Hello everyone! Last Saturday our friend Yusuke drove us to see Matsumoto Castle in Nagano, a prefecture southwest of Gunma, where we are. It’s a three and half to four hour drive to get there, so we left bright and early!
Our friend Jansen loves his puns, and he was ready when he got into the car: “Oh hey guys,” he said cheerfully, “did you all bring money to put in the pot?” (We brought money to help Yusuke pay for the tolls and gas.)
“Oh no…” said Katie, seeing Jansen’s hand go down to his bag.
“Oh yes,” said Jansen, holding up the damn teapot he brought along just for that joke.
Once we got moving, we quickly reached the mountains. We were reminded of how small Japan is; it’s only the fact that there are so many mountains to weave through that it takes so much time to traverse. (Also, we’re used to biking and taking trains. I were absolutely floored when we passed the city Maebashi after only an hour after leaving home; by train, it’s a 3-hour ride!)
The mountains were absolutely beautiful. And it was nice to be travelling in a car again!
We also saw Mount Asama, an active volcano, smoking slightly in the distance.
We got into town around noon and hit up a soba restaurant, because Matsumoto is famous for its soba noodles! (I made a post about it here.)
Afterwards, we went to Matsumoto Castle! The first thing we saw were the koi fish in the moat. They were huge! Apparently the dark-coloured ones are eaten, while the orange and white ones are decorative.
The main structure of Matsumoto Castle was built between 1593 and 1594 by Kazumasa and Yasunaga Ishikawa. The castle is also called the “Crow Castle” (Karasu-jou), because the outside is black. Compared to other castles, which are built on hilltops, it’s a bit of an oddity, and its early inhabitants relied on the moats and gatehouses for defence rather than a natural slope.
As we walked through the main gates, we passed several lanterns marked with different family crests. This is the Tokugawa’s clan crest, the family that ruled Japan as shoguns in the years between 1603 and 1867. I see this crest everywhere!
From the outside, the castle appears to have five floors—but there’s actually a hidden floor, just above the second floor, called the Dark Floor because it has no windows. According to signs inside, this floor was used for storage.
Fair warning to anyone wanting to visit this place—there are seven flights of stairs, and they are steep. Between the fourth and the fifth floor is the steepest, and each step rises 40 cm (15.7 in.) at a 55-61 degree incline. Paul and Katie had extra trouble because of their height, and the ceiling going up the stairs is low as well.
Not only that, but you have to take off your shoes before you enter, so you have to be careful not to slip on the smooth wooden floors. And there was no heating, so it got cold towards the top!
Inside, everything was made of wood. Impressively, this is the original castle! Most ancient castles, shrines, or temples in Japan have been rebuilt once or multiple times, burned down by fires; supposedly, Matsumoto Castle has been spared because of the blessing of the the Goddess of Nijuroku Yashin (the 26th goddess of the month).
On the top floor is a sign saying: “On the night of January 26, 1618, in a vision, one of the young vassals on duty saw a woman dressed in beautiful clothes. Handing him a brocade bag, she said, ‘If the lord of the castle enshrines me with 500kg of rice on the 26th night of every month, I will protect the castle from fire and enemy.’ It is believed that because the bag was deified the castle was preserved and has survived to be the oldest castle in its original form.”
In the rafters you can see a shrine for the goddess.
Many artefacts were laid out for viewing on the floors leading up to the top; the second floor is actually a gun museum, Teppo Gura. It was so interesting!
We got to see pieces from the original roof:
Guns (from flintlocks to revolvers to bayonets), hand cannons, and a fascinating section on how they made the bullets:
And of course, samurai armour:
At the top we had a magnificent view of the castle grounds and the surrounding city:
When we finally made it back down, we found a couple of cosplayers outside taking pictures with tourists!
Afterwards, we headed back out towards the car. We stopped at a beautiful shrine next to the parking lot and poked around for a bit.
Before we started our drive back, Yusuke stopped to buy oyaki, a Japanese dumpling made from fermented buckwheat dough wrapped around vegetables, fruit, or anko bean paste. It looked good, but I was still full from lunch, so I just took a picture of his! (Thanks Yusuke, haha!)
The drive back was beautiful.
We finished up with some katsu kare (fried pork cutlet and curry) at a rest stop (and holy cow, these rest stops are so clean and fancy compared to the ones we have in the Midwest US!)
It was a fantastic trip! It made me really regret not having a car. In Gunma prefecture, there are so many amazing and beautiful places (Gunma is especially famous for its onsens, or hot springs), but most of them are quite a distance from train stations and are really only accessible by car.
Thank you so much for driving, Yusuke! It was nice to be able to go somewhere new in comfort and just sit back and watching everything pass by the window.
We had a great crew, can’t wait to go exploring with these guys again!
And of course, Paul is my favourite traveling buddy:
If you’re ever in Nagano, be sure to check out Matsumoto Castle!
Until next time! またね！
(P.S. — Also if you’re in Nagano and have the means to get there, there’s the Daio Wasabi Farm, about half an hour north of Matsumoto! For some reason I didn’t find out about the farm until today?? Not sure if we could have made it Saturday anyways, so that’ll just have to be a trip for another day!)