Castle over the water: the story of Matsue

Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture is located near the water. This thriving castle town dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) and recently attracted some 10 million visitors a year who came to stroll along the historic streets and leisurely travel along the waterways that criss-cross the city. The horikawa canals are part of the vast moat of Matsue Castle and are filled with the waters of the Ohashi River, which flows from Shinji Lake in the west to the calm waters of Nakaumi Lagoon in the east.

History of the castle

Matsue Castle was built by Horio Yoshiharu (1543-1611), who was the first head of the Matsue domain. This warlord of the Warring States period (1467-1568) was one of the commanders of the troops under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. After the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he joined his son Tadauji, who was appointed ruler of the provinces of Izumo and Oki and settled in Gassantoda Castle, an old mountain fortress in the south of the domain. Yoshiharu saw more potential in Matsue’s rich water resources, and after Tadauji’s early death, he oversaw the construction of Matsue Castle and the surrounding city.

Over time, Matsue came under the control of the Matsudaira clan, who ruled for 10 generations. During this period, the settlement developed into a thriving castle town that developed its own culture, similar to that of Kyoto and Kanazawa. As the arts developed, local types of the tea ceremony developed, artisans created new styles of Japanese wagashi sweets. Around the same time, colorful holidays appear, such as Horan-enya.

Matsue Castle as a National Treasure

Matsue Castle is one of the twelve remaining ancient castles in Japan and the only one in the San’in region. It is called the “Plover’s Castle” because of the characteristic pediments that resemble the spread wings of this water bird.

Another distinguishing feature of the castle is the rows of large black amaoi-ita shutters to keep out the rain, a style typical of Momoyama period (1568-1600) castles.

Matsue Castle has a rich history, but in 1950 it lost the status of a national treasure after the entry into force of a new law that required reasonable evidence of the era in which historical monuments were built, which the castle lacked. The city authorities, appalled at the castle’s delisting, did their best to restore the castle’s prestige over the following decades, including petitioning the national government and offering rewards to citizens who could provide evidence of the castle’s origins.

These efforts proved to be fruitful – in 2012, researchers at the Matsue Shrine on the castle grounds discovered documents related to the construction of the main tower. A document dated 1611 indicated the locations of the two supporting pillars of the tower. Confirming the castle’s age helped restore its long-awaited National Treasure status in 2015.

Matsue Castle is very picturesque, but it should be remembered that it was built for military reasons. In the basement of the central tower there are places to store salt and other foodstuffs. This is the only one of the ancient castles where a well has been preserved, which provided the defenders with drinking water in case of a siege of the castle.

Visitors on the second, third and fourth floors of the tower can see other defensive elements – narrow loopholes for archers and ledges for dropping stones on advancing enemies. At the exposition, you can learn about Japanese armor, matchlock guns, as well as watch a video about the castle with its ramparts and other external defenses, filmed from flying drones.

The fifth level of the tower is an old observation platform, which offers a wide view of the panorama of the city and rural areas. This beautiful view is protected by a city ordinance, according to which it is forbidden to build buildings higher than the castle tower nearby.

Many of the old castle defense towers and other structures were sold or destroyed during the Meiji era (1868-1912), three of them were restored in 2001. The Jozan Park surrounding the castle also has many historical buildings, including the Kounkaku Residence, where Emperor Taishō stayed when he visited the Matsue and Jozan Inari shrines as crown prince. Around 360 cherry trees grow around the castle, making it one of the top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan.

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