Wednesday, September 11

Matsumoto

Japan's most famous Samurai castle sits on a small hill overlooking the town of Himeji.  It's soaring white and black turrets are the stuff of postcards, making it a memorable day trip from Osaka. I first visited this castle in 1993, returning again with Garry in 2006.  Naturally, I was keen for Mum to see an authentic Japanese castle as well. They're such a unique design, unlike any castle you'll see in Europe or the Middle East.

Himeji castle is known locally as Shirasagi, which translates as the White Egret.  It's also one of very few Japanese castles preserved in its original wooden form. Sadly, most castles you see these days are ferro-concrete reproductions. More than a dozen were built during a feudal revival fad that swept the nation in the fifties and sixties. 

Himeji castle is currently undergoing a comprehensive five-year restoration.  The work, which began in 2010, is rapidly approaching its peak. This means that the entire structure is currently enveloped by an enormous scaffold structure. This wasn't quite the postcard I had in mind for my mother.  However, a little research uncovered an equally iconic substitute; the photogenic triple towers of Motsumoto Castle in central Honshu. Like Himeji, this castle retains its original wooden form and can be reached easily by train.

Mum and I scheduled a half-day excursion in Matsumoto while travelling to Osaka.  This meant catching an early train from Kawaguchiko station, making a brief transfer at Otsuki before finally arriving at Matsumoto two hours later.  Purely by chance we caught the local railway company's Thomas the Tank Engine train from Kawaguchiko.  It's a two-carriage train painted from top to bottom in cartoon colours and Thomas-related images.  It's classic Japanese kitsch at its best.

Matsumoto Castle didn't disappoint.  Our humble, amateur photos were the equal of those in travel guides and brochures.  The current structure was built around 1595 and incorporates three defensive towers. It's nickname, Karasu-jo, or Crow Castle reflects the wonderfully photogenic dark tones of its exterior. 

Japanese castles are built using three unique configurations; one for mountains, one for local hilltops and one for flat, open plains.  Himeji is a hilltop design, while Matsumoto sits on an open plain.  Like all castles built on flat ground, Matsumoto castle is protected by concentric rings of moats, each wider than the last. 

We later learnt that the width of the inner-most moat reflects the distance at which warriors firing primitive muskets became inaccurate.  Apparently, Matasumoto is one of few castles built late enough in the feudal era to incorporate this sort of defensive feature.  The castle also features a cleverly hidden sixth floor.  From the building's exterior, attackers can only see five levels thus fooling anyone storming its interior.

As Mum and I entered the castle grounds, we were approached by one of the city's Goodwill Guides.  These are local volunteers who take visitors on a guided tour of the castle. Our guide took us on a fascinating hour-long tour.  We weaved through its creaking wooden interior and climbed floor after floor of steep wooden stairs.  The steepest of these stairways rises at an incline of 61 degrees with each step an uncomfortable 40cms high. Its design was clearly meant to make invading warriors as vulnerable as possible.

The castle interior is a fascinating blend of shapes and angles.  As you round one corner, large cedar beams and well-worn floorboards fill the view; then the next corner exotic roof tiles can be glimpsed from a myriad of small windows. Mum and I loved the curving shachihoko gargoyles which perch on the corner of each roof gable.

These mythical creatures consist of a tiger's head and a carp's body.  They protect the castle from the constant threat of fire.  As you can imagine, a wooden building slowly desiccating over centuries is something of tinderbox.

With our tour finished, we stopped for lunch.  We sat on bench in the shade by the carp-filled moat with the castle as our backdrop. We then wandered along the reconstructed streets of Matsumoto's old town district before returning to the station.  The old town was rather disappointing. Our guide book had promised a trip through the streets of yesteryear.  In reality, it all felt rather modern and austere.

Matsumoto is certainly a popular destination. We discovered this to our detriment earlier in the day.  When we arrived at the station, we'd searched in vain for an empty coin-operated luggage locker.  It seemed that every locker large enough to hold our suitcases was occupied.  We searched three separate zones on two levels before finally discovering a row of empty lockers just outside. Panic over. Disaster averted.

We finished our day travelling by train through the scenic Kiso valley to Nagoya where we transferred for Osaka.  Despite its remote location, the valley is filled with endless villages and terraced rice fields. Mum loved the opportunity to see some classic wooden buildings and witness the bustle of village life in the countryside.

Unfortunately, our arrival at Osaka station was a lesson in pure frustration.  We searched in vain for taxi rank to take us to our hotel.  We followed every sign we saw.  None lead us to the taxi rank. We finally found a cab by pure chance outside a small hotel connected to the station. We looked again the following day  but never did find the taxi rank.  It was such an odd experience given how organized everything normally is in Japan. On this occasion, local knowledge was clearly required.

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