Matsuyama Castle/松山城

One of the things I was most looking forward to on our trip to Matsuyama in May 2015 was a visit to Matsuyama Castle. I’d read about the castle on Uncovering Japan as part of my research into whether using the ropeway to get to the top of the castle hill was really necessary (I don’t like heights and like ropeways and cable cars even less!). I was relieved to read that walking up to the castle wasn’t too much effort, despite the hill being 132 metres high.

Our hotel was directly opposite the castle hill and park, on the western side of town, and we had a great view from our hotel window.

You can just about see the top of the main donjon peeking above the trees. We chose to walk up to the castle using the path that starts along the road to the left on the photograph, and then to the north of the tan coloured apartment block. It was quite a steep climb, but worth it. The start of the path was up some steepish steps tucked away at the side of the road.

The path curves its way up the side of the castle hill, through quite dense trees. The sound of birds chirping as we climbed was lovely. The path is paved and mostly well maintained. There was the odd point where the path was compacted dirt and the steps were tree roots crossing the path, but it wasn’t anything that impeded our progress.

We emerged at the top of the path alongside the North Turret, which was a very imposing sight.

As we paused to take photographs, I was approached by an elderly Japanese man, sheltering from the sun underneath a large umbrella. He wanted a chat, and I responded to his “Hello” with a “今日は”. This prompted him to ask if I worked in Matsuyama. I tried to say that I was a tourist, but he thought I meant that I worked for the Matsuyama tourist office! He then broke into English and told us that he loved England, was 71 years old, and when he retired 11 years previously from being a policeman he went to London and saw some impressive buildings then went to Waterloo and caught a train to Paris. It was, apparently, the best experience of his life. He gave a big beaming smile, told us that he was pleased to have met us, and that we had helped him to learn English. Then he toddled off under his umbrella. What a lovely man! He was so small and unfrightening, that my husband and I had trouble imagining him as a policeman.

Matsuyama Castle is one of 12 “original” castles that survive from the Edo era. It was built over a 26 year period between 1602 and 1627 by Kato Yoshiaki, and in 1635 was awarded to the daimyo for the area, Matsudaira Sadayuki. The Matsudaira clan were related to the ruling Tokugawa family, and ruled the castle and its domain until the Meiji restoration. The family retained ownership until 1923 when they gifted the castle to the city of Matsuyama. Some of the original structure has been lost to arson, lightning strikes and bombing in the Second World War, but different parts have been reconstructed from the Meiji period onwards.

We entered the castle grounds through one of the imposing wooden outer gates.

The small square holes that you can see in the wooden gallery above the gate enabled the occupying forces to fire upon invading troops as they made an assault on the castle.

We rounded a corner and emerged onto an elevated plaza overlooked by inner castle buildings.

One of the buildings in this area is a 2-storey turret that is thought to be the first example in Japan of a castle turret with a look-out window in the gable. Known as the Nohara turret, it dates from the time the castle was originally built and provided protection at the back of the castle.

We carried on further into the castle grounds, past a small grove of purple bamboo next to an inner gate, and came through the gate onto the main plaza in front of the castle keep.

We took the opportunity to collect a couple of castle stamps before buying our tickets to go into the inner part of the castle. The path up into the castle was lined with beautiful purple irises, which are my favourite flower. They complimented the pale stone of the castle walls beautifully.

The route wound its way through more inner gates, past more imposing gabled buildings, to the entrance to the main tower. The original main tower was moved to Aizu in 1627 when Kato vacated the castle. A new main tower was built by Matsudaira Sadayuki in 1642, but this was struck by lightning on New Years Day 1784 and destroyed. The current tower which replaced it was constructed between 1820 and 1854. The entrance to the main tower is through the former grain store, and a sign outside the building explained its construction.

Inside, the room was cool, which was a relief from the blazing sun outside. We swapped our shoes for indoor plastic slippers that resembled crocs and stashed our own footware in wooden lockers. The slippers were a fetching shade of green.

Inside the main tower are a number of exhibits about the history of the castle. As someone who works in museums, I found the interpretation really good. There was a story flowing through the exhibits, and the information provided was well layered, so that you could either take away the headlines from the introductory text or read on and gain more insight into the history of the castle. Among the displays was a suit of armour belonging to Kato Yoshiaki and believed to have been worn by him.

As ever, I was astounded by how small the armour was, as well as how elaborate. I enjoyed thinking about the traditional introduction to battle, where warriors in their fearsome armour would parade about in front of each other before battle would commence. Almost as though it was a fashion show. It’s a shame that the introduction of firearms as the principal means of killing meant that this kind of parade quickly became defunct.

As an archivist, I loved the displays of original documents relating to the layout of the castle. In some ways they were very different to the architectural plans that survive in British archive collections, but in other ways they were very much the same. My favourite was the layered plan that showed the different floors of the castle and the alterations that had been made during its Meiji-era renovations.

In another room were some exquisite samurai swords, with the hilts removed to show the sword maker’s signature.

I think one of the things I liked best about the displays in the main tower was their low-tech appearance. There was no suggestion of style over substance, no flashy electronic interpretation or interactives getting in the way of the story to be told. The objects on display were allowed to speak for themselves.

Following on from the sword displays were more displays of armour used by previous occupants of the castle. The elaborate helmets were my favourite thing.

At different points along the way around the main tower, you could climb up ladders into the turrets and look down on other visitors making their way up to the main tower, or across the rooves to the city. The views were spectacular. We spent some time looking west and trying to spot where our hotel was.

One of the views looked down on the Ninomaru Garden, which is a Japanese garden laid out in the floor pattern of buildings that used to form part of the second bailey of the castle. The second bailey was where the family and its closest retainers used to live. I’ll blog about our visit to Ninomaru Garden separately, but here’s a visual sneak peek of what it looks like from a distance.

We spent about an hour looking around the main tower. There is a section where you can try on some samurai armour, but it was busy with a couple of adult Western men trying to work out how to squeeze their giant frames into small Japanese armour. I enjoyed watching their efforts, which were accidentally comical.

After we had drunk our fill of the exhibits, we headed back out to the plaza in front of the castle and ate our onigiri picnic lunch in a small park area. We also visited the souvenir shop, which doubles as a café, and bought trinkets to bring home, including a one cup sake jar decorated with an image of Matusyama Castle and a Hime Daruma. The Hime Daruma is a sweet symbol of Matsuyama. Daruma refers to Bodhidharma, and is the traditional rounded doll that you see at temples with one eye painted in, waiting for the person who has made a wish to come back and fill in the other eye to say the wish has been fulfilled. Hime means Princess, and refers to Empress Jingu Kogo, who discovered that she was pregnant while staying at Dogo Onsen. The Empress had a doll made that she then offered to the local kami to ask for safe delivery of her child, and so the Hime Daruma was born.

After our souvenir shopping, we sat outside the souvenir shop eating matcha ice cream and watching a bizarre photo shoot taking place in front of the castle. At first we thought it was a pair of newlyweds having some photographs taken, but eventually we worked out that it was more likely to be a publicity shoot featuring people dressed in traditional wedding clothes, because there were no other wedding guests around, and the couple just didn’t seem newly married enough!

We decided to walk a different route down the castle hill, so that we could visit Ninomaru Garden. As we stepped out through the southern outer gate, a woman passed us leading a goat on a rope. The goat was dressed in a bright blue t-shirt and had a pink organza bow in its forelock. They had gone past us before I had chance to reach for my camera, and now I feel as though I dreamt it.

We paused in front of a southern turret to try to take photographs of each other. The trouble was that other people kept walking into shot, or taking their own photographs in front of ours. Eventually, a Japanese couple stopped and the man asked if we wanted them to take our photograph together. My camera confused him at first, but eventually we got the photograph taken and were able to move on, much to the relief of another visitor who had been trying to take a person-less photograph for ages.

Japan is one of the few places in the world where my trepidation about handing my camera over to a stranger isn’t about whether they’re going to run off with it. It’s about whether there’s going to be a decent photograph at the end of it!

I loved visiting Matsuyama Castle. It’s my second favourite castle in Japan now, beaten only by the delicious Nijo Castle in Kyoto. I liked it because it felt like a working castle. I could really imagine the daimyo living there, defending his realm, surrounded by samurai and other retainers. There was something gritty about the buildings and the proliferation of arrow slots and gun embrasures.

Walking to and from the castle also added to the feeling that we were kind of staging an assault on it. I don’t think I would have felt the same about our visit if we’d taken a leisurely and genteel ride up on the ropeway. I enjoyed climbing up the hill, feeling too warm and slightly out of breath, and earning my sit down when we got to the top. The 510円 entrance fee to the castle tower is good value for money as well.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Great write-up! What did you think of the Ninomaru Garden?


    • I loved it! It was so quiet and calm, and I enjoyed exploring the little hidden away parts. The mikan trees were in blossom and the scent was intoxicating. It was nice to sit in the peace and look out across the neat rectangles of plants and water. I took lots of pictures, too, so look out for a blog post coming soon!


  2. Posted by Janet Heineck on 03/09/2015 at 6:11 pm

    What a great article! Text and photos work together beautifully–I felt as though I were walking along with you and your husband.


  3. […] picture above shows a view of Ninomaru Historical Garden from the top of Matsuyama Castle. The garden was top of our list of places to visit while we were in Matsuyama, thanks to a blog […]


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