Day Thirteen – Matsumoto castle

February 4, 2007

Slept late – 8.30am! – and travelled into Matsumoto proper on the bus. Had awesome maple cinnamon toast with ice-cream for breakfast (this is what being on holiday means – being free to have ice-cream for breakfast), which is somewhere between cinnamon sugar pancakes and a waffle with maple syrup and ice-cream. I think this dish would work in Britain – but perhaps not for breakfast.

Then to Matsumoto castle, the centrepiece of the town. We collected an English-speaking volunteer guide, who led us around the castle itself, and explained its history, construction and significance. Built as a watch tower, not a residence, in the 15th century, it was saved from demolition in the 19th century by a concerned citizen who gathered enough money together to buy it at auction, and was finally fully restored in the 1950s. It has been so completely restored that in fact much of the original castle material is gone and what is left if essentially a replica of Matsumoto castle (which had been crumbling and listing dangerously back in the 19th century). Something like 70% of the original wood beams remain in the current structure, but most of the walls (plaster etc.) and all of the roof are new.

On the outside, the castle is surrounded by a moat, consists of contrasting layers of black and white castleness, and sports wily fish totems on the tops of its towers, to protect against fire. The moat, likewise, brings the good anti-fire quality of water into the general vicinity. Fire, in 15th century Japan, was the great leveller, as almost all buildings were wooden. The defensive features of the castle, as well as its decoration, are designed to protect against fire, and not to use it within. So there are openings around the base of the castle to drop stones from but the defenders would never have done anything so rash as to heat oil for pouring on enemies due to the risk of sending themselves up in smoke instead.

I have a created a set of black and white photographs of Matsumoto castle, that I am quite pleased with, on Flickr.

Other crafty defence features are: sliding slatted windows for closing whilst you reload your projectile weapon of choice; a hidden floor (6 inside, but looks like 5 from outside), mostly for storage, but also for ambushing enemies that have made it inside; steep staircases dotted around in a different position on each floor, so no enemy could storm up to the top of the castle too quickly; a private place on the top floor but one, where the commander could take a moment to kill himself with honour, if the battle was lost; a very top floor with panoramic views in all four cardinal directions, so that commanders could easily survey the threats and the course of the battle. This was all in evidence in the main keep, which was also the original tower.

A later peace-time annex had been added, and showed its expectation of continued peace in its design and construction. The walls were about a third as thick as the main keep, for example, the wood was polished and carved, and the windows were ornate and fragile, instead of small, slatted and brutal. There is also, in the annex, a highly civilised and pleasant moon viewing platform. This room opens on all sides, to admit the night air and the starscape, and faces the alps, above which the moon would rise. The trick was to see the moon three times over – in the sky, reflected in the moat, and sitting neatly on the surface of your sake in your correctly angled sake cup.

We said goodbye to our lovely guide, who’d really added to our castle experience, and spent some time lazing about in the park around the castle, where people were sitting enjoying the sunshine (like us). There were also, as in Ueno park in Tokyo, a number of artists dotted around the park, many of them school children who’d obviously been set the task of drawing the castle. A photographer on the picture-skew red bridge across the moat was doing brisk business in tourist portraits with the castle as backdrop. Later we headed into the town, where we shopped a bit, had ‘brown’ lunch called curry raisu (curry rice),which is obviously the inspiration for the very popular chicken katsu curry dish that every second Wagamama’s customer chooses. Then back to the bekkan for reading, soaking in a hot spring bath, watching the sunset over a shared can of Kirin beer from one of the ubiquitous vending machines, snoozing etc., then out to another local place recommended by our urbane hotelier. This was a sushi joint where we managed to eat no sushi. Same deal as the night before: sliding door opens to reveal a couple of old men smoking and watching the terebi (TV); all stare at us as we sit and order in very halting Japanese. The awkwardness passed quickly though, and we got on with the business of sipping our sake and sucking edamame (soya beans) out of their pods – the edamame were, again, the freshest and tastiest we’ve had.

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Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>

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