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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: Matsue Castle, a National Treasure Standing the Test of Time

Updated: Mar 10

Matsue Castle, also known as "Pine Castle", is located in Shimane Prefecture, in the beautiful San-in region. It's one of the few castles in Japan whose main tower has survived wars and natural disasters since the Edo period, making it a precious testament to Japanese military architecture. An interesting relic in photography, especially at night.


Japan: Matsue Castle, a National Treasure Standing the Test of Time

History of Matsue Castle

Matsue Castle (松江城, Matsue-jō) was built between 1607 and 1611 under the auspices of Horio Yoshiharu, the first feudal lord (Daimyō) of the Matsue domain. After Yoshiharu's death, his son Horio Tadauji continued the work and completed the castle's construction. But the Horio lineage died out shortly after. The domain then passed under the control of various Daimyō throughout history, notably the Kyogoku and Matsudaira families, a branch of the Tokugawa clan.


The main buildings were constructed in an architectural style typical of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) to the Edo period (1603-1868), characterized by imposing stone walls and a main tower designed for defense.


Matsudaira Harusato later became the Daimyō of the Matsue domain at the end of the 18th century. He is particularly known for his love of the tea ceremony (Chanoyu) and his economic reforms. He played a significant role in the cultural and economic development of Matsue.


Japan: Matsue Castle, a National Treasure Standing the Test of Time

© O. Robert


Features of Matsue Castle

Matsue Castle is famous for its main tower (Tenshu) which, with five external floors and six internal floors, stands out for its height and complex structure. Its design is unique, combining elements of military defense and refined aesthetics. The total height of the main tower is about 30 meters, strategically dominating the surrounding landscape. The complex also includes various auxiliary buildings and ramparts.


Unlike many other Japanese castles that have been rebuilt in concrete, Matsue Castle has retained its original wooden structure, thus offering an authentic glimpse into the architecture of Japanese castles of the era.


It is also notable for its "floating stones" (Ukiyama), a construction technique where the stones are not completely fixed to each other, allowing the structure to withstand earthquakes.


Position Among Other Castles

Matsue Castle is one of the twelve "original castles" of Japan, a term designating castles whose main towers have not been rebuilt in modern times. It is one of the rare examples of Japanese feudal castles that have retained their architectural authenticity through the centuries. It was also designated a National Treasure of Japan in 2015, testifying to its importance and exceptional preservation over the centuries.


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Constituent Elements of Matsue Castle

Matsue Castle consists of several architectural elements and defensive structures characteristic of castles from the feudal era. Here are the main components of the castle and its surroundings:


1. The main tower (Tenshu): As mentioned, it is the central and most emblematic element of the castle. It is built on several levels and has five external floors and six internal floors. Its structure is made primarily of wood. It served both as a military command post and as a symbol of power for the Daimyo.


2. The dry stone walls (Ishigaki): These walls serve as foundations for the main tower and other structures of the castle. They are designed to withstand attacks and earthquakes. The construction techniques vary according to the buildings in the domain, showing the evolution of styles over time.


3. The moats (Hori): The castle is surrounded by wide water-filled moats, which served as the first line of defense against invaders. The moats also add to the aesthetic beauty of the site.


4. The gates and drawbridges (Mon and Otebashi): Several fortified gates and drawbridges provide access to the castle, each designed to maximize defense and withstand attacks. These structures were strategically placed to perfectly control entry and exit.


5. The turrets (Yagura): These secondary structures served both as guard posts and weapon depots. They were strategically placed around the castle to monitor and defend the approaches.


6. The lookout paths (Fujimi Yagura): Passages and platforms allowed guards to patrol around the castle and monitor the surroundings.


7. The gardens and Samurai residences: Finally, Matsue Castle is surrounded by several traditional gardens and samurai residences that contribute to its photogenic atmosphere while offering a glimpse into the daily and cultural life of the era.


Japan: Matsue Castle, a National Treasure Standing the Test of Time

© O. Robert


Events and Festivals

Matsue Castle can be visited throughout the year, offering different experiences depending on the season. The cherry blossom (Sakura) season provides a spectacular setting for the castle, making it particularly popular for Hanami (flower viewing). The mild spring climate is ideal for exploring the surroundings.


The autumn foliage creates a beautiful backdrop of warm colors around the castle. It's an excellent time to appreciate the beauty of the country's botanical wonders.


Moreover, certain periods are particularly interesting due to festivals or local holidays that can enrich visitors' experience. Here are some key moments:


- Horan-enya Festival (every 10 years, next in 2029): This is one of Japan's three largest boat festivals, taking place in Matsue. Although it is not held annually, it's a spectacular event not to be missed if your visit coincides.


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- Suitoro Festival (September): During this festival, lanterns are placed around the castle and on the moats, creating a magical atmosphere. It's a unique opportunity to see the castle illuminated at night and capture these special atmospheres in images.


- Shimane Festival (October): This festival celebrates local culture with parades, music, and traditional dances. It's an excellent opportunity to discover local traditions.


- New Year (Shogatsu): The first days of January are marked by New Year celebrations, where you can experience traditional Japanese customs.


Japan: Matsue Castle, a National Treasure Standing the Test of Time

© O. Robert


The Final Word

Matsue Castle, with its majestic architecture that has crossed the ages, is a window into the past. It invites reflection on permanence within change. In photography, it represents more than just an architectural subject; it becomes a symbol of resilience and cultural continuity.


Through the lens, each captured image of the castle is a meditation on time, a celebration of art and history intertwined. Photographers, in immortalizing its timeless beauty, capture not just stones and wood, but the very essence of the human spirit that endures in the face of the ephemeral.


Thus, Matsue Castle reminds us that, despite the fleeting nature of our existence, what we build with passion and respect can aspire to eternity.


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