The town of Matsumoto, gateway to the Japanese Alps, is defined by its castle.
One of four castles designated as National Treasures, Matsumoto Castle – also known as “Crow Castle” for its contrasting black and white appearance – is the oldest surviving wooden castle in Japan.
What sets this castle apart from others in Japan is that it is built on flat land rather than on a mountain or between rivers. Its lack of natural defences is reflected in its original layout: important buildings and structures were protected by three different rings of fortifications and three moats.
Construction of the present castle commenced in the 1580’s and the three turreted donjon, comprising the central building and towers, was completed shortly before the turn of the century.
The original surface area of the moats equalled 140,000 square meters. The inner moat at the foot of the donjon, which for the most part retains its original shape, has a width of 58 meters at its widest place – a distance deemed just out of reach of attackers’ cannon fire – and a depth of 3.2 meters at the deepest point.
Within the area enclosed by the inner moat – the First Circle – were the main castle and four connected buildings, separated from the Second Circle by a Kuromon – or Black – Gate at the south-east.
Inside the U-shaped Second Circle were the palaces – including the residence of the Lord of Matsumoto and his government headquarters – a garden, rice granary and various storehouses. The front gate to this enclosure was a third double-gated square with Taiko-mon, or Drum Tower Gate, facing to the east side.
The Second and Third Circles were reserved for important samurai officials while lower ranking samurai lived outside the enclosure in the town itself.
The Third Circle was surrounded by a 2.2 kilometre moat. Four entrances were set up at the fringe of the Third Circle, each bearing umadashi (horse stands) to ensure a strict defence of the enclosure.
Between 1600 and 1868, a series of feudal lords controlled the castle. The advent of the Meiji Restoration period in 1868 ushered in major change in Japan and almost brought down Matsumoto Castle with it. Tokyo replaced Kyoto as the nation’s capital and the power of feudal lords came to an end with restoration of the emperor’s power. Feudal lands were returned to the emperor and in 1869, the last feudal lord of Matsumoto Castle – Toda Mitsuhisa – turned over authority for the main castle complex, First Circle and most of the Second Circle to the Imperial Court in Tokyo.
Due to a shortage of funds, the new imperial government had decided to demolish the castles and sell off the lumber and fittings. By December 1871, various structures of the outer circles of Matsumoto Castle including keeps, gates and walls were destroyed and the donjon complex sold. It was only due to the actions of a local conservationist that the entire complex was not lost forever. In 1878 Ichikawa Ryozo and the local community purchased the castle before the imperial wrecking ball could wreak any further havoc.
But Matsumoto Castle’s troubles weren’t over. With insufficient funds to carry out maintenance, the main donjon began to tilt dangerously in the early twentieth century. A local benefactor, Kobayashi Unari, saved the day by raising enough funds to restore it. The castle managed to survive World War II and was declared a national treasure in 1952. It has never seen active service. 
The castle we know today is a smaller version of the original complex.
While the inner moat remains intact, the third and most of the second moats have since been filled in and developed. The remaining surface area of the moats has reduced to 30,000 square metres, one fifth of its original extent. Within the area enclosed by the first moat, the castle survives, but the palaces have disappeared, their footprint barely noticeable in the garden forecourt to the castle
Notwithstanding the paring away of its outer parts, the castle remains the single most important reason for visiting Matsumoto, a towering presence that dominates the landscape. It is a functional, yet beautiful example of a feudal era Japanese castle, faithfully restored to the way it was in the early 1600’s.
Passing through the first floor one marvels at the massive pillars made of hemlock, cypress and pine, floorboards milled to widths unimaginable in this age of cost-cutting and no doubt several times as thick.
The second floor has largely been turned over to a museum of weaponry. Some of the tools of war would be familiar to European eyes including a matchlock musket, copied from a Portuguese original that fell into the hands of a feudal lord.
The windowless third floor was unknown to enemies outside and a useful place to keep warriors safe during times of battle.
The fourth floor was where the castle’s lord stayed in times of emergency and the fifth used for tactical meetings by the military officers.
The top floor was designed as a watchtower and requires careful negotiation of very steep steps. A god named nijuroku ya shin (god of 26 nights) has a dedication in the center of the ceiling to protect Matsumoto Castle.
As one moves through the various floors of the castle, every opening affords spectacular views of the town below and the mountains in the distance, through trees dappled with cherry blossom if you’re lucky enough – as we were – to visit in March or April. These openings also let in blasts of cold air, making one ponder what it must have been like for the samurai inside. This was, and still is, a castle with no creature comforts and if you’re going to make it all the way to the top level, you will have to climb the stairs the way the lords and the samurai did all those centuries ago. Matsumoto Castle’s authenticity is beyond question.
Which brings us to the central question of this post: should the castle be classified as a World Heritage Site?
The city fathers certainly think so and apparently have mounted their case for its inclusion. Unfortunately, according to our English-speaking guide, a major stumbling block is the incompleteness of the second moat. Before the case for inclusion can go ahead, the missing part of this moat needs to be reinstated.
Matsumoto Castle is located about a 15 minute walk across the centre business district of town to Matsumoto Station. While the castle is well located to tourism, the area is also very well suited to inner city living.
The portion of the second moat that was filled in and developed is currently occupied by somewhere between 60 and 100 dwellings, possibly more. The housing is modest and while I was unable to confirm from our guide the economic circumstances of its occupants, I would hazard a guess that at least some of them are not well off and would benefit from living close to facilities and services in the town centre.
For the longer term residents among them, bonds of friendship and support are likely to have developed over the years, helping to forge community cohesion and create social capital. The latter could take the form of knowing where to shop, how to find services, where to find work, even down to helping a neighbour to change a light bulb.
Reinstatement of the second moat would mean demolishing these houses and moving the residents elsewhere. Whither exactly, our guide didn’t know, but I would find it hard to imagine that they could be relocated en masse to another inner city location. The lack of available land is likely, at the very least, to prevent this from happening.
Irrespective of where they end up – and 80% of residents have accepted the compensation package offered – it is more likely than not that this community would be dispersed.
Average household size in Japan in 2010 was 2.42. Assuming that, say, 100 houses are to be demolished, this equates to the relocation of 242 persons.
In a town of around a quarter million people, that represents 0.001%. Doesn’t seem like many.
Or does it?
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