Visiting Matsumoto Castle (松本城), Japan

Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto, Japan, is one of the most impressive castles in Japan. If you search for Japanese castles, it is likely that you will find images of Matsumoto Castle (along with places like Osaka Castle) and you can find it in many lists of the top castles to visit in Japan. It is easy to see why. As one of only twelve surviving keeps in Japan, it fills a special place in Japanese cultural history.

The history of “Fukashi” Castle

Matsumoto and the surrounding castle town (planned) as it would have been at its height. This view is looking from the north (lower right-hand side) to the south (upper left-hand side).

Before Matsumoto was Matsumoto, it was Fukashi and the castle there was Fukashi Castle. It was originally built sometime during the period of instability known as the Sengoku Period (it isn’t known exactly when) but it came onto the map in 1550 when it was seized by the Takeda Clan. Due to their conflict with a neighbouring clan to the north, they started the process of building up this castle. Slightly more than 30 years later it fell in 1582 to Oda Nobunaga when he defeated the Takeda Clan.

After changing hands a few more times (sometimes violently), 1590 saw the start of construction on many gates, walls and towers completed in 1593/1594. Many of these still stand and are what you can visit today.

The castle enjoyed prosperity from this point until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when the emperor regained political power. Unfortunately in 1872, the regime also decreed the destruction of all feudal era forts, and that was to be the end for the castle. However a campaign by influential people and townspeople saved the keep from redeveloment. Instead it went to the town government who took ownership.

However the castle started to fall into disrepair. It wasn’t until 1903-1913 that there was some restoration work on it. In 1950 it became a national treasure. The subsequent restoration project received a lot of money; other parts of the castle complex have been rebuilt more recently.

A day view of the castle from outside the inner wall (the free park area):

Matsumoto Castle – a keep for war

The keep served one purpose – war. There were no permanent sleeping quarters – only tactical advantage. While it looks like there are 5 floors, there is actually a hidden floor between the second and fourth floors. The third floor has no windows and from the outside, it looks like it does not exist. Instead it both allowed warriors in full armour to move around and stored food and weapons against a prolonged seige.

Gunpowder, which appeared in Japan 1543, heavily influenced the design and construction of the keep. As a result it has a thick exterior that could stop musket fire. The castle also has many murder holes in the lower levels to repel enemies trying to scale the walls after getting across the moat.

On the fourth floor, there is an open plan; it is likely that the domain’s family could take shelter here with their retinue during times of attack. Mats hung between the support columns (all 30 of which are still the original ones) created rooms when needed.

The fifth floor was a place for the executives conducting the defence of the castle. This space lent itself to discussing tactics, planning battles, and defending the domain.

The sixth and highest floor is a small floor with large windows that allowed for lookouts and tacticians to view the battle that would have been raging for the castle. Here they could get a bird’s eye view of the surroundings and send troops to reinforce certain areas.

The keep at night:

Matsumoto Castle Today

Today the castle is a big draw of tourism for Matsumoto. Many people from across Japan and the world (at least, pre-COVID pandemic) visit the “Crow Castle” every year. This references the black exterior of the castle and thick stone walls, making it look like a back crow in a stone nest.

The first floor contains some of the items that were in the castle, including old wooden pillars, stone statues and other items.

The second floor contains an exhibit on guns and gun history in Japan and Matsumoto. The exhibit items were donated by a local family were history buffs themselves – the collection is truly impressive. While I am not a fan of guns, even i was impressed at the range and depth that was on display.

Events

The castle also holds events throughout the year, especially during the summer and autumn. If you want to time your visit for one of those events, you can view them here on the official website.

I planned my journey for the Matsumoto Castle Grand Taiko Festival (Taiko = Japanese drumming). You can read more about the Taiko Festival here.

Visiting the castle

Today the castle is open to the public every day from 8:30 to 4:30. You enter the main gate and are greeted by views of the inner yard and the keep. This is the only place where you can see it from the front – and it is impressive. Here it is:

The castle sits in a park that was also once part of the castle complex (and not a park then). The park is completely free to visit and offers some gorgeous views of the castle and the moat. Even if you don’t go inside the inner wall, the view is absolutely worth it.

An adult ticket costs ¥700, although there are also discounts if you go as part of a larger group. Child tickets are about half of this price. You buy the ticket when you enter the inner gate that goes to the keep; you can pay with either (credit) card or cash.

Something you should consider when visiting the keep is that there are a lot of stairs to climb and some of them are very steep. If you can’t lift your foot to the height of your other knee (at least 40 cm/16 inches) and then pull yourself up stairs while ducking so you don’t hit your head, do not enter the keep. You will have a difficult time.

As it is Japan, you will also have to take your shoes off. Unlike other places where you put your shoes on a storage shelf, they will give you a plastic non-branded supermarket-like shopping bag to put your shoes in. This is because the entrance and exit are different.

Here are some more images from around the castle:


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