Set against a dramatic backdrop of the Japanese Alps rising in the distance, Matsumoto is Japan’s oldest castle, originally built in 1504 when Japan was embroiled in bloody civil wars, then rebuilt in 1593 in the form as you see it today. It’s a fine example of a feudal castle, with a 400-year old donjon (keep). Surrounded by a moat with ducks and white swans and lined with willow and cherry trees, the outside walls of the donjon are black, earning the nickname Karasu-jo, or ‘Crow Castle’. Like many other Japanese structures, a hidden floor creates an optical illusion. When viewed from the outside it appears to have five storeys when there are actually six – the secret floor possibly for concealing soldiers.
As castles go it’s relatively small, but perfectly formed, as you will see at first hand on an excellent tour outlining the castle’s history and architectural features. (Be prepared to take your shoes off and walk over worn wooden floors and up steep and narrow steps until you finally reach the sixth floor, which gives a superb view of the town and surrounding mountains). This would have been the feudal lord’s HQ in case of enemy attack, while the fifth floor was where the generals would have met and made plans during times of war. In fact, the castle was never attacked because the civil wars ended with the onset of the Edo period (1603-1867). During this period until the abolition of the feudal system in the Meiji Restoration, the castle was the seat of 23 daimyo (powerful feudal rulers, subordinate only to the shogun) representing six different families.
In the Meiji Restoration period, Matsumoto Castle was threatened with extinction and demolition as castles were not necessary anymore and the structure was in a poor state of repair. In 1872 the site was sold for redevelopment. When news broke that the donjon was to be demolished, a strong local preservation campaign succeeded in persuading the city government to acquire and save the building.
By the turn of the century, lack of maintenance was again threatening the building, with the donjon starting to lean to one side. Unari Kobayashi, the headmaster of Matsumoto High School located in the castle premises, organised a fundraising appeal for renovations. Again, the efforts were successful, and the ‘great Meiji renovation’ was completed in 1913.
After the Pacific war the castle underwent another refurb, ‘the great Showa renovation’, between 1950 and 1955. During this project, in 1952, Matsumoto Castle was designated a National Treasure.
When you discover it, you won’t forget it.