Here’s one castle to crow about


They may be unloved and unwanted, but even their detractors would have to admit that Japan’s crows are tough, resilient critters. It is, then, entirely appropriate that the oldest castle in Japan should be named after these intimidating birds. The Japanese of yore had quite a fondness for naming their castles after creatures, and thus it is that Himeji Castle — by general consensus the most elegant fortress in the country — is named White Heron Castle because of its perceived resemblance to the dignified bird. Bearing the sobriquet of Karasu-jo (Crow Castle), the castle of Matsumoto is, as you might suppose, not a dainty little thing.

For most visitors, Matsumoto Castle is the main reason for making the trek to this city in the center of Nagano Prefecture. With the Japan Alps as its spectacular backdrop, Matsumoto’s most celebrated feature does make for quite a sight — solemnly majestic in its Puritan colors of black with a little white trim. Where the White Heron Castle carries a light architectural grace, Crow Castle is a bull-necked, businesslike bastion.

Karasu-jo dates from 1504, when the walls and moat were constructed, and it was completed in 1597. Despite having been built during turbulent times, it was fortunate never to have been involved in any military action. Though made to withstand the onslaught of attacking armies, today the castle faces tourist hordes, who put up with the long delays at the bottom of its steep stairs as they wait for shuffling feet above to clear out of the way.

“Why can’t we use the elevator?” one young girl asked her father as they patiently stood in line. Her question was not completely naive: Such postwar castles in Osaka and Nagoya that have been reconstructed in ferroconcrete have thoughtfully been provided with that modern convenience.

Matsumoto Castle features a moon-viewing room — as life for the samurai was not all soldiering, parties would be here held on fine nights, with those in attendance setting out offerings and composing poetry to celebrate the occasion. While samurai had to decapitate an opponent with a single sweep of the blade, they also had to be as adept at writing sensitive verse in a masterful calligraphic hand.

Calligraphy and other aspects of education were an upper-class privilege in feudal Japan. But when modernization came to the country in the latter half of the 19th century, Matsumoto was quick to recognize the value of education. Kaichi Gakko, located not far from Matsumoto Castle, was founded in 1876, and is Japan’s oldest Western-style school. The school is built in that pleasing, late-19th-century style that combined novel Western and older Japanese notions of architecture, and which subsequent developers have sadly seen fit to eradicate almost completely from Japan’s urban landscapes.

It was in the field of education that Matsumoto’s most famous son was active. Pioneer of the renowned Suzuki Method, Shin’ichi Suzuki was a violin teacher who reasoned that young children had the ability to become proficient at playing musical instruments in the same way that they naturally acquire a native language. Worldwide, there are now some 400,000 people studying various instruments using the method. The Suzuki legacy is evident today in Matsumoto’s Suzuki Shin’ichi Talent Education Hall and the conspicuously large number of musical-instrument shops dotted around town.

Culture of a different sort can be found at the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, a gauche, cuboid concrete-and-glass structure. As the name indicates, the odd building houses the world’s largest collection of ukiyo-e in private hands. Collected by the local Sakai family over five generations, some 100,000 prints dating from the Edo Period (1603-1867) are kept here. The museum features some outstanding works by ukiyo-e luminaries such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, though since the number of pictures displayed at any one time is just 100 to 150, ukiyo-e fans shouldn’t go expecting to feast their eyes on vast numbers of the things.

For those wishing to feast on something a little more substantial, Matsumoto does have local delicacies, such as locusts, raw horsemeat and bee larvae. Tempting though this fare sounded, I elected instead for Kisoya, a restaurant whose specialty is dengaku. A dish of Zen-like simplicity, dengaku consists of small tofu blocks barbecued on bamboo skewers and covered with a heavy miso sauce.

But the real allure is the restaurant itself, with its dark, rough-fashioned beams, aged beige walls and the heavy ticking of its ancient clock like a heartbeat through the building.

The castle may be Matsumoto’s most significant feature, but it was constructed level with the town and so never held any Kafka-like dominion over the place as many Japanese castles did. With the growth of modern high buildings, the castle today is less physically imposing than in former times, but there is no getting away from it as a symbol. And just in case you happen to forget where you are, Matsumoto’s icon adorns everything in the town from shop facades, post boxes and station lockers to, apparently, every single souvenir Matsumoto has ever produced.

Overall, the town wears a friendly aspect. It is a place where shopkeepers or delivery men are happy to spend the time of day chatting to a stranger. Matsumoto has survived as a prosperous, though somewhat out-of-the-way, place, a town that has been happy to keep itself to itself, a town that somehow doesn’t seem to mind that it has never been important enough for anybody to fight over.