That Magnificent ‘Crow Castle’

Castles in Japan are tourist magnets, akin to churches for Italy and fjords for Norway. Think Osaka Castle (大阪城), Nagoya Castle (名古屋城), Himeji Castle (姫路城)… and I think you’d get the drift. While not quite resembling an ancient citadel of the Western world, they pretty much function in the same way – mainly for defence. We love visiting Japanese castles because they are well-maintained, and provide such invaluable insight into the feudal past of Japan. Yes, to better appreciate the castles, it is necessary to delve a little further into Japanese history just by a few centuries back. Do bear with me…

During the Sengoku period (戦国時代) between 15th and 17th century, Japan was in the era of warring states, engaged in continual military conflict. It was during this period of constant warfare that necessitated the building of many more castles and fortifications; as many as five thousand castles were estimated to have existed in Japan during this era. When the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府) took over control, it banned the building of new castles and also limited the number of castles to one per province. As a result of this ruling, many castles fell into disrepair and some were even dismantled for its firewood.

Out of over 100 Japanese castles still standing today, only 12 have a keep that is considered ‘original’ i.e. have never been destroyed and rebuilt before. Amongst these precious 12, only 5 castles are designated the status of ‘National Treasures’. To be exact, 9 national treasures can be found within these 5 castles: 5 at Himeji, and one each at Hikone (彦根城), Inuyama (犬山城), Matsumoto (松本城) and Matsue (松江城), a recent addition on 9 Jul 2015. We’d visited Hikone and Inuyama castles during a previous trip, and were really looking forward to Matsumoto’s.

Now, Matsumoto Castle is renowned for several reasons, one of which is obviously its status as a National Treasure. It is also famous for being a rare flatland castle (平城), as opposed to the more common mountaintop castles (山城) and flatland-mountain castles (平山城). Its imposing lacquered black-coloured exterior, while earning it the nickname ‘Crow Castle’ also had it often compared to as the antithesis of the completely white Himeji Castle.

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In its hayday, Matsumoto was a convenient stop for Samurai (侍) traversing between the Emperor in Kyoto (京都) and the Shogun government in Edo (江戸) (present day Tokyo), being strategically located along the ancient Nakasendo Trail (中山道).

I was given the choice (by the mister) of walking along the perimeter of the moat, or visiting the castle interior first. I chose the former since it was still early, and tourists walking around were far and few.

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It was a overcast day; the kind that makes amateur photographers like me cringe because none of the pictures will turn out right. I had to revise my initial plan of how I wanted to photograph the castle. A completely white sky, while not very photogenic, did present me with another angle altogether – an almost flawless, uninterrupted reflection of the castle and its surroundings in the moat water.

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I’m not proud to admit it, but after some relatively heavy photoshop editing, the pictures finally looked acceptable to me. Without even realising it myself, I have developed a signature way of taking pictures that is very apparent to my closest one. The mister knew exactly what I was doing when I was getting into position for the picture immediately above this paragraph.

‘Taking the branches, aren’t you,’ he asked dryly as I tiptoed and struggled to stay still.

‘Perspective, darling. The branches and leaves give perspective and natural framing,’ I explained impatiently while pressing the shutter.

‘Ya ya ya…’ I could feel his eyes rolling to the back of his head even though I didn’t have my eyes trained on him. Yes, I’m a very good student. All those theory lessons on various photography techniques stuck with me; I’m just not so good with practical application. 😆

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In order to reach the red bridge, we had to circle almost to the end of the moat. This is the ubiquitous angle seen on the internet when one searches ‘Matsumoto Castle’ and clearly a must-shoot. This point is where I lament the lack of a blue sky to juxtapose against the black castle and red bridge. Sigh…

And we really need to work on our wefie takes. We were supposed to purchase a selfie stick at Bic Camera, and even managed to choose one amongst the many, but for some reason, the mister placed it back quietly instead of paying for it as I instructed. So before that can be corrected, I guess I will have to continue tolerating badly composed wefie takes.

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We retraced our steps back to where we began, and made our way to the castle grounds. This castle, purported to be oldest in Japan, has been standing since the 16th century and has certainly seen its share of the vicissitudes of life. In place of old Samurai residences and merchant mansions is now a neatly-manicured castle park which, when we visited, was decorated with bright new blooms welcoming spring.

In comparison to the striking exterior, the entrance to the Matsumoto Castle was somewhat underwhelming. We took out our entrance tickets to show to the elderly keeper but being too busy handing out plastic bags for our shoes, he simply waved us in. And immediately began the endless stairways to the top level of the castle. It wasn’t too bad; we’d been to castles with much more difficult ascents. At least for Matsumoto Castle, the ascent proper only starts after the keep entrance.

Displays within the castle keep led me to ask the mister a question, ‘This castle seems to have a rather violent past, doesn’t it?’ And the reason for my question? Most of the displays kept to a common theme – ancient armoury and weaponry. Even the explanation about the physical attributes of the structure itself were about defence for e.g. square holes versus rectangle holes were for muskets and arrows respectively.

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Although we visited the castle on a Saturday, the crowd was very manageable and we did not have to queue to buy a ticket or enter the castle keep. Some delay at shared stairways (for both ascent and descent) was to be expected but it wasn’t an excessive wait. I reckon the delay could be extensive if there were more visitors within the keep.

NAVIGATING JAPAN’S CASTLES:
In general, most castles’ interior in Japans (those still standing and not in ruins) are available for visiting at a small fee, to paid at the entrance. Depending on individual castles, visitors may be required to remove their footwear (plastic bags are provided at the entrance for purpose of putting the shoes in) and walk in socks/barefoot or slippers provided. Usually not too much of a hassle to comply with, it does get more troublesome in winter when everyone wears boots that are harder to remove, and subsequently, wear again. Not that we really have a choice in this matter. Now, these Japanese castles are notorious for steep stairways. For Matsumoto Castle, the stairways incline between 55 and 62 degrees. This makes climbing them a torture, and descending them a nightmare, especially with socks on. A trick I’ve learnt from watching the elderly keepers of these castles (who frequently have to descend and ascend the stairs) is that, facing the stairs (as if you are ascending) is actually the easiest and safest way to descend steep stairways. This is a tried-and-tested method. Give it a go if you find yourself in such a situation one day.

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