Capturing the Castle in Matsumoto

Matsumoto is an average city in Japan that would probably fall off any tourist's radar if not for one thing: its beautifully restored six-story wooden castle. It also happens to be a gateway to Japan's alps, but given how Steph feels about hiking, it's safe to say we came to see the castle!

We wanted to experience one of Japan’s great castle towns and seeing as Himeji (generally considered Japan’s best castle) is currently undergoing restoration work until 2014 or something ridiculous like that, we decided to visit Matsumoto instead.

While the overall architecture of the city is rather uninspired, Matsumoto still manages to maintain a fair amount of charm. A river runs placidly through the center of the city, and a maze of small streets and alleyways filled with restaurants and shops fans out from the train station. There is also a historic district nearer to the castle that maintains some of the feel of the old city, even if the original buildings are now long lost to fire or asphalt.


After a 15 minute walk up two of Matsumoto’s main streets (and a brief detour to see the two cutest Shiba Inu puppies in the world) we arrived at the gates and beheld the castle, jutting out into the surrounding moat. Constructed in the traditional Japanese black and white style, the fortress dominates the skyline and is truly imposing. The inherent drama of the rather imposing figure the castle cuts was enhanced by the ominous rumble of thunder and boiling mass of clouds clinging to the low mountains north of the city and moving parallel to the castle, heavy with rain. With the threat of a rather impressive storm looming over us, we quickened our pace and hoped we would find shelter beneath the castle’s roof before any rain began to fall.

Our first glimpse of the castle

Once we gained entry to the castle’s official grounds, we saw a little tent set off to one side, with the words “Free English Guide” hanging on a banner across a folding table. As we approached, the sole inhabitant of the tent, an elderly Japanese woman, sprang up and enthusiastically greeted us, clearly excited that we wanted her to guide us through the castle. She took out a well worn book on the features of the castle and began explaining the various aspects to us while walking us towards the queue to see the interior of the fortress. She encouraged us to get our photo taken with the resident samurai (a job taken very seriously by the ad hoc photographer on staff) while she waited in line for us.

It was pretty hot out, and that costume doesn't look very cool... Well, it looks cool, not breathable
It was pretty hot out, and that costume doesn’t look very cool… Well, it looks cool, not breathable

As we stood in line, we learned that our kind guide was named Masuko, and back during her university days, she had majored in English. She then proceeded to good naturedly quiz us about the castle. How tall? 29 meters! How many floors? Six, one of which is a “secret” floor in case of invasion. How old? Over 300 years, though it was renovated in the 1950s due to an excessive lean to one side that needed to be corrected, but at least 80% of the castle is original. After a very easily passed hour in line, we finally got to the interior of the castle, feeling like we knew far more about the building than we ever would have on our own, which greatly increased our appreciation of the castle.

One of the few things in any of the rooms… A marker commemorating where the former shogun committed seppuku, and now a modern photo opportunity!

The rooms in the castle were all essentially bare, devoid of anything save tatami mats. While this austerity is somewhat surprising, it allowed us to appreciate the beauty of the castle itself, which is what we were really there to see anyway. Our tour started on the ground floor, and worked its way up all floors of the castle to the very top. A good breeze and open windows blew away the heat of the afternoon and offered sweeping views of Matsumoto. Alas, all of the original buildings surrounding Matsumoto castle were destroyed in a kitchen fire run rampant, and only the castle itself was spared, so we can now only imagine what the city may have looked like so many centuries ago when it was a traditional walled city, protected by the castle we were standing atop.

View from the top

While the view from the top is good, getting to it is slightly harrowing. The stairs are narrow and steep, steep enough to be more like ladders than anything else, and more than once I had trouble squeezing myself and my backpack through an opening atop a dizzying rise to the next floor. Poor Steph does not handle steep stairs well, especially when the risers on some were over a foot, and more than once she commented that it was odd that a country full of short people should have such steep stairs. If the castle ever were under attack, the stairways would not make for easy traveling between the floors, and the risk of dying from a broken neck seemed infinitely more likely than any other kind of battle wound.

Our wonderful guide, Masuko

Along the way up and down there are a few displays relating to the castle and its former inhabitants. As we learned, the castle was built just as matchlocks were appearing on Japanese battlefields, so much of the information in the castle deals with the effects of this on castle construction, and how Matsumoto castle is indicative of these changes. Again, having Masuko there to explain what we were seeing greatly enhanced our appreciation of the castle and what a marvel of ancient engineering it really is.

Our tickets to the castle included admission to the slightly underwhelming Matsumoto city museum, which was opportune since it began to rain torrentially shortly after our tour of the castle ended. As the museum holds few important artifacts, and really is just about the history of the city (which isn’t terribly colorful), it made a better shelter from the rain than anything else, and we spent our time waiting to see if the rain would end before the museum closed. Sadly, the rain slowed but did not stop, and we trudged our misty way back towards our hotel and hopes of dinner, a story in itself.

Matsumoto is a nice little town, even if it doesn’t have a lot to offer other than the castle and a spectacular view of the mountains. It has a few other sights, but we found skipping them didn’t bother us, as the castle alone was more than worth the visit. With plenty of restaurants, quaint shops, an admirable amount of Japanese charm, and a reprieve from the blistering heat that had plagued us thus far in Japan, we were very glad that we added it to our itinerary and would recommend it to anyone who has had their fill of temples and would like to experience another element of Japanese architecture.

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12 comments Leave a comment

  1. Lovely pictures as always TK! Although — a secret story? How does that work??

    Sep. 20 2012 @ 10:18 am
    1. Trisha author

      Thanks! As to the secret level, Masuko told us that it was secret because it has no windows and is very short. So, I don’t know how useful it is in practice, but there you have it!

      Sep. 22 2012 @ 7:47 am
  2. I love visiting castles – this one looks totally different from the ones I usually visit in England and Wales though! Also, those puppies are so cute – bet they made you guys think of your own dogs back home; I hope you’re not missing them too much.

    Sep. 21 2012 @ 6:45 am
    1. Amy author

      We miss our babies terribly, but we know they’re in good hands, so that helps. It doesn’t stop us from getting all mushy over every dog we see though…

      Japanese castles are a thing all their own. Very few things are made from stone there, so a lot of their architecture is rather unique!

      Sep. 22 2012 @ 7:49 am
  3. Very cool! Even if the seppuku marker (with it’s own pillow!) is a little odd.

    Sep. 21 2012 @ 9:20 pm
    1. softdrink author

      Yeah, we thought it was strange too. Sometimes the things that Japanese tourists find interesting are a little mystifying. Obviously, the pillow is important, it keeps the little cone comfortable, and off the floor. Or something.

      Sep. 22 2012 @ 7:53 am
  4. You have a good eye for composition Tony. The photography is exceptional. ..and the ramblings on the ramblings are good too.

    Sep. 24 2012 @ 8:34 am
    1. RG author

      Thanks! It’s been good getting back too my roots, so to speak. I enjoy photography more every day!

      Sep. 25 2012 @ 9:41 pm
  5. For some reason I really like that picture of the bridge…
    Just thought I’d tell you that lol

    Sep. 24 2012 @ 6:04 pm
    1. Hogga author

      Thanks! You never know what will turn out until after you see the photos, sometimes a good photo is hiding where you least expect it!

      Sep. 25 2012 @ 9:43 pm
  6. Your guide sounds like she was perfect for this trip!

    Sep. 28 2012 @ 7:29 pm
    1. Amanda author

      She really was! The people of Japan were amazingly welcoming, and she was no exception!

      Oct. 1 2012 @ 1:37 am

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