Matsue Castle, National Treasure listed castle. (Shimane Prefecture)
It was once a rule that girls were not allowed to dance in the streets of Matsue City. If they did, the base of the city’s symbol, Matsue Castle, would begin to shake, endangering the towering building. The story goes that Matsue Castle’s Ishigaki stone walls contain a Hitobashira, a human sacrifice, entombed in the stonework to act as a guardian spirit of the castle. In this case, the Hitobashira was a young girl who loved to dance, and so to prevent the castle from ever falling, a law was passed preventing girls from dancing in the streets and ever upsetting the spirit within.
Also known as Chidori-Jo, or Plover Castle, Matsue Castle in Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, is one of just 12 keeps remaining in original condition, and one of five National Treasure registered castles.
Situated high atop Mt. Kameda on the northern banks of Lake Shinji, Matsue Castle was built by Horio Yoshiharu (1544-1611) previously the castellan of Hamamatsu Castle, and his son Tadashi (1578-1604). The Horio clan were awarded the domain following their meritorious deeds in the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Work commenced in 1607 and was completed five years later. Horio Tadashi died without an heir, and so the Horio clan came to an end in 1611 with the death of his father, Yoshiharu.
Kyogoku Tadataka was then made Lord of Matsue, followed in 1638 by Matsudaira Naomasa, (1601-1666) a grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose descendants ruled until 1871, when the castle was abandoned. Except of the main tower, all surrounding defensive watchtowers, gates and other structures were demolished in 1875.
Matsue Castle’s surrounding watchtowers provide a sense of the castle’s strength
Simple but effective sumi yagura
watchtowers covered the corners
Steep stone walls protected the central bailey
Matsue Castle had just eight yagura watchtowers and four gates surrounding and protecting it, very few for such a large and important castle. However the Renkaku-shiki layout of the castle with the Honmaru and other precincts set out in alignment, its hilltop positioning, wide moats and numerous canals surrounding the fortress and town, the steep embankments and high ishigaki provided sufficient defense.
Matsue Castles’ moats and canals provided additional protection
Walking the grounds reveals numerous defensive features
Standing 23 meters above the seven meter-high stone tenshu-dai base, Matsue Castle’s tower keep is a fine example of an early Edo period tenshu with five levels concealing six inner floors, and an underground basement. Access is via the forward protruding tsuke-yagura, adjoining the basement. The interior is maintained in excellent condition and contains a fine collection of samurai helmets, armour, weapons and items of historical interest. The main support pillars are not single wooden hashira pillars like in most castles, but made from a number of timber beams clipped together with staple-like hooks called Kasugai.
Steep stairs within the keep of Matsue Castle
Sturdy wooden pillars over 400 years old
One of only 12 keeps in original condition nationwide
The keep is a borogata type tenshu or watchtower style, rather like the towers of Inuyama, Maruoka, and Nakatsu Castles. Borogata towers resemble temple hall construction, with towers built onto the center of the roof. Matsue’s tower keep has two levels under a temple-like irimoya roof, and a tower section raised on top. The exterior of the lower sections are covered in black shitami-ita, blackened wood paneling protecting the wattle-and- daub-type mud walls beneath, giving the castle an older appearance. Matsue Castle has the so-called ishi-otoshi stone dropping chutes set on the second floor, hidden by the first tier of roofing, a trait shared only with Nagoya Castle. Incidentally, Matsue’s copper plated rooftop shachi-hoko tiger-fish ornaments are 2.25m high, second only to Nagoya Castle. Another point of note is the kato-mado, the elegant candle flame-shaped central window above the second floor roofing, and below the third floor’s triangular hafu curved roof gable, providing an attractive design addition to the otherwise stoic, geometrical design of the keep.
Matsue Castles’ National Treasure listed Tenshu keep
Decorative rooftop Shachihoko
Believed to have protected the structure from fire
Interestingly, while most castle eves are plastered under the edges, covering the wooden beams and panels to prevent fire from spreading, Matsue Castle’s eves are not plastered over, and the plain, exposed wood can be easily seen from below. The view from the large, open window spaces on the top floor offers a clear view of the town, rivers and moats below.
Magnificent Matsue Castle
Matsue’s keep stands proud on its stone base
Gargoyle-like corner tiles