Behold the Crow. The moat is one of the few original defenses left, outside of the donjon (the keep) and rebuilt gate.
For the full story behind the tour of this and Himeji castle, check out The Crow and the Heron: Take an inside look at the legendary Himeji and Matsumoto castles of Japan.
The Taikomon (Drum gate) and Kuromon (Black gate) are the main entrances to the fortress. This line is just for tickets, thankfully, not the line all the way to the castle.
The immaculately manicured grounds lend an air of otherworldliness to the place. Facing the castle, there's not much technology to see, aiding in the illusion.
Not hard to see why it has its nickname. The black walls and tiles are unique among surviving Japanese castles.
After removing your shoes and climbing some massive steps, you enter this first room.
Note the big support columns.
Because it was so busy, they let in groups of a few dozen at a time. Your intrepid reporter hung back to get some photos of the mostly empty rooms.
Note the steep stairs on the left.
Up to the second floor. Period armor and weapons were on display throughout the castle. Check out that massive support beam though.
I'm told the fire extinguisher is original. (Kidding!) Actually, they take the threat of fire so seriously there's a small firetruck permanently stationed on the grounds.
This is the view west. I was there at the end of April, and there was still a fair amount of snow in the mountains. Check out the 360 video I took from the opposite angle.
Though comparatively late to adopt guns, by the late 1500s they had them. There was a demonstration with period armor and weapons in the courtyard that you'll see a bit later (from high above).
Since the stairs were slippery and steep, it was slow going and caused a bit of a traffic jam on the lower floors. Thankfully, there was plenty to look at with the displays of artifacts and weaponry.
Since so much of this castle is original, many sections aren't accessible.
After one more narrow staircase, we're at the top. Stairs wide enough for one, fitting two. During times of war, the floor here would be covered in tatami and used by the daimyoh as headquartters.
Every 90 minutes or so there'd be a demonstration of period weapons by men in period costumes. Even from the top floor, it was loud. Oh, and those aren't people just lining up to see the action. That's the line to get in. Don't go to Japan during Golden Week.
The view south. The opening photo was taken just to the left of this photo.
The view north. Matsumoto is home to around 240,000 people, and is about an hour from Nagano.
There's a legend that a night goddess appeared and claimed if she was given an offering on the 26th of each month, the castle would survive. This is a shrine to her.
It's the roughly the same route back down, though far more treacherous given you're facing open air instead of stairs.
This floor, with taller ceilings and more open space, was assumed to be appointed quite nicely (sanded pillars, etc). This room is assumed to be the Lord of the castle's space.
The floor below this had no windows, making the castle seem like it had fewer floors than it did. It was mostly used for storage.
Only two castles have one of these rooms. With its large windows and balcony, it was designed during a time of peace. Party space, perhaps?
The moon viewing room sticks out and isn't easily defended, hence the assumption about its use and the time when it was built.
Just as beautiful at night. No black crows, though, just some white swans. Swans, similar to herons...
The Himeji castle, also known as the White Heron, or White Egret castle. It's many hours south of Matsumoto, about an hour and a half south of Osaka.
Being up on a hill, overlooking the town, it's a little climb to get up and through the main gate.
It's hard to take a bad picture of this amazing place. This is from the grounds (called a bailey, or ward) inside the outer walls. The castle gets its white tone from the plaster used on the otherwise black tiles on the roof.
Speaking of inside the walls, this is literally inside the walls. Troops could be stationed here, in the bastion, or family members (less liked ones, presumably).
This was the start of the "Hyakken roka" or "long corridor" which it was.
A look back toward the donjon, it's not quite as far as this wide angle makes it look.
The most obvious, and still most striking, difference between Japanese castles and European ones is the latter are mostly stone, while the Japanese are built of mostly wood and plaster. This is inside a defensive wall, remember. Plaster is pretty decent flame retardant, so there's that.
One of the larger rooms in the bailey. Two mannequins at the end are playing cards and enjoying some tea.
Sensing (incorrectly) a break in the crowds, I made my way toward the keep. The only way to approach is well covered by defensive positions. Note the holes in the walls. Those aren't for ventilation (well, not just for that).
Like most castles, there are lots of places for defenders to drop heavy things like rocks onto the heads of attackers. That's the horizontal gap on the right.
It wasn't clear if this was a temporary structure, there didn't seem to be much construction in this part of the castle. Regardless, the keep just looms over you.
After removing your shoes (of course) and making your way down a connecting hallway, this is the first area. It's essentially a wraparound corridor that doubled as the armory. Note the pegs on the walls for holding weapons. The inside of this area we'll see later.
Massive support beams. The black metal caps on the right are literally called "six-petaled nail covers" and are, and do, exactly that.
My brain was calibrated for the smaller Matsumoto castle, so the sheer amount of space in this one was impressive.
The high windows were designed to let out the smoke from all the guns fired from here.
Each dormer has one of these little nooks. I wonder if the kids who lived in the castle were as drawn to these as modern kids are. Every floor the kids touring the place would aim for these. Also notice the windows far from the floor. Since this was part of the design, there's a walkway underneath to allow access.
Remember what I said about crowded? To see out the windows, you had to get in line and shuffle along.
Looking back out toward the grounds. The hallways and rooms in the ramparts I showed earlier are the ones in the upper-middle of the photo.
A view back into the city. Note the long boulevard. At the end is the station.
Himeji is twice the size of Matsumoto, about 535,000 residents.
After the bustle of the top floor, people spread out and took their time working their way back down. The stairs aren't nearly as steep as Matsumoto (thankfully).
Despite everyone wearing socks, no one, not even the kids, were sliding around. Missed opportunity.
One of the massive central beams (under the vertical sign). On the left is the toilet. There were two on this level, which were apparently never used.
At the end of the tour, you end up here for a great photo op. Also check out my 360-degree video from this area (which took forever to shoot because people kept walking up to the camera to check it out).
Back out the way you came in. It's as grand an entrance/exit as I can remember at a castle.
A day well spent. Best of all, on the way back you pass by a bunch of great ramen restaurants. Mmmm, ramen.
For the full story behind the tour of this and Himeji castle, check out The Crow and the Heron: Take an inside look at the legendary Himeji and Matsumoto castles of Japan