Travel period Jan 2013

Visiting One of Japan’s Oldest Fortresses

We took the opportunity on our last day in Tokyo to travel to Matsumoto for a one-day trip, to visit Matsumoto castle and surrounds. Here is our experience for a one-day sightseeing trip to Matsumoto.

Getting to Matsumoto

With the Super Azusa Express we went straight from Shinjuku to Matsumoto in 3 hours. A reservation is appropriate as many go to the prefecture for hiking or the popular onsen. If you are traveling from Nagano it takes about 50 minutes by LTD EXP (wide view) Shinano.



Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture’s second largest city after Nagano city, is a lovely small city which is surrounded by mountains in every direction, is also a gateway to the Japan Alps for skiing and hot springs in the winter and hiking and walking in the mountains of Shinshu in the summer.

Matsumoto city

Matsumoto Castle is a 15 minutes’ walk from Matsumoto Station – there are some bus options, but we walked instead. Walking gave us the opportunity to see a bit more of the town of Matsumoto along the way.

Nawate Dori

Nawate dori

Our first stop was Nawate Dori, which is a local market area beside the main river of Matsumoto about halfway between Matsumoto Station and Matsumoto Castle.

We hopped through the crowds to Nawate Dori, and we could see frogs abounding throughout – we were not sure why… It was apparently Tokyo University of Art students who created a fiberglass sculpture of the creature at the entrance, but that’s not the last of the amphibian fun, which has become something of a theme – they were everywhere! The street is home to more than 50 shops, restaurants, and cafes most famous for selling all things frog-related.

Know where you are

History of Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle, originally called Fukashi Castle, which was built during the Eisho period of the Warring States period on flat land beside the swamp, rather than being on a mountain or between rivers. The lack of natural defenses meant that this castle had to be extremely well-constructed in order to protect the people living inside.

Matsumoto Castle

For that reason, the castle was surrounded by a triple moat and extraordinarily high, strong stone walls. The fortress included three different rings of fortifications; an outer earthen wall almost 2 miles around that was designed to deaden cannon fire, an inner ring of residences for the samurai, and then the main castle itself.

Matsumoto Castle surrounded by triple moat

Construction on the current form of Matsumoto Castle was between 1504 and 1508 under Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan, lord of the castle at the time. The original fortress was taken by the Takeda clan in 1550, and the by Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate).

Kuromon (black gate), the main gate of Matsumoto Castle

After Japan’s reunification, the Fukashi Castle was awarded to the Ishikawa family, who began construction on the present castle in 1580, Ishikawa Yasunaga, the second daimyo, built the primary donjon (central building and towers) of Matsumoto Castle in 1593-94.

Ninomon (inner gate)

Over the years to 1871 there were 23 rulers from six different clans who ruled the complex. After this time the Japanese government took control of the complex and much was demolished in this time. Matsumoto Castle went on to be designated a National Treasure in 1952. After the castle miraculously escaped Allied bombing during World War II.

The remaining five structures of Matsumoto Castle include the great keep, the small northwest keep, Watari Tower, Tatsumitsuke Tower and Tsukimi Tower which are all connected.

Our Visit to Matsumoto Castle

Majestic Matsumoto Castle with the Japan Alps in the background

We admired the view across the moat and the contrasting black and white of the shining Japanese Alps makes for splendid scenery, with the dark black appearance, it stands like a crow for all to see. Matsumoto Castle, is one of Japan’s oldest fortresses, together with Himeji Castle, Hikone Castle and Inuyama Castle.

We then purchased our tickets to enter the castle grounds. The ticket enables admission to both Matsumoto Castle and the Matsumoto City Museum which is next door.

The castle gets more and more imposing the closer one gets

As we got closer we noticed the intricate, ornamental designs that adorn the castle, giving it its strong yet stunning appearance. The black paint gave the castle its nickname “Karasujo” (Crow Castle) and we could see why.  We couldn’t help but be completely enamored with the architecture of the castle.

We walked through the grounds to the main keep, and then had to take our shoes off as is required in most Japanese castles and temples, and carry them in the provided plastic bag.

Black wooden interior

Once we got inside, we were greeted with the black wooden interior, apparently, the dark color was designed to terrorize approaching opponents. The castle was built purely for military purposes, as we could see the castle’s windows are thickly latticed to protect against incoming arrows and bullets. If intruders were to overcome the initial defenses, they could be shot at through small openings in the walls of the keeps and towers. The openings in the walls were designed for arrows (yazama), guns (teppozama) and for dropping large stones (ishiotoshi).

Windows of the Castle with small openings in the wall
Artifacts at Matsumoto Castle    

Japanese body Armour at Matsumoto Castle

Our enthusiasm quickly increased once we saw inside the castle. There was an immense array of artifacts featured and displays of armor, guns and Japanese swords which were truly amazing. The castle has six stories, including a hidden floor where the samurai warriors could rest, store their food and keep their powder dry.

As we climbed the steep steps, that were incredibly steep, with some of them having a 50-degree angle and 40 cm high per stage, we realized it was definitely worth making the ascent. Once we reached the top viewing deck, we were rewarded by the stunning views of the Southern Alps and Matsumoto city in all directions.

Steep stairs at Matsumoto Castle

In the end, we both enjoyed our visit to Matsumoto Castle. We very much loved the strong stone wall architecture, beautiful grounds surrounded with cherry trees and pine trees, and the interior with a range of historical relics. It was an authentic experience for us.


Matsumoto Castle Information:

Opening Hours: 08:30 – 17:00 (last admission at 16:30)
Closed on 29th December – 31st December
Admission: JPY 610

Matsumoto City Museum of Art

Appreciation, Representation, Learning and Communication are the four “fundamental themes” of the Matsumoto City Museum of Art (Matsumoto-shi Bijutsu-kan) which features works by the city’s most famous daughter, Yayoi Kusama, as well as other local artists.

It was a pleasant 15 minutes’ walk from Matsumoto Castle. The museum building is a work of art in itself. Built from glass and wood to take full advantage of the views of the outdoor lawn.

Flower of Illusion

When we arrived at Matsumoto City Museum of Art, the first thing catches our eyes was the field sculpture “Flowers of Illusion” displayed outside beside the entrance.

As we walked in, we purchased the entry tickets. The museum was well-presented. Funky, colorful Matsumoto native, Yayoi Kusama makes a great contribution to this museum. From the giant vibrant flowers that greet us in front of the museum, to the dotted cola machines, to a collection of her work displayed in the permanent collection, Kusama’s cheerful, pop-art is whimsical, fun and uplifting.

We felt like we were walking through her world. We were blown away, it was like stepping into another world. We had never seen anything like it! While contemporary art may not appeal to everyone, this exhibit was fresh and rewarding.

Matsumoto City Museum of Art Information:
Opening Hours: 09:00 – 17:00 (closed on Monday)
Admission: JPY 410

Getting Around Matsumoto City

It is relatively easy to get around central Matsumoto on foot or free bicycle but the city is quite spread out so making use of one of the Town Sneaker buses is a good idea. There are three loops: north, east and south, radiating out from the main station. Fares are 100 yen or buy a 300 yen day-pass.

There is a Matsumoto City Tourist Information Center inside the modern JR Matsumoto Station, right in front of the ticket gates, and another one block south of Matsumoto Castle. Hours for both: 09:00 – 17:45, (closed on 29th December – 3rd January).

Note: The information provided in this post was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service.