In the heart of Shimane Prefecture, a place where tradition and modernity seamlessly coexist, Matsue Castle stands tall, an iconic symbol of Japan’s rich cultural heritage. This majestic castle, also known as the “Black Castle” due to its striking dark exterior, holds within its walls a captivating history, surrounded by enchanting gardens and complemented by unique curiosities that make it a must-visit destination for any traveler seeking a genuine Japanese experience.

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History Unveiled

Matsue Castle, constructed in the early 17th century during the Edo period, offers visitors a glimpse into Japan’s feudal past. Commissioned by Horio Yoshiharu, the castle’s towering presence served not only as a military stronghold but also as a residence for the ruling Matsudaira clan. Over the centuries, Matsue Castle has weathered wars, fires, and the passage of time, making it one of the few remaining original castles in Japan.

Amidst a period of transformative change, a crisis emerged that significantly impacted Japan’s cultural landscape: the 1873 Ordinance for Disposal of Castles. This mandate led to the dismantling of numerous castles nationwide, including Matsue Castle. Unfortunately, all structures surrounding the castle tower fell victim to this decree. In the face of an imminent threat to the castle tower itself, the local community rallied together, exerting tremendous effort to rescue this historical treasure. Their perseverance ultimately paid off, ensuring that Matsue Castle stands proudly today, virtually unchanged from its original state four centuries ago. This remarkable feat stands as a testament to the dedicated individuals who spared no effort in preserving a piece of Japan’s rich heritage, allowing us to marvel at the castle’s timeless beauty today.

A noteworthy historical revelation occurred in May 2012 when two wooden kitofuda (protective prayer tablets) were unearthed at Matsue Shrine, located within the castle grounds. These tablets, originally affixed to the central pillars in the castle keep’s basement, bore inscriptions confirming the completion of the castle keep in the New Year of 1611. This significant finding prompted the official designation of the Matsue Castle keep as a national treasure in 2015, solidifying its historical and cultural importance. Explore Matsue Castle to witness this tangible link to the past, where every stone tells a story of resilience and enduring legacy.

Inside Matsue Castle

Despite its outward appearance as a four-story structure perched on an independent raised stone foundation, the interior unveils an additional basement level, bringing the total to five stories. Accessible through a tsukeyagura (attached tower) boasting a formidable iron door, the keep’s striking deep black aesthetic leaves a lasting impression.

The interior structure of Matsue Castle is a marvel, featuring toshibashira (through-pillars) that ingeniously connect multiple floors. These pillars, a key element of the castle’s architecture, pass seamlessly through one level to the next, creating a robust and interlinked framework. The staggered arrangement of these toshibashira provides unparalleled support to the entire structure, showcasing an advanced technique for its time.

As Matsue Castle marked the shift from “watchtower design” (borogata) to “multi-leveled design” (sotogata), its innovative construction mirrors a pivotal period in Japanese castle architecture. Notably, the toshibashira technique employed in Matsue Castle is a precursor to similar designs found in other notable castles like Nagoya Castle, known for its early sotogata keep.

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Built for war

Constructed with battle in mind, the Matsue Castle keep stands as a formidable fortress. This architectural marvel boasts strategic defenses, including ishiotoshi (openings for launching attacks from above using rocks or weapons), teppozama (wall openings designed for rifle-based assaults), and yazama (strategic wall openings for arrow attacks). Navigating through the castle, the internal path unfolds with numerous bends and twists, fortified by strategically placed doors and teppozama at every turn. This intricately designed layout creates an intimidating scenario, ensuring a relentless defense against any potential invading force.

In 1644, responding to the Edo Shogunate’s directive, feudal lords across Japan were tasked with crafting maps of their castles. Surprisingly, 63 of these historical maps have endured the test of time, including the Izumo-nokuni Matsuejo Ezu – a captivating pictorial representation of Matsue Castle. Yet, a notable distinction arises when comparing the depicted Matsue Castle keep in this ancient map to its present-day counterpart. The map authentically captures the castle’s appearance during the early Edo period, shedding light on the transformations it underwent through subsequent repairs, ultimately shaping its current form. Examining this map from a historical perspective provides valuable insights into the evolution of Matsue Castle.

The intricate details of the Izumo-nokuni Matsuejo Ezu unveil architectural elements, such as the chidori hafu – distinctive triangular-shaped gables with gracefully bowed edges. Interestingly, these particular features, once gracing the castle, are absent from its contemporary structure. However, keen-eyed observers exploring the castle keep may still encounter remnants or traces of these unique architectural elements, offering a tangible link to Matsue Castle’s bygone era. The subtle variations in the castle’s design, as portrayed in this historic map, underscore the importance of understanding its early Edo period aesthetics.

Significantly, the Matsue Castle keep depicted in the Izumo-nokuni Matsuejo Ezu likely exceeded the visual grandeur witnessed today. The map serves as a time capsule, transporting viewers back to an era when Matsue Castle stood as a formidable symbol of power and prestige. Delving into the historical context of this pictorial map allows us to appreciate not only the architectural nuances of Matsue Castle but also the enduring legacy of this remarkable structure that has withstood the test of time.

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Practical Tips for Your Visit

When planning your visit to Matsue Castle, consider the best times to explore both the castle and its surroundings. The spring months, particularly April, offer a stunning backdrop of cherry blossoms, transforming the castle grounds into a picturesque haven. Autumn, with its vibrant foliage, is equally captivating, providing a different yet equally enchanting atmosphere.

A Fusion of Past and Present

Matsue Castle seamlessly blends its rich history with the vibrant contemporary life of Shimane Prefecture. Surrounding the castle, Matsue City offers a range of accommodations, from traditional ryokans to modern hotels, providing a comfortable stay for every traveler. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore local eateries, where you can savor regional delicacies such as Lake Shinji’s fish and shellsfish and traditional Izumo soba noodles.

As you wander through Matsue Castle and its grounds, take a moment to appreciate the harmony between the historical and modern elements. Whether you’re an avid history enthusiast or simply seeking a peaceful retreat, Matsue Castle promises an unforgettable journey through time and culture, leaving you with cherished memories of your Japanese adventure.