Among all the castles in Japan, only twelve have a castle keep from the Edo period (1603 – 1867). Furthermore, among the twelve, only five are designated national treasures. So if you are searching for the best castle to visit for your next Japan trip, consider Matsumoto City‘s symbol, Matsumoto Castle (松本城), a national treasure with the northern Japanese Alps as a backdrop!
In the past, there used to be high walls around Matsumoto Castle. So we are fortunate to be born in an equal world where we can see the astonishing scenery from the castle because centuries ago, this view could only be admired by those with high social status!
Among the twelve castles that escaped the fate of being demolished in the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), Matsumoto Castle is the only one constructed on flat land. To enhance its defensibility, it used to have three moats protecting the castle.
Although most of the outermost moat was buried in the Meiji period, plans have been made to restore the moat.
If you have been to a Japanese castle already, you will be impressed by this castle’s tall keep. Currently, there are only two castles in Japan with a five-story castle keep, with Matsumoto Castle Keep being the older one (the other one is the elegant Himeji Castle in Hyōgo Prefecture).
A List of Contents
- The Appearance of Matsumoto Castle
- Matsumoto Castle’s Defense Infrastructure
- Matsumoto Castle in the Edo Period
- Matsumoto Castle, Escaping Being Demolished
- Heading to the Matsumoto Castle’s Top Floor
- Cherry Blossoms at Matsumoto Castle
- Fall Foliage at Matsumoto Castle
- How to Get to Matsumoto Castle by Public Transport
- Matsumoto Castle’s Opening Hours and Admission Fee
- Matsumoto City Museum (松本市立博物館)
Explore Matsumoto Castle and Matsumoto City With a Guided Tour
If you prefer a guide to introduce you to the charms of Matsumoto Castle and Matsumoto City, how about joining one of the below tours?
- Matsumoto Discovery – Half-Day Walking Tour
- Matsumoto Discovery – One-Day Walking Tour
- Ninja & Samurai Armor Experience in Matsumoto
- Matsumoto Castle Tour & Samurai Experience
- Kimono Rental Experience with Professional Styling Service in Nagano
- Matsumoto Castle Tour & Soba Noodle Experience
- Touring Matsumoto by Bicycle
- Matsumoto Castle, Sake, Food & Craft Beer Walking Tour
- Day Tour from Nagano and Matsumoto: Kamikochi & Matsumoto Castle
Free Guided Tour at Matsumoto Castle
From mid-April to October, free guided tours are offered to visitors of Matsumoto Castle. Volunteer guides from the Alps Language Service Association conduct English tours. For more details on how to book a tour guide, please refer to their website HERE.
The Appearance of Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle was initially named Fukashi Castle (深志城) when it was completed in 1504 to protect Ogasawara Clan’s (小笠原氏) Hayashi Castle (林城). After the turmoil of the Warring States period (Sengoku period, 1467 – 1615), the name was changed to Matsumoto Castle when the Ogasawara Clan took back the castle in 1582 (for a more detailed history, please refer to the official website HERE).
You will notice the majority of Matsumoto Castle is black. Apparently, this wasn’t how it used to look initially.
When Toyotomi Hideyoshi was in charge of Japan, Ishikawa Kazumasa (石川数正) took over the castle from the Ogasawara Clan. To show his loyalty to Hideyoshi, when he and his son were renovating and expanding the castle, he changed the color of the outer walls to match Hideyoshi’s Osaka Castle.
In contrast, the Himeji Castle, constructed by Tokugawa Ieyasu’a ally in the late Sengoku period, is white, reflecting a different era in Japanese history.
The castle is repainted every year to maintain Matsumoto Castle’s cool appearance.
The castle keep has a “hidden floor”. From the exterior, the second floor’s roof is the castle’s third floor. So when you reach the top of the castle keep, you will have actually climbed up six floors!
The red bridge west of the castle is called Uzumi Bridge (埋橋). It was only added in 1955. The bridge that matches really well with Matsumoto Castle is undoubtedly an architectural feature that you will want to include in a photo of the castle (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
If you are lucky, there might be a few swans in your photo when they take a leisurely swim around their “backyard” (´▽｀*).
These birds were gifted by Hikone City (Shiga Prefecture) and Takayama City (Gifu Prefecture). In 2020, there were three of them. Hopefully, when you visit Matsumoto Castle, the number of swans will have increased!
Matsumoto Castle’s Defense Infrastructure
Although, after the renovation in the early 1580s, Matsumoto Castle was never under siege. With the castle built in the era of constant civil wars, the style of the castle is simple but sturdy.
To equip it with the ability to win a gun war, the castle’s outer wall has as many as 115 small windows that could be used to snipe any enemies outside.
Compared to castles built in the Edo period, Matsumoto Castle has the most of these types of windows, which are known as Teppōzama (鉄砲狭間) or Yazama (矢狭間).
If the attackers managed to get to the bottom of the castle, there was another defense mechanism.
Remember to carefully check out the floor connecting with the stone wall on which the case is sitting. You will notice the castle is slightly overhanging.
The opening is called Ishiotoshi (石落). Matsumoto Castle has 11 such openings set up on the overhanging parts for stones (or hot water or even excrement) to be dropped to knock off anyone trying to climb up the stone wall.
When you get into the castle, remember to check out these Ishiotoshi, just underneath the Teppōzama or Yazama.
Moreover, the castle’s outer walls are as thick as 30 cm to avoid any bullets coming through the walls. Further, considering the effective range of matchlock guns at the time, the inner moat was built with a width of 60 meters allowing the snipers to be still able to hit their targets.
Lastly, when you are inside the castle, you might need to bend down a bit if you are really tall. The castle’s ceilings are generally low. This was so the samurais couldn’t draw their swords freely inside the building.
Matsumoto Castle in the Edo Period
In the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson, Matsudaira Naomasa (松平直政), became the lord of Matsumoto Castle.
Since ancient times, those who have connections have enjoyed privileges. This is the same for Naomasa and, thus, Matsumoto Castle.
At the time, the Tokugawa shogunate prohibited any castle construction or extension to suppress the power of the feudal lords in the country. But permission was granted to Naomasa to construct the Tatsumi-tsuke Turret (辰巳附櫓) and the elegant Tsukimi Turret (月見櫓).
As such, Matsumoto Castle became the only castle in Japan that has turrets built in different eras.
The small turret with a red banister at one side of the castle is the Tsukimi Turret, with Tatsumi-tsuke Turret behind.
Tsukimi Turret, with big windows overlooking the garden, is the only part of Matsumoto Castle without any defense mechanism, proof that it was constructed in a peaceful era.
When you explore the interior of these turrets, you should also be able to see the difference in architectural styles between the newer turrets and the main part of the castle.
Matsumoto Castle, Escaping Being Demolished
In 1871, all the castles in Japan became the property of the Meiji government. Most of them were auctioned, and those who bought the castles dismantled the buildings and recycled the building materials.
In 1872, Matsumoto Castle, too, was auctioned. But thanks to Kobayashi Unari (小林有也), the principal of Matsumoto junior high school, a preservation society for the castle was formed. As a result, the castle was repurchased and repaired between 1903 to 1913.
Nowadays, many Matsumoto citizens contribute to preserving their city’s symbol. So we have them to thank when we adore this cultural treasure!
Heading to the Matsumoto Castle’s Top Floor
Except for within the top two floors, you will find the lighting inside Matsumoto Castle is dim. This might be one of the reasons that Naomasa wanted to have two turrets constructed.
One of the things that you might want to check out is the pillars. While they probably won’t look much different from other wooden pillars elsewhere, many were from the 16th century.
From the castle’s top floor, you can get a wide view of Matsumoto City and the northern Japanese Alps. In the Sengoku period, it is where the samurais confirmed if there were any signs of the enemy.
In the center of the ceiling, the castle’s object of worship is enshrined. The castle’s god is called Nijūrokuya-shin (二十六夜神). It is believed that because of his protection, Matsumoto Castle still exists today.
Important: All seven sets of staircases in Matsumoto Castle are steep (between 55 – 61 degrees). This is especially the case for the one leading to the fifth floor. So please climb carefully.
Cherry Blossoms at Matsumoto Castle
Around 300 cherry trees surrounding the castle usually bloom in early April. With the snow-capped northern Japanese Alps behind, it is probably the best time of the year to get a stunning photo of the castle.
Starting three days after an announcement by the management office that cherry blossom season has begun, the cherry blossom event Corridor of the Light (Sakuranamiki Hikari no Kairō, 桜並木 光の回廊) will be held for ten days. This is when the castle and cherry trees will be illuminated at night.
So if you happen to be in Matsumoto during the festival, remember to stop by Matsumoto Castle at night for the gorgeous view of the cherry blossoms reflected on the surface of the moat!
For more information, please refer to the official website HERE.
Fall Foliage at Matsumoto Castle
The fall foliage season at Matsumoto Castle usually peaks in late October. If the first snow of the year in the northern Japanese Alps comes early, you will be able to get an even more amazing and colorful photo.
From mid-October to early November, is when the Castle Festival (お城まつり) is held. Many events, such as a Kendo (Japanese martial art with bamboo swords involved) Competition, are held during the festival.
For a list of autumn season events, please refer to the official website HERE.
Other Events at Matsumoto Castle
At Matsumoto Castle, exciting events and festivals aren’t limited to cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons.
How to Get to Matsumoto Castle by Public Transport
To get to Matsumoto Castle, firstly, you have to get to Matsumoto.
- From Tokyo, you can take the bullet train to JR Nagano Station and change the train for Matsumoto. Or, you can take the limited express Azusa-gō (特急あずさ号) from JR Shinjuku Station and get off at Matsumoto Station.
- The trip will take around 3 hours.
- From Nagano, take the limited express Shinano-gō (特急しなの号) and get off at Matsumoto Station.
- The trip will take around 2 hours.
- From JR Matsumoto Station castle exit (松本駅お城口), it is around a 15-minute walk.
- You can also take the Town Sneaker Bus’s (タウンスニーカー) North Course (北コース) and get off at Matsumoto-jō Shiyakusho-mae (松本城・市役所前).
- Refer to HERE and click the PDF underneath “タウンスニーカー北コース” for the timetable for the service. As it comes in Japanese only, please read using the bus stop’s Japanese name.
A List of Transportation Passes Covering Matsumoto
If you plan to explore Matsumoto and the surrounding areas, below is a list of transportation passes covering Matsumoto.
- Shoryudo Highway Bus Pass (3 or 5 Days)
- JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
- 5-Day JR Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Pass
- Highway Bus Tickets to Matsumoto, Hida-Takayama, Shirakawa-go Area (Shinjuku Departure)
Getting to Matsumoto Castle by Hello Cycling
You can also utilize Hello Cycling, a rental bicycle service across Japan that allows you to rent and return a bicycle from and to any Hello Cycling ports/stations 24/7. All you need to do is download the Hello Cycling app to your phone and register an account. If you read Japanese, HERE is the official website.
- One account can borrow up to 4 bicycles.
- The app should automatically change to English when you open it. In case it doesn’t, click on the menu icon and tap on “言語設定”.
- Currently, for Matsumoto City, it is 100 yen per 15 minutes and is capped at 1,800 yen for every 12 hours.
Town Sneaker One-day Ticket (タウンスニーカー1日乗車券)
The cost per bus ride is either 150 yen (West Course) or 200 yen (North, South, and East Course). So, if you plan on visiting multiple attractions by taking the Town Sneaker, purchase the one-day ticket to save on transportation costs!
The ticket is only 500 yen (250 yen for children). It will also give you discounts at major attractions where the bus will be stopping (the national treasure Matsumoto Castle, for example).
If you don’t speak Japanese, the easiest way to purchase a ticket is from Matsumoto Bus Terminal (松本バスターミナル). There should be English-speaking staff around.
You can also purchase a ticket from the Town Sneaker’s driver, who may or may not understand English. If that is the case, utilize the phrase below (or simply show the Japanese to the bus driver).
Town Sneaker Ichinichi Jyōshaken wo Kudasai (タウンスニーカー1日乗車券をください。)
Matsumoto Castle’s Opening Hours and Admission Fee
- The castle is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm daily except between the 29th to the 31st of December.
- The last admission is at 4:30 pm.
- In Golden Week (from the end of April to the 5th of May) and the 1st Saturday of August to the 16th of August, the opening hours are extended to 6 pm.
- The admission fee is
- 700 yen for adults
- 300 yen for elementary and junior high school students
- Please allow 45 – 60 minutes at Matsumoto Castle. If you are visiting the castle on the days when the castle has extended opening hours, allow additional time, as this is usually when the castle is most busy.
Tip: In Golden Week and from the 1st Saturday of August to the 16th of August, if you wear a kimono to Matsumoto Castle, the admission fee will be waived for you.
Matsumoto City Museum (松本市立博物館)
Important: Matsumoto City Museum is currently closed temporarily and is scheduled to be re-opened in May 2023.
Matsumoto City Museum is a facility where you can get an understanding of the city’s history and specialties.
By history, we mean a time way before samurais existed. If you take a tour inside the museum, it isn’t hard to paint a rough picture of the lifestyles in the primitive era through to the 20th century.
Starting from the Meiji period, you can easily see how far technology has improved in the last two centuries. On the other hand, it is also interesting to see how certain things in the township never change.
Regarding Matsumoto’s local specialties, we found the Oshie Hina Dolls (押絵雛) the most interesting.
You might have seen the three-dimensional Hina Dolls that Japanese families place out for Hinamatsuri (Doll’s Day or Girl’s Day). The Oshie Hina Dolls used to be what people used for the festival in the Edo to early Meiji period before the three-dimensional dolls became mainstream.
Although the Oshie Hina Dolls are flat, they are made to produce a three-dimensional effect!
Matsumoto City Museum’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information
Please be advised that the museum is currently closed for relocation and new construction. It is scheduled to re-open in fall 2023.
Explore Other Fascinating Attractions in Matsumoto City
Wonder what else in Matsumoto is worth your time? Check out our list of selected attractions in Matsumoto that you won’t want to miss out on.
There are a couple of places where you can source delicious natural water from in the city center, an art museum filled with Kusama Yayoi’s eye-opening contemporary artworks, places perfect for cherry blossom and fall foliage hunting, and a lot more!
For more information, please refer to our article on Matsumoto!