Matsumoto-jo: Japan’s Oldest Castle
From humble fort to national treasure.
Matsumoto Castle, originally called Fukashi Castle, was actually established as a fort to protect the more eastern-lying Hayashi Castle, the residence of Lord Ogasawara who controlled the Shinano area in the 16th Century. Fukashi was built on a spot believed to be blessed by the four Shijin — the sparrow, tiger, dragon and tortoise that in Chinese tradition were the spiritual guardians of the four cardinal compass points. Not much for Chinese traditions, the Takeda Clan soon ousted the Ogasawara Clan as rulers of Shinano, but in 1582 Sadayoshi Ogasawara recaptured the Fuchu Plain and Fukashi Castle was renamed Matsumoto Castle.
After unifying the entire region in 1590, Hideyoshi Toyotomi put Ieyasu Tokugawa in charge of the Kanto area. Hidemasa Ogasawara, Lord of Matsumoto Castle at the time, followed Tokugawa to Kanto and Kazumasa Ishikawa was appointed the new Lord of Matsumoto. Ishikawa’s son Yasunaga is credited with constructing the many features of Matsumoto Castle that we are able to enjoy today.
Features of the Tenshu & Surrounding Structures
Japan’s oldest surviving castle tower appears from the outside to have five floors. In reality this donjon contains six floors. The third floor, specifically constructed so it could not be recognized by approaching invaders, was meant to serve as a safe waiting place for warriors during wartime. As history would have it, Matsumoto Castle was never attacked.
The donjon’s 4th floor served as the Goza-no-ma, the lord’s quarters in times of emergency. This floor boasts a high ceiling, large windows to allow for plenty of light, and artfully-planed pillars of cypress wood. It is said that this beautiful space was also meant to be the place where, in case of imminent defeat, the lord would commit suicide by seppuku.
Defense features of the donjon complex include exterior walls dotted with small square teppo-zama windows for rifle fire and rectangular yazama windows for bow and arrow. Walls are coated with plaster as extra protection against bullets, and the wide moat was meant to make it harder for attackers to hit their targets. Ishi-otoshi, the openings around the bottom of the first floor wall, allowed the castle defenders to drop rocks and boulders on enemies attempting to scale the outer stone walls.
One of the ishi-otoshi openings
The top floor of the donjon was built to serve as a tactical meeting place in times of war. The windows offering wide views in all directions allowed military officers to quickly assess the situation as it developed. Today, these windows are the reward for visitors who have successfully navigated the steep stairs of the castle’s interior.
Added to the original donjon are the three-story Inui-kotenshu, the Watari-yagura connecting it to the main donjon, the Tatsumi-tsuke-yagura to the southeast, with its flowery second-floor kato windows, and the moon-viewing pavilion called the Tsukimi-yagura. All these areas are part of your tour of Matsumoto Castle, a leisurely forty-five minutes to an hour of exploring this 400-year-old National Treasure.
The Castle Grounds
Matsumoto Castle boasts two original and impressive gates. The eastern Taiko-mon, or Drum Gate, leads to the Ni-no-maru, the area around the inner moat where you’ll find some of your best views of the castle. Built about 1595, this masugata (square-shaped) gate has an upper level where a large drum would sound, indicating the time of day, calling people to assemble, or in times of emergency sounding out an alarm. As you approach the interior gateway notice the massive 22-ton boulder comprising the left corner. Passing through the gate, look overhead to appreciate the size of the wooden beams making up this gate. Once inside, look right toward the site of the former Ninomaru-goten, the sprawling administrative center of the area from 1727 until the end of the Edo Era. An illustrated diagram of the former building shows just how complex this building was.
The castle’s main gate, the south-facing Kuro-mon (black gate), leading to the Hon-maru interior grounds and gardens, is also of the masugata style, offering extra protection against invading forces. Inside the Kuro-mon, look to your right for the small memorial dedicated to Ryozo Ichikawa and Unari Kobayashi, the two men credited for saving Matsumoto Castle from destruction. At the beginning of the Meiji Era Ryozo Ichikawa led a movement to save the donjon from demolition. Thirty years later Unari Kobayshi spearheaded the effort to preserve and restore the slowly-crumbling castle.
Approaching Matsumoto Castle from the east, you might notice a winding line of black tiles sticking out of the grass. These tiles mark the perimeter of the former Honmaru-goten, the castle lord’s residence and the administrative center for the castle’s domain until 1727 when it burned down. This building also served as a last line of ground defense before the enemy reached the actual castle.
Things to Know
Matsumoto Castle’s Donjon and Honmaru are open daily from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM (but get there before 4:30!). Exceptions are December 29-31 when the castle is closed, and January 1-3 when there may be restrictions. Entry for adults is ¥600.
Matsumoto Castle is beautiful any time of the year, but in April the cherry blossoms make for a wonderful setting while January brings an annual ice sculpture contest. There are also events and festivals on the castle grounds throughout the year. Information on these, and much more on this National Treasure, can be found on the Matsumoto Castle website.
And one more thing. You may hear people say, and see certain guidebooks claim, that Matsumoto Castle is also known as Karasu-jo, or ‘Crow Castle’. This may be true, but ask one of the volunteer guides near the main entrance to the castle grounds and you might get a different story about the real Crow Castle.