Thursday, April 25, 2013

Matsumoto (Crow) Castle

by Carol McGrath

After 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
Matsumoto was a fortress, a magnificent three turreted dungeon and I suggest that exploring its interior allows us to sense what the interior of a castle such as Dol might have been like.

The first gateway into Matsumoto Castle

It was built on top of a stone wall, not an earth motte and it was built elaborately in wood. From the outside the main donjon appears to consist of five levels but once inside you see that it is actually six storeys high. From the stone wall it measures 25.4 metres high at the ridge.

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
Exploring Matsumoto is drifting on an adventure into the past. The wooden grain of the great door is soft and glowing to this day. Here one is provided with slippers to shuffle up wooden stairs that become increasingly steep and narrow as they approach the top storeys. Wide corridors circle the square shape inside. It is around this circuit that samurai warriors would have clattered and clanked to defend their castle if there was an attack.

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
Finally just like European castles this castle had a castle town but it appears to have been systematically planned. The castle town radiated outwards in three circles, the second and third of which were reserved for important officials whilst low ranking samurai and footmen lived outside the main enclosures. This castle town was composed of samurai, townspeople and religious institutions- not so very different from any medieval European Castle town but very, very organised.

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.


  1. Fabulous Carol, and lucky you getting to see it in person.

  2. Thank you for reading it. I loved Japan and simply have to return soon.


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