Matsue Castle: A City's National Treasure
In old Japan, you could toss a rock and probably hit a castle. There were hundreds of them – but if feudal Japan was good at buildings castles, it was also very, very good at burning them down. That, along with the initiative during the Meiji Period to tear them down, means that today, there are only twelve castles still standing as originally constructed. There are plenty of restorations, but if you want to stand at the castle gate and see the same feudal keep that stood centuries before, you’ll have to make a special trip to one of the twelve. Matsue city, capital of Shimane prefecture, is home to one such castle, built in 1611 by Horio Yoshiharu.
Later handed over to the Matsudaira clan, Matsue Castle is affectionately also known as Chidori Castle for its black, brown, and white coloring, which it shares with little water birds of the same name. The castle grounds are sprawling and it’s an ideal place to spend an afternoon. Starting from the castle moat, you could spend an hour just exploring the castle grounds before reaching the castle keep itself. There are several shrines, the old Koun Palace built for the emperor, and a network of gardens and walkways to see before reaching the castle keep on top of the hill.
The keep is the only section with an admission fee. Foreigners can get in for half price (¥280) and it’s well worth the cost.
There is something surreal about approaching the castle tower and knowing that it’s the same one built in 1611. The foundation is a jumble of huge boulders and smaller rocks, fitting together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, and the tower rises through seven levels, distinguished as the third tallest and second largest in Japan.
Sculptures of mythical sea creatures sit on the roof, meant to protect the castle from fire, and two-dozen ogre masks are placed on the various eaves, protecting the castle from spirits in all directions.
There are more usual measures of protection as well – instead of the usual plaster, the tower was constructed with boards coated in charcoal and lacquered to protect the structure from fire and the humid seaside air. Matsue Castle’s tower is a beautiful yet imposing building, a serious testament to its original purpose of withstanding siege.
Even from outside, the tower hides a host of little secrets for the patient observer -- or, like me, the tourist with an English-speaking tour guide. On weekends volunteer guides offer tours in English, so if you want to make sure you uncover all the tower’s secrets, I recommend scheduling your visit for the weekend. My guide pointed out a number of interesting aspects, such as the cleverly concealed gun-ports and removable planks for spearman to defend the castle.
Entering the tower through a defense turret -- which is a small room meant to funnel invading forces into a kill-zone -- it’s easy to imagine the castle architecture at work during wartime. The entrance is narrow, dark, and iron-shod, and the staircase leading up into the basement of the tower is steep, slippery, and winding. Any enemies of the castle lord would pay a high price to fight their way into even the basement level of the tower, and after that they would have to navigate six more levels, including staircases that can be pulled up to impede progress. I was grateful to have a guide who could explain all the little details, which I would have certainly overlooked on my own.
Of course, these days the layout is all about the tourists, and on the various levels you can find artifacts from days gone by. In the basement some of the larger castle decorations are on display. Two of the massive, mythical sea creatures from the castle roof stand along one wall, looking something like a mix between a killer whale and a phoenix, and the empty siege well is now littered with dropped coins.
The next floor is filled with artifacts stretching from the castle’s beginning under the Horio clan into the Matsudaira’s ten-generation rule. There are relics of war such as samurai helmets and armor, relics of daily life such as writing desks and tableware, and relics of art such as sculptures and calligraphy. All this takes some time to explore, and I spent the majority of my tour on this level. The next five floors passed more quickly, although I did stop for a time to admire a twenty-part mural depicting the foundation of Matsue, the construction of the castle, and subsequent conflict in the Izumo-Oki area, which would eventually become Shimane prefecture as we know it.
The topmost level offers a spectacular, open-air view of Matsue. In fact, Matsue Castle is the tallest structure in the city, thanks to a city ordinance forbidding any buildings to surpass the castle tower in height. From the top you can see Lake Shinji in its entirety, the Shimane Art Museum, the cityscape rolled out like a carpet, and in the distance the mountains form a distinct horizon line called The Lying Down Buddha. On a warm day it’s easy to lose track of time looking down at all the little details normally hidden by a street view of the city.
Matsue Castle is one of the city’s must-see locations. Not only is it a national treasure of Japan, but it’s easy to access, affordable, and offers hours of exploration. An entire afternoon can be spent exploring the Matsue Castle grounds, although even just the tower alone makes Matsue worth the visit.
For an additional ¥820 (¥410 for foreign tourists), boat cruises around the moat canal are available. Boat tours are available from 9:00 A.M. year-round, and close at 5:00 P.M. (March – June/September), 6:00 P.M. (July/August), and 4:00 P.M. (October – February).
Matsue Castle’s keep opens at 8:30 A.M. year-round and closes at 6:30 P.M. (5:00 P.M. October – March), although the rest of the extensive grounds are free and open to exploration.
Matsue Castle is about a 30-minute walk from Matsue Station.