Published in The Los Angeles Times
February 20, 1983
Hunch down, let the cool smoothness of the polished planks seep up through your stockinged feet and peer through a narrow slit set low in the thick stone wall.
Look down at the dark, still waters of the moat a hundred feet below. Let your eyes sweep across the water. Now look past the flowering cherry, plum and apple trees. Look toward the snowcapped, saw-toothed mountains that crowd the horizon from every direction. Imagine that your fingers grip the rough wood of a crossbow, and you may have some idea of what it felt like to be a Sixteenth Century samurai warrior defending your feudal master's fief from a firing slit atop the five-story donjon of Matsumoto Castle. Donjons are the fortified inner towers of Japanese castles.
Many call it Karuso-jo, Crow Castle, because it's thick stone walls are black. This is Japan's oldest surviving fortress tower. It's walls and moat were built in 1504, near the beginning of a turbulent era of civil war. Perhaps it was spared the repeated attacks that destroyed most of the country's other castles because Matsumoto is so remote.
"The roof of Japan," it was called. An island in a sea of forbidding crags, a landlocked island on Honshu Island. Not even 200 miles from Tokyo, but worlds distant, it is accessible only through high, steep, mountain passes or over dangerous, narrow rivers churning noisily over rocky rapids.
Life was hard here. The growing season is short, the winters cold, the altitude takes its toll in human energy. The tough survived, nurtured their culture, valued their land, defended it.
Perhaps it was only the remoteness that made outsiders covet this region. Or perhaps soldiers cannot resist the lure of fortresses, even natural ones. So in 1504 the warrior Sadanaga Shimaduchi built a fort here. After 90 years and innumerable intrigues, coups, successions, marriages of alliance and not a few battles, Kazumasa Ishiwaka, a famed fortifier, became lord of this district. He remodeled the castle completely. It is the work of his men that is the Crow Castle of today. But now the brooding stone walls of the donjon, walls that intimidated generations of warriors, can be breached for a mere 200 yen, less than a dollar.
Remove your shoes and climb the steep wooden stairs and ladders toward the castle keep, the steps worn smooth by generations of tourists, emperors, foreign plenipotentiaries, schoolchildren, local politicians and, not recently, soldiers.
The samurai used clumsy, oversized firearms; a few remain to impart clues to what sort of fighter could use them: tough, strong, patient men.
The castle walls are lined with wood hauled down with great effort from the dark forests that still mantle the mountains. Now the wood is dark and smooth, worn by legions of hands and stained by soot and smoke and sweat.
The lords and ladies of the donjon lived here with their retainers and their soldiers. They slept on thin mats much like those used by modern Japanese. They cooked their daily rice here, they ate and drank, slept and made love; they conspired, confided and cleaned; they lived out their lives in the low-ceilinged rooms of this castle, and traces remain to remind us.
Most of their artifacts, perhaps 50,000 items, are on display at the Japan Folklore Museum within the ancient outer walls of the original castle grounds.
Once the castle moats were the last line of defense; they kept an invader just out of bowshot while defenders, allied with the force of gravity, could still hit them.
But that was before firearms. Now the moat is the reflective centerpiece of a lovely central park peopled by strolling lovers, families, swarms of tourists. Matsumoto is no longer remote.
Now the tallest buildings of this city of 200,000 crowd against the skyline and overshadow the medieval magnificence of the castle. The fortress is a monument to defense of clan, region and animistic religions; the city buildings are castles of commerce, the new religion. They are hung with microwave towers, huge curved shields that connect Matsumoto with Tokyo with the rest of the world, instantly, effortlessly.
At the center of the new city is the train station. Japanese National Railways trains roll in from Tokyo and Osaka and from outlying towns and villages, bringing workers, tourists and foreigners on pilgrimage to the industrial mecca that is the Matsumoto of the Twentieth Century. A trip that once took weeks, a trip fraught with danger, a trip for the bold, is now a pleasant, often entertaining, four-hour train ride from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station.
The tracks descend through the mountains between small villages, and through manicured fruit orchards and immaculate miniature vineyards from which come delicious varietal wines, some sweet, others rather close to California or European dry vintages.
An English priest and alpinist, Walter Weston, was the first Westerner to visit the splendid alpine plain where the city of Matsumoto sits in Nagano Prefecture. Around the turn of the 19th century, Weston looked over the mountains, climbed many of them, and decided that this part of Japan reminded him of the Swiss Alps. And in a curious, East-imitating West fashion, the region is now more than ever like the Switzerland Weston fancied.
Perhaps because of Weston's influence—but also, perhaps, because of the many swift mountain streams that once provided industrial power—Matsumoto and environs became the center of the Japanese watchmaking industry and lately its computer industry, too. The factories are quiet, clean and non-polluting; they're all but hidden among the densely populated towns and still upland valleys.
You will not be invited inside these factories. If you come to buy products for export, you will be led to a display room, offered o-cha, green tea, shown spec sheets and samples. But behind the factory walls legions of uniformed workers, the lowest indistinguishable from the highest, make electronic marvels in spotless, dust-free rooms.
Often they attend tireless industrial robots or work in rooms illuminated only by dim, narrow-spectrum yellow fluorescent lights. Or assemble complex components with deft motions on hushed assembly lines. You know the names of their products: Seiko, Citizen, Epson. These Japanese workers and technicians are very much aware of who buys most of their products.
Matsumoto's watches and computers, and some products that seem to be both, are among the world's best and have found markets all over. Many foreign businessmen come here. Much business is conducted around the low tables of traditional restaurants, at the swivel stools of sushi bars or in the comfortable booths of Western-style coffeehouses or discos. So it should be no surprise that the city offers an astonishing variety of dining. It has passable Continental food—Italian, German and French—and the whole panoply of Japanese cuisine to choose from, from local delicacies such as pickled honeybees to traditional meals of sukyaki or tempura, as well as the more modern shabushabu.
Matsumoto has no huge, modern hotels. Instead there are dozens of smaller places, many of them recently upgraded with Western-style private baths. With true Japanese efficiency, this was often accomplished by inserting a multipurpose bath module containing miniaturized versions of the all necessities.
The oldest Western-style school building in Japan, now a museum, was built in 1876 and is a leisurely 10 minute walk from the castle. Its whitewashed walls contrast with beautiful blue roof tiles topped by a graceful weathercock. Restored classrooms and an auditorium are on display, along with period school books and Japanese versions of Victorian educational materials.
Near the swift, koi-filled mountain stream that loops through the city, and not far from the castle, is an enchanting Shinto temple, still very much in use. While sightseers rarely enter, the traditional façade of the temple is surrounded by small outdoor shrines. By local custom some worshippers fulfill religious obligations by singing cantos in a haunting, melodic chant. Their paeans address the rock cairns wherein, they believe, live powerful but benign spirits.
In the square before the temple, fearless pigeons flock to gather crumbs scattered by visitors. Some allow themselves to be caught by youngsters, who stroke them fondly for blessings of good luck before releasing them to the spirits of the wind.
Matsumoto is famous throughout Japan for its pickles and its many sweetshops. Virtually anything grown locally is available in its pickled form here. The sweetshops offer a variety of tempting traditional sweets and Continental-style pastries; neither are nearly so sweet as the Western palate might expect from their appearance. They are subtle, without the overpowering sugary taste—or the calories—of their Western lookalikes. In Japan, baking is regarded as an art form, and many of the shops offer baked goods that truly look much too good to eat.
Many of Japan's most noted artists and artisans live in the alpine region. Displays of 600 wood, glass and bamboo items representing their finest works are at the folk craft museum in Shim-Kanai, about 20 minutes away by bus. The most admired local crafts include beautiful yet functional lacquerware; a bamboo ware known as misuzu zaiko; a decorative cloth incorporating silken threads, Matsumoto tsumugi, and lovely birch carvings. An ornate, embroidered ball called the Matsumoto termari is the most famous alpine craft product; the best are available only in this region.
Most visitors come to Matsumoto from Tokyo by train for about $70 round-trip, first class. There is also a daily Japan Air Lines flight from Osaka. It offers a breathtaking view of the roof of Japan, the mountains that once made Matsumoto a fortress, that kept it safe from foreign invaders.
Foreigners are welcomed now, but the dark fortress of Crow Castle remains, evoking the spirits of the past and fortifying the present with its links to an intrepid era.
© 1983 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.