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There was once a rule prohibiting girls from dancing in the streets of Matsue City. According to legend, if they did, the base of Matsue Castle, the city's symbol, would begin to shake, endangering the towering structure. The legend suggests that Matsue Castle’s Ishigaki stone walls contain a Hitobashira, a human sacrifice entombed within the stonework to act as the castle's guardian spirit. In this case, the Hitobashira was a young girl who loved to dance, and to prevent the castle from ever collapsing, a law was passed prohibiting girls from dancing in the streets, thus avoiding upsetting the spirit within.

Also known as Chidori-Jo, or Plover Castle, Matsue Castle in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, is one of just 12 keeps remaining in original condition and one of five National Treasure-registered castles. Situated high atop Mt. Kameda on the northern banks of Lake Shinji, Matsue Castle was built by Horio Yoshiharu (1544-1611), previously the castellan of Hamamatsu Castle, and his son Tadashi (1578-1604). The Horio clan was awarded the domain for their meritorious deeds in the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Construction began in 1607 and was completed five years later. Horio Tadashi died without an heir, and the Horio clan ended in 1611 with the death of his father, Yoshiharu.

Kyogoku Tadataka then became the Lord of Matsue, followed in 1638 by Matsudaira Naomasa (1601-1666), a grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose descendants ruled until 1871 when the castle was abandoned. Except for the main tower, all surrounding defensive watchtowers, gates, and other structures were demolished in 1875.

Matsue Castle had just eight yagura watchtowers and four gates, which was relatively few for such a large and important castle. However, its Renkaku-shiki layout, hilltop positioning, wide moats, numerous canals, steep embankments, and high ishigaki stone walls provided sufficient defense.

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Standing 23 meters above the seven-meter-high stone tenshu-dai base, Matsue Castle’s tower keep is a fine example of an early Edo period tenshu with five levels concealing six inner floors and an underground basement. Access is via the forward-protruding tsuke-yagura, adjoining the basement. The interior is maintained in excellent condition and contains a fine collection of samurai helmets, armor, weapons, and items of historical interest. Unlike most castles, the main support pillars of Matsue Castle are constructed from multiple timber beams fastened together with staple-like hooks called Kasugai.

The keep is a borogata type tenshu, or watchtower style, similar to the towers of Inuyama, Maruoka, and Nakatsu Castles. Borogata towers resemble temple hall construction, with towers built onto the center of the roof. Matsue’s tower keep has two levels under a temple-like irimoya roof, with a tower section raised on top. The exterior of the lower sections is covered in black shitami-ita, blackened wood paneling protecting the wattle-and-daub-type mud walls beneath, giving the castle an older appearance. Matsue Castle has ishi-otoshi stone-dropping chutes set on the second floor, hidden by the first tier of roofing, a trait shared only with Nagoya Castle. Incidentally, Matsue’s copper-plated rooftop shachi-hoko tiger-fish ornaments are 2.25 meters high, second only to Nagoya Castle. Another point of note is the kato-mado, the elegant candle flame-shaped central window above the second floor roofing and below the third floor’s triangular hafu curved roof gable, adding an attractive design to the otherwise stoic, geometrical structure of the keep.

Interestingly, while most castle eaves are plastered under the edges to cover the wooden beams and panels and prevent fire from spreading, Matsue Castle’s eaves are not plastered, leaving the plain, exposed wood visible from below. The view from the large, open windows on the top floor provides a clear panorama of the town, rivers, and moats below.

 


See also

  • Ueda Castle

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    Ueda Castle in Nagano Prefecture once stood prominently on a cliff overlooking the Saigawa River. Also known as Amagafuchi-Jo, Isesaki-Jo, Matsuo-Jo, and Sanada-Jo, it was built around 1583 by its first master, Sanada Masayuki. This sturdy yet small fortress cleverly utilized the surrounding natural defenses, including the river, steep rocky cliffs, the layout of the town below, and the strategically designed waterways to hinder attackers. Ueda Castle was fortified with seven defensive yagura (watchtowers) atop robust stone walls and had two large gates with watchtowers above them.

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  • Tsuyama Castle

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    Tsuyama Castle, located in Tsuyama City, Okayama Prefecture, is celebrated as one of Japan's top three major hilltop (Hirayama) castles, alongside Himeji and Matsuyama Castles. Originally, Tsuyama Castle comprised 77 structures, including the main keep, various yagura (watchtowers), gates, palaces, and living quarters. For comparison, Hiroshima Castle had 76 structures, and Himeji had 61. The first castle on this site was built in 1441 but was soon abandoned. The large-scale construction that we recognize today began in 1603 under the orders of Mori Tadamasa. The castle served as the administrative base for the Tsuyama Han daimyo, the Mori clan from 1603 to 1697, and the Matsudaira clan from 1698 to 1871.

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  • Tsu Castle

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    Tsu Castle, located in Tsu City, Mie Prefecture, was originally built by Hosono Fujiatsu in 1558 and was known as Anotsu Castle, named after the old region. The site was strategically chosen at the confluence of the Ano and Iwata Rivers, which naturally formed a moat around the castle, while the nearby port served as a vital trade route.

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  • Sasayama Castle

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    Tamba Sasayama Castle, also known as Sasayama or Kirigajo (Mist Castle), is a flatland castle (hira-jiro) situated on a gentle rise in the Tamba region of Hyogo Prefecture. It was constructed in 1608 as part of Tokugawa Ieyasu's strategy to prepare for an attack on Osaka, aiming to bring an end to the Toyotomi clan. Ieyasu ordered the castle's construction using the Tenka Bushin system, engaging 20 former enemy daimyo and their forces to complete the complex within six months. This system kept the former enemies close and preoccupied, financially straining them and limiting their capacity for further conflict. The stones used in Sasayama Castle feature engravings called kokumon, indicating who made each part of the walls and preventing theft by other lords' men.

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  • Sadowara Castle

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    Sadowara Castle in Miyazaki Prefecture was a mountaintop yamajiro castle, initially built by the Tajima clan during the Nanboku-Cho period (1334-1394). As was typical of castles from that era, Mt. Kakusho, the chosen mountain, was terraced to create various baileys, or kuruwa. While defensive structures were constructed at the top and around the mountain, the lord's main living quarters and administrative offices were situated at the mountain's base.

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  • Osaka Castle

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    Osaka Castle is a prominent symbol of Osaka City, originally constructed in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi on the site of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji temple-fortress, which had been the scene of a violent uprising by warrior monks and peasants in the late 16th century. Modeled on Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, the original Osaka Castle tenshu (tower keep) featured five visible floors, six interior floors, and two underground basements. The exterior was lacquered black and adorned with gold decorations, including large peony flowers, tigers, birds, and various crests.

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  • Okazaki Castle

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    The Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was born in Okazaki Castle in 1542 during a period of significant civil unrest. At that time, the Tokugawa, then known as the Matsudaira, controlled the rice-rich Mikawa plains of what is now eastern Aichi Prefecture. This fertile region was highly coveted by surrounding warlords. Ieyasu, a shrewd leader and brilliant tactician, managed to maintain and expand his territories. Following in the footsteps of other national unifiers, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Ieyasu emerged victorious at the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. In 1603, he was invested as Shogun, a title he made hereditary, enabling the Tokugawa family to rule Japan for the next 250 years.

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  • Ogaki Castle

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    Ogaki Castle, located in Ogaki City, Gifu Prefecture, was originally built around 1500 by Miyakawa Yasusada and named Ushiya Castle due to the Ushiya River serving as a natural moat. The castle was also known as Bi Castle and Kyoroku Castle. The Ogaki region held strategic importance as a transit point between Mino and Omi Provinces, a fact recognized by Saito Dosan, the Viper of Mino. When Oda Nobunaga captured Gifu Castle in 1567, Ogaki Castle came under Oda rule. Both Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi understood the strategic significance of the castle. In 1595, Hideyoshi ordered Ito Sukemori to expand the castle and construct the Tenshu keep.

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