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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: Matsumoto Castle, Elegance and Mystery of the Black Crow

Updated: Mar 23

Matsumoto Castle, also known as the "Black Crow" (烏城, Karasu-jō) due to its dark facade, is one of Japan's most famous and spectacular castles. This symbol located in Nagano Prefecture stands out for its unique construction and tumultuous history, spanning several centuries. A must-visit place for black and white photographers.

Japan: Matsumoto Castle, Elegance and Mystery of the Black Crow

© O. Robert

This impressive castle is part of the 5 ones designated as a National Treasure, along with Himeiji, Inuyama, Hikone and Matsue castles. Today, the interior houses exhibitions of samurai armors, weapons, ancient documents, and other historical artifacts, offering a glimpse into feudal Japan's life.

Matsumoto Castle remains a symbol of Japanese history, representing both the tumultuous period of civil wars and the era of stability that followed under the Tokugawa shogunate.

It is certainly one of the most beautiful castles I have had the opportunity to photograph due to its black color and imposing presence on the site. At night, the moat is also lit up. This gives the whole a very different light from other castles in Japan. The koi carps that live in these basins are attracted to the lights of the spotlights and are therefore very present in the images.

An Appropriate Nickname

As said in introduction, Matsumoto Castle is nicknamed the "Black Crow" due to its distinctive black exterior walls. This dark coloration, unusual among Japanese castles, which are more commonly painted white (like Himeji Castle), gives Matsumoto Castle a striking and imposing appearance.

The black lacquer used on the wooden exteriors of the castle not only served as protection against weathering but also contributed to its elegant and formidable aesthetic, reminiscent of a crow perched majestically against the backdrop of Japan's central mountains.

This unique appearance has made it one of the most photographed and admired castles in Japan, especially appealing to those interested in black and white photography for its stark contrasts and timeless beauty.

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History and Evolution

Construction period: The castle was built at the end of the Sengoku period, a time marked by civil wars in Japan. Its construction began in 1592 under the order of Ishikawa Kazumasa and his son Yasunaga, vassals of the Ogasawara clan.

Edo period (1603-1868): The castle as we know it today was largely developed under the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. During this relatively peaceful period, the castle served mainly as an administrative center and residence for the Matsumoto domain.

Although this period was relatively peaceful, the castle underwent modifications and regular maintenance. However, these interventions were more focused on maintenance than on major reconstructions.

Meiji Restoration (1868): During the Meiji Restoration, many Japanese castles were destroyed in a movement aimed at modernizing the country and abolishing the symbols of the old feudal regime. Matsumoto Castle thus escaped total destruction but suffered damage and lost some of its ancillary buildings during this transition period.

Japan: Matsumoto Castle, Elegance and Mystery of the Black Crow

© O. Robert

Renovation of Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle has undergone several stages of renovation and reconstruction over the centuries, mainly for reasons of preserving its structure and historical features. These efforts reflect the cultural and heritage importance of the castle in Japan.

Like most castles in Japan, Matsumoto required significant work to protect it from weather damage, including snow, rain, and earthquakes. Over time, structural improvements have been made to ensure the safety of visitors and the stability of the building.

20th century: In recognition of its historical value, the castle underwent several renovation campaigns, notably in 1903 and 1950, to preserve its structure and historical appearance.

After being designated a National Treasure in 1952, the castle benefited from additional restoration work to strengthen its structure and restore its original architectural features. These works included the repair of the main tower and the restoration of the walls and moats.

21st century: A series of renovations was undertaken from 2004, including the refurbishment of the main tower's roof. These works aimed to protect the castle from weather damage and preserve its structural integrity.

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Features of Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle, with its unique architecture and fascinating history, possesses several distinctive features that set it apart from other Japanese castles:

Main tower (Tenshu): Its main tower is a remarkable example of Japanese castle architecture, with six external floors and seven internal floors, which is relatively rare among its peers. Its height and imposing structure make it one of its main attractions.

Defense design: The castle was designed with sophisticated defense elements, including loopholes for archers, overturning stones, and a complex system of moats and stone walls, intended to protect the castle from invaders.

Black color: The castle is often called "Black Crow" due to the black color of its exterior walls, a feature that distinctly sets it apart and gives it a menacing appearance.

Japan: Matsumoto Castle, Elegance and Mystery of the Black Crow

Moats: Surrounded by water moats, the castle benefited from an additional natural defense against attackers.

Wooden structures: The interior of the castle is mainly built of wood, with floors, walls, and stairs that reflect traditional Japanese construction techniques.

Shooting windows: The shooting windows and loopholes are strategically arranged throughout the castle to allow for effective defense.

Gardens and natural environment: The castle is surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens and stands against the magnificent backdrop of the Japanese Alps, offering spectacular views throughout the year.

Position Among Other Castles in Japan

Ranked as a National Treasure, Matsumoto shares this honor with four other great castles: Hikone, Matsue, Himeji, and Inuyama. For more information on these icons of Japanese history, you can read my dedicated articles:

Matsumoto Castle is also ranked among the "Three Great Castles of Japan", alongside Kumamoto Castle (read my dedicated article) and Himeji Castle. This distinction is not official but widely recognized by historians and Japanese culture enthusiasts due to their historical significance, architectural beauty, and exceptional state of preservation.

Japan: Matsumoto Castle, Elegance and Mystery of the Black Crow

© O. Robert

Festivals and Events

Matsumoto Castle, with its impressive black walls, is an emblematic place that hosts various festivals and events throughout the year. These events aim to celebrate the rich history of the castle, Japanese culture, and the seasons, attracting both local and international visitors.

1. Taiko Festival (Matsumoto-jo Taiko Matsuri)

Period: Usually in April.

This festival highlights performances of Japanese drums (taiko) by groups from all over the country. The powerful taiko performances, with the historic castle as a backdrop, create a memorable experience.

2. Cherry Blossom Festival (Sakura)

Period: Late March to early April, depending on the cherry blossom period.

Matsumoto Castle, surrounded by cherry blossoms, offers a magnificent spectacle. Visitors can enjoy the view of the sakura during the day and the nighttime illumination of the trees and the castle.

3. Takigi Noh (Outdoor Noh in the light of fires)

Period: Usually in June.

A unique cultural event where performances of Noh and Kyogen (classical Japanese theaters) take place in the evening, by the light of torches, within the castle grounds. It is a rare opportunity to see these traditional forms of theater in a historic setting.

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4. Matsumoto Summer Festival (Matsumoto Bon Bon)

Period: Mid-August.

The Matsumoto summer festival attracts crowds with its Bon Bon dance, where thousands of people dance in the streets around the castle. It is one of the city's most lively events, celebrating summer with music, dance, and community festivities.

5. Ice Sculpture Festival

Period: February.

During this festival, sculptors from all over Japan and beyond come to transform blocks of ice into ephemeral works of art. The sculptures are displayed around the castle, creating a fairy-tale landscape, especially impressive when illuminated at night.

6. Night Visits to the Castle

Period: Occasionally throughout the year, especially during festivals and special events.

The castle then opens its doors for night visits, allowing visitors to discover the interior of the castle in a different atmosphere. These visits offer a unique perspective on the architecture and history of the castle.

Japan: Matsumoto Castle, Elegance and Mystery of the Black Crow

© O. Robert

The Final Word

Matsumoto Castle, with its majestic silhouette and dark walls, evokes a timeless beauty that transcends eras. In black and white photography, this beauty is revealed in all its splendor, capturing the very essence of tranquility and permanence.

The absence of colors forces the observer to focus on contrasts, textures, and shapes, highlighting the architectural design of the castle and its harmony with the surrounding nature. Through the lens, every stone, every reflection in the water of the moats, and every line of the building tells a story of resilience, art, and history.

Black and white photography of Matsumoto Castle does not just capture an image; it captures an emotion, a moment suspended between the past and the present. It reflects a visual meditation on beauty that is both ephemeral and eternal. Matsumoto Castle thus becomes a powerful symbol of human ability to create enduring works of art that defy time, inspiring contemplation and admiration.

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