This has been an odd winter in the San’in region, which is typically known for the amount of snow it gets compared to sunnier parts of the country. I was told by many people to expect a very cold winter this year. However, while Tokyo had been experiencing heavy downfalls, we had usually been experiencing rain as opposed to snow.
As striking as Matsue Castle appears on a sunny day, there is a sense of it looming over the city on such dreary January days as this, and I can’t help but be reminded of how Lafcadio Hearn described it:
…solid as when first built long centuries ago, a vast and sinister shape, all iron-grey, rising against the sky from a cyclopean foundation of stone. Fantastically grim the thing is, and grotesquely complex in detail; looking somewhat like a huge pagoda, of which the second, third, and fourth stories have been squeezed down and telescoped into one another by their own weight. Crested at its summit, like a feudal helmet, with two colossal fishes of bronze lifting their curved bodies skyward from either angle of the roof, and bristling with horned gables and gargoyled eaves and tilted puzzles of tiled roofing at every story, the creation is a veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities—a dragon, moreover, full of eyes set at all conceivable angles, above below, and on every side. From under the black scowl of the loftiest eaves, looking east and south, the whole city can be seen at a single glance, as in the vision of a soaring hawk; and from the northern angle the view plunges down three hundred feet to the castle road, where walking figures of men appear no larger than flies.
(“The Chief City of the Province of the Gods”, from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” 1894.)
Matsue Castle is sometimes nicknamed “the Black Castle”, given that it wasn’t covered in flame resistant white paint like many other surviving original castles of Japan were. It’s managed to survive both rain and lightning despite the lack of this finishing touch. The castle isn’t the only black sight that only seems blacker on a dark, wet day. The area is also lined with many black pines, many of which (not pictured here) are very old have grown into large, unique shapes that necessitate supporting the trees with wooden pillars as they loom over the sidewalks and canals.
Rain or no rain, Sunday means tourists, and I frequently see at least a few of them climbing of the stairs from the Otemae (main) entrance at the southeast end of the castle hill. This is the most photogenic approach to the castle, for sure, with its neatly shaped rock walls and lookout towers. As a reminder, this is the area where they’re planning on rebuilding a historically accurate main gate, and the 5,000,000 yen reward for usable historical photos and materials until March 31, 2014 (so a final push, please help us promote that.)
While I like visitors to be able to see the castle in all its sunny glory, I live here and see the 400-year-old tower on a daily basis, and frequently take walks around the castle hill even in winter, so I’ve seen its many faces in many different kinds of weather. While sunny days are splendid, it has more mysterious character in the rain.
One of the places I find the most character is in the castle’s stone wall. While you can enjoy the alluring, smoothly cut and fitted styles when approaching from the south, I usually like to leave the castle from the north gate–that is, the back gate. This leads to the forest area that the Horio clan decided to leave primarily to nature to protect. Here, the fitted stone walls in which the rocks were mostly left in their natural shapes, melt away into the hills and trees. Eerily quiet as this other world on the back of a tourist location may be on a sunny summer day, the rain highlights the textures of the features that have stood quietly back there for four hundred years of history.
Given the choice, though, I’ll typically take sunshine and flowers. Speaking of, March at Matsue Castle means the camellia exhibition, the fragrance of the plum garden, and the start of the spring festival to celebrate the cherry blossoms!