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Matsumoto Castle is a designated National Treasure, located on the plains of Matsumoto City in central Nagano Prefecture. As a hira-jiro, or castle built on the plains, it necessitated an extensive system of moats, stone and earthen walls, and gatehouses for defense.

Originally, the site was a fortress used by the Ogasawara clan around 1504. It was later taken by Takeda Shingen in 1550, and subsequently by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who awarded it to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu reinstated the Ogasawara clan, placing Ogasawara Sadayoshi in command. Sadayoshi named the area Matsumoto before Tokugawa Ieyasu replaced him with the trusted general Ishikawa Kazumasa.

From 1590, Kazumasa began rebuilding and expanding the castle but died in 1592. His son, Yasunaga, also known as Gemba, completed the work in 1594, including the current five-story black lacquered wooden-clad tower.

The construction inside the smaller Ko-tenshu tower and the main Tenshu tower is particularly interesting. The upright pillars in the older Ko-tenshu are rounded, while those in the main Tenshu are square, indicating different construction periods. The main keep and sub-keep towers are linked by fortified watari-yagura corridors. Both the Tenshu and Ko-tenshu feature ishi-otoshi rock-dropping hatches at the corners, indicative of their wartime construction. The southeastern corner has an open-plan yagura called the Tsukimi Yagura, or Moon-Viewing yagura, built in 1634 for moon-viewing parties, alluding to its peacetime construction.

The Tsukimi Yagura was added by Matsudaira Naomasa, Tokugawa Ieyasu's grandson, for his cousin, the third Shogun Iemitsu's planned visit, which was ultimately canceled. It is said that during a moon-viewing party in the Tsukimi Yagura, the moon can be seen three times: in the sky, reflected in the moat, and in your sake cup.

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Matsumoto Castle is a collection of five separate National Treasures: the main keep, the Ko-tenshu, the two adjoining corridors, and the Tsukimi Yagura. The outer walls of the tenshu complex are covered in black lacquered shitami-itabari cladding, protecting the mud walls within and giving the castle a somber appearance, especially against the backdrop of the winter snow-capped northern Alps.

In 1872, following the collapse of the feudal system and the start of the Meiji Restoration, Matsumoto Castle was slated for demolition and sold at auction. However, citizens formed a group to save the castle, successfully preserving it for future generations. In the mid-Meiji period, the castle developed a lean, prompting civic groups to repair the tower keep. Designated a National Treasure in 1952, recent improvements have included the reconstruction of several gates and walls.

At the corner of the Taiko Yagura Mon Gate and the current entrance to Matsumoto Castle stands a large, rectangular rock about 2.5 meters high and weighing an estimated 22.5 tons, known as the Genba Stone. Named after Ishikawa Genba, the samurai lord tasked with the castle's redevelopment in 1590, the stone symbolizes power and financial strength. The story goes that Ishikawa Genba, hearing laborers complain about moving the heavy rock, swiftly executed the main complainer and displayed his head as a warning, ensuring the rock was quickly and quietly moved into place.

Matsumoto Castle, also known as Karasu-Jo or Crow Castle due to its black-walled main tower and adjoining towers resembling a crow spreading its wings, is a stunning example of Sengoku period castle architecture. It is one of only five castles designated as a National Treasure and, though off the standard tourist path, remains a remarkable destination.

 


See also

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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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