Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture has a unique place among Japan’s historic buildings. The keep (or Donjon) was built in the late 16th century and is the only surviving Donjon built in wood. All other examples either burned down, or were upgraded to stone construction. Matsumoto Castle (originally known as Fukashi Castle) was never upgraded and was lucky enough to escape the vagaries of fire.
Nicknamed the “Crow Castle” because of its black exterior, it is now one of Japan’s great National Treasures but it almost faced demolition in the nineteenth century when the Meji Government planned to sell the land for redevelopment. The castle was only saved and restored through the action of a few local citizens.
Militarily, the castle has some interesting features. The main tower is entered through an adjoining smaller tower, which appears to have three floors from the outside but has a fourth, hidden floor where defending troops could be massed. All the stairs in the keep were also designed with defence in mind. Every stair is different, with extreme changes in angle and step spacing so that invading troops could not easily rush upwards. The climb to the top of the tower is very difficult even with modern lighting and helpful guides to assist with the steepest climbs.
One floor of the castle has an exhibition of guns, with a fascinating display showing the early development of firearms in Japan.
Matsumoto is a very nice city but tends to be rather out of the way for most western tourists. We got there on a beautiful, exciting (and sometimes scary) bus journey over the Japanese Alps from Takayama but it can be reached from Tokyo in just over 2.5 hours on the fastest train. For the castle alone it is well worth a visit.
See also: Japan 1 – Nishijin Textile Centre