One of the things I love most about living in Japan is the ease of travel. Thanks to the train network, expressways, and tunnels through the middle of mountains, getting around is a breeze. It also helps that Japan is not really that big of a country! A quick 1.5 hour flight can get me up north to Hokkaido for just $70, and an overnight bus will get me to Kyoto for less than $40. If I’m in a hurry, the bullet train will get me to Nagoya in 1hr40 minutes for about $100. And people wonder why I travel so much in Japan!
A couple of weeks ago I had two weekday days off. I knew I didn’t want to sit at home; I had to make the most of it. Travelling on a weekday is awesome because it means no lines, no waiting, no crowds. The first place that popped into my head was Matsumoto Castle. I’d heard the name many times before but didn’t know much about it, so I decided it was about time that I did! I reserved my bus seat online, and found a decent backpackers to stay at, and that was that!
Matsumoto city is an easy 3 hour bus ride from Shinjuku – just one pit stop at a roadside station and you’re there. The first thing I noticed when I hopped off the bus was that it was quiet, more than I was expecting. But then again, anywhere compared to Tokyo is quiet! After dropping my bags off at the backpackers, it was time to explore. First on the list was Nakamachi, an area full of preserved storehouses called ‘earthen kura’, made of clay, plaster and timber. I loved the the criss-cross designs and the bright, white wash walls. It was a bit like Japan’s version of Santorini’s White City!
Second – and last – on the list, was the one and only black “Crow Castle”. Construction for the castle started in 1504, while the remaining keep was built around 1595. It’s said to be (one of) the oldest existing castles in Japan. In 1952, the keep was designated a National Treasure – one of four castles in Japan with this status.
To make sure I learnt as much as I could about the castle, I asked one of the volunteer guides to walk through with me. He definitely did a great job of explaining the castle’s features and history, and answering all my questions – if I sound like I know what I’m talking about below, it’s because of him!
So, quite a few facts about the castle’s history make it a little unfortunate, and lucky at the same time. First, despite being fully prepared for battle, the castle never came under attack from enemies. The walls were full of small openings from which samurai could shoot arrows or guns; a secret floor would have increased attacking potential; and there were three moats which would have given the samurai plenty of time to kill the approaching enemy. Also, one of the six floors was designated the ‘suicide’ floor. If the castle was ever taken over, the leader would sit on a special cushion and commit harakiri. But none of these were ever used.
In the 1630s, an extra section of the castle (you can see smaller roof on the right, below) was added purely as a room to welcome the shogun (ruler of Japan) – which of course never ended up happening either. The further extension that was built to create a ‘moon viewing’ room, shows just how relaxed the samurai were during this long ‘peace’ time at the castle. In this room, they would sit and drink a lot of sake and look at the ‘3 moons’ – one in the sky, one reflected in the moat, and one reflected in their cups (and possibly many more!).
Inside the castle, there are six floors. A local citizen donated his collection of guns (most have no connection to the castle itself), which are on display. There are some interesting guns at least, like one which looks like a knife!
On the day I went, there happened to be a festival celebrating Matsumoto’s sister-city relationship with Grindelwald, Switzerland. I got to listen to some ‘interesting’ yodelling, and some awesome taiko drum playing! Matsumoto is also known for its annual taiko festival, so perhaps this was a well-known group.
It was a great day; I learnt a lot and met some lovely people – the best part of travelling! Stay tuned for the second day of this little adventure.