa family finished the castle in 1594.
Japan was at war for almost 150 years. The Ishikawa family designed the castle to survive another war. Matsumoto-jou lays on plain. Flatland castles are rare in Japan. Most samurai lords built castles on a hill or mountain because the location makes it more difficult to storm the castle.
A series of moats and walls originally surrounded the Matsumoto Castle. The castle has narrow windows designed for shooting arrows (and later guns) at the enemy. When looking at the castle from the outside, it appears that the castle has five stories. Actually, the castle is six stories tall with a hidden floor used to store supplies and hide from attackers!
Castles were designed as places of defense or offices but weren’t residences. Since Japan is prone to earthquakes, permanent residence in a multi-story building wasn’t a good idea.
Unlike the other floors, the fourth floor has fewer support pillars. The fourth floor of the castle has the largest windows and an open floor plan. Historians believe the lord of the domain used this floor for domain’s administrative offices.
Matsumoto Castle wasn’t built completely for defense. The castle also has a Tsukimi-yagura or a moon viewing room. During peaceful times, the lord would invite guests here to share poetry and enjoy the moonlight.
The daimyo and his family lived in a palace outside the walls of the castle. Like many of the palaces, Matsumoto palace is in ruins. You can tour the excavation site to learn more about the palace. If you would like to see a palace, I recommend visiting Nagoya. Nagoya has funded a project to completely rebuild the Honmaru palace.
Plan Your Visit
As I mentioned in my first Matsumoto post, the trip from Tokyo takes about three hours. Tickets to the castle cost 610 yen and include admission to the city museum. Walking from the train station to the castle takes fifteen minutes.
As you enter the castle, a station sits on the left hand side. Matsumoto is one of the 12 original castles in Japan. Many stamp collectors stop to stamp their guidebooks with the Matsumoto castle stamp.
The castle has extensive grounds where you can enjoy the garden as well as tour the excavation of the palace. When you enter the castle, the castle staff will ask you to remove your shoes and give you a bag for carrying them. The stairs in the castle are extremely steep. If you have mobility issues, I don’t recommend attempting the tour. The tour routes you up all six floors of the castle. When planning your trip, give yourself plenty of time since you can’t turn around in the middle of the tour. Also, be careful- the wooden floors are slippery!
After the tour, take a break and grab some apple ice cream from one of the local vendors in the castle area. The castle has gorgeous grounds which make for great photos. After enjoying the grounds, head to the city museum to learn more about the history of Matsumoto.
Have you been to Japan? If so, what is your favorite castle? If not, what questions do you have about Japanese castles?
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