by Carol McGrathAfter the conquest of England in 1066, King William built a series of wooden motte and bailey castles throughout England, but so many centuries later it is impossible to see a genuine wooden castle let alone catch hold of its genuine atmosphere. Most of our impressions come from early medieval drawings, depiction on tapestry and reconstructions.
|a wooden castle in Brittany depicted on The Bayeux Tapestry|
Imagine my excitement when recently in Japan I visited a genuine wooden fortress positioned just within the gateway to the Japanese Alps, one that seemed not so very different from those castles depicted almost fancifully on the Bayeux Tapestry.
Matsumoto Castle, locally known as Crow Castle, does, of course, have distinctive Japanese architectural features. For example it is painted in contrasting black and white which led to its local nickname. Also, it actually dates from 1595 not the eleventh century as does, for instance, Castle Dol in Brittany. Yet, wooden fortresses were common in the middle ages too in Japan usually built in clusters on hilltops to protect the lord's lands and particularly his main residence in the valley below.
|Approaching Matsumoto Castle|
|The first gateway into Matsumoto Castle|
To erect a structure of such a height a large number of pillars was installed at the same spots on the their repetitive floors. Since the ground under Matsumoto is soft raft like frames of slender logs were laid inside the stone wall. The castle has a hip roof covered with black tiles.
The wood used for the most important parts of the castle include spruce, Japanese hemlock, pine and Japanese Cypress. Interestingly when repair work was completed in 1955, seventy per cent of this wood used over four hundred years ago was still intact.
|The pillars and stairways and the wood are original and very beautiful|
The light shining through the castle's latticed windows is perfect, gentle and mellow as it reaches pillars and pools onto the floor (above). The lord of Matsumoto had his sitting room on the second floor where fabulous hinoki pillars stand, where walls would have been delicately painted and also hung with fragile tapestries. On the fourth storey a wooden railing is of note for its decorative corners and exquisite wood grain.
|Japanese Decoration from the castle|
|one view through the slatted windows|
The castle was functional as well as beautiful. Devices for defence include niches for archers, guns and dropping stones. A sixth floor was the castle headquarters during an assault.
The very top contains a shrine to the goddess of the twenty sixth night who was thought to protect against fire and invasion. and via a covered walkway leading from the castle there is another magical moon viewing turret. The walls of the castle complex were hardened with three coats of plaster to hinder the passage of bullets.
|And they were used for defence as well of course|
|across the moat|
I was sad to leave this castle since it does provide a feel I imagine is both similar and different to that of wooden castles constructed in England and in France during the early medieval period. Well, this is until you encounter the samurai at the gate.
Carol McGrath is the author of Daughters of Hastings, the first novel of which, The Handfasted Wife about Edith Swanneck, is to be published by Accent Press later in 2013.