Around 300 years before construction on Matsue Castle started, a nearby mountain was chosen as the highly defensible spot for a castle that would see its share of battle: Gassan Toda Castle, on Mt. Gassan in modern day Yasugi.

Originally built by the Sasaki clan in the 14th century in the Kamakura era, it is more commonly associated with the Amago clan, which stemmed from the Sasaki clan. This branch of the family started when Sasaki Takahisa, orphaned at the age of 3, was raised by a nun. In respect for her, he used the name Amago (尼子), which means “child of a nun.”

When you hear the term “Amago clan” (aka Amako clan), it is usually paired with the term “Mori clan.” In the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history, stated as spanning 1467~1573. There were plenty of battles before and after this period, but this is when Japan was split up amongst several warlords as opposed to power being split between only a few factions. The development was not sudden–many of the clan rivalries were based off of previous loyalities and rivalries leading up to that point, and power was gradually consolidated as clans began pledging allegiance to the more prominent warlords, and these prominent warlords gained the territories that previously been long fought over. Here in the San’in region as well as in other parts of western Japan, the Amago and Mori clans had a long and colorful history of going head to head against each other out here, but many other clans were involved as well, including the clans these clans served, or the clans that served these clans. (Still with me? Good.)

One such servant of the Amago clan was Yamanaka Yukimori, aka Yamanaka Shikanosuke (1545~1578), a famous general loyal to Amago Katsuhisa (1553~1578). He’s a celebrated local hero here in the Izumo region, especially in Yasugi, where there are big campaigns for having one of NHK’s annual Taiga drama based on his life.

The fact that he and his master have the same year of death might have tipped you off that they met a tragic end. Indeed, in was their misfortune to have been active towards the decline of the clan. After Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed by an internal scuffle and the Mori clan effectively defeated the clan, he abandoned his monkly ways to fight, but was defeated and sought refuge on the Oki Islands. Upon his return, he captured a couple provinces, including what is now eastern Tottori. As the continued their battles with their limited armies, Shikanosuke sought an alliance with Oda Nobunaga, only to find that had only been used and no one came to their aid.

In the end, he and Katsuhisa were defeated by the Mori clan. Katsuhisa was forced to commit ritual suicide there, while Shikanosuke surrendered, but was supposedly captured and killed shortly afterward by the Mori clan anyway. As for surrending instead of following his master in suicide, some say that he sold Katsuhisa out as part of his offer to surrender, and others say that Katsuhisa willingly went along with this plan in an effort to save their remaining men. Whether they displayed cowardice or bravery in defeat, we can at least bet that a Taiga drama would build up an appropriate amount of drama around the end of an otherwise very heroic character.

With the fall of the Amago clan Gassan Toda Castle soon fell to the Mori clan as well, though it had proved to have strong defense until that point. Amago Haruhisa, the leader of the clan, successfully withheld a seige by the Ouchi clan in 1542~1543. It was a major defeat for the Ouchi clan which lead to internal struggles, and the Ouchi clan wound up being wiped out by the Mori clan later. Haruhisa went on to control territories like modern day eastern Shimane, western Tottori and the Oki Islands, but remember how Katsuhisa’s father and brother were killed? That was Haruhisa’s fault.

The Amago clan was wiped out, and although the Mori clan continued to thrive, they were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and lost control of their territory in the San’in region (but they remained in the San’yo region).

Enter the Horio clan! Horio Yoshiharu, who was with the winning side, was granted control of the Izumo domain. He moved into Gassan Toda Castle, and although it was in a highly defensible location, it wasn’t in a good spot for raising a bustling economy around it. Thus, they decided to build a new castle in a better location, and Matsue Castle was completed four years later in 1611. Matsue Castle remains one of the 12 last original castles of Japan, but Gassan Toda was not only abandoned, but pieces of it were dismantled and used in the construction of Matsue Castle.

You can, however, still climb Mt. Gassan and see what remains of the castle walls. It has been left fairly quiet, and while there is no longer a castle at the top, there is a little shrine to Ookuninushi (the same god as at Izumo Taisha) at the 197 meter summit. That seems to be a little abandoned though, too…

That said, I tend to really like the allure of things you just happen to stumble upon in the forests.

It’s a quite, peaceful mountain, and Horio Yoshiharu–who died months before the completition of Matsue Castle–was buried in Iwakuraji Temple at the foot of the mountain. However historically inaccurate, the city of Matsue still honors their founder by recreating his march into (what would become) the town and on into the castle keep with the annual Musha Gyoretsu Warrior Parade.

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While I don’t suggest taking quite that deep of a rest, you can rest up after the short hike up the mountain by visiting Hirose Onsen at the Toda Gassou facility for a nice view of the town. It’s a surphulric onsen–rich in radium-sodium, calcium chloride, and sulfide–and acts as a natural toner that gives your skin elasticity.

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I can attest to the nice view and smooth skin afterward! I wonder if the Amago clan and the warriors who served them ever had many chances to enjoy the Hirose waters?


When Japan was unified at the start ofthe Edo era, Horio Yoshiharu (1542-1611) was appointed the first lord of Izumo Province. Upon arriving, he made plans for a new castle and capital city, and his son Tadauji (1578-1604) suggested the current strategic location of Matsue Castle. While they did not initially agree on the location, Yoshiharu conceded after Tadauji died of a sudden illness. With Yoshiharu handling things despite his retirement, Tadauji’s son Tadaharu (1596-1633) succeeded leadership at a very young age. Alas, he died leaving no succesors, and control of the domain was left to another short-lived clan after that.

Simple idea: Build a wall!

Horio Yoshiharu, the founder of Matsue, established the city around the castle–which even today among multi-story buildings is the highest structure in the city–and the only remaining original castle in the San’in region. It’s a castle build on a hill with a stone wall, which most castles in the San’in region were not (notice which castles aren’t around anymore!).

By wall, I don’t mean a single wall–rather, the moat is lined by a wall, higher and higher levels of the hill have their own walls, and the castle tower itself has a base of stone. They wind around the hill, separating different sections and levels that had different defense and storage purposes back in the Edo era.

Did you know?
The entire walled area can be considered Matsue Castle, though many of the outermost gates have since been demolished. What we would consider Matsue Castle proper is merely the tower, one of several buildings that had special functions. Nor was this the feudal lord’s dwelling place–he lived just south of the castle hill, in close proximity to where government affairs were (and still are) handled. Castles like this were designed as a safe getaway place if he needed to take cover from an attack on the city.

Three wall building methods
The stones used were all taken from Nakaumi (the lake bordering Matsue to the east), and then cut and arranged according to the following methods:

Can you find all three types here?

Besides just making it hard to scale the hill unless you have an army of monkeys, parts of the wall were also designed to give the defending armies the upper hand. For instance, a large square platform called the Katen (firing point) was located along the stairs from the forefront gate. Defending armies could easily shoot at attackers from this point, as the attackers would have little choice but to use the stairs.

The thick brown lines are where there are stone walls.

Speaking of stairs, they were built unevenly so as to make it harder for attackers to run up them. The stairs from the forefront gate at the southeast corner are now a little more conducive to visitors (although still a trek if you try to run up them!), but some stairs, like these on the north side, are still a good challenge if anybody really wanted to try to attack.

It seems to me this quiet set of stairs on the west side has been redone, but they’re still a little too steep to run up them easily.

So… rocks. Walls. That’s great. End of story?
Wrong! What in the world are you supposed to make of this carving?

The answer: sanctioned graffiti!
In some ways, these were the builders’ way of signing their work, or possibly for marking which boulders were to go in which places, as many of the carvings where found along the wall marked below:

Again, the thick brown lines are the stone walls.

They may have also been used to keep track of events and construction associated with the wall, as there is one location marked with “安永八” which most likely marks the eighth year of the An’ei period (1779 a.d.), when part of the wall was reconstructed after heavy rains the previous year had damaged it.

The symbol of a weight in the above example was particularly popular, because it wasn’t the mark of a worker, but of the overlord. It was a family symbol bestowed on the Horio clan from Yoshiharu’s first lord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (there would be two more clan symbols added later). While samurai clans each had their own crests, family symbols were a little different, as lower ranking families may have them as well. Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of my knowledge about their use, but here are some examples of the common symbols carved on Matsue Castle’s walls:

I find it really funny that someone is using the symbol of onmyouji Abe no Seimei (the star).

You might notice on the map that the wall doesn’t run all the way around the castle hill, but if you were visiting in person, you would notice the forest around the north and west sides of the hill right away, lining the edges of the moat. Some of the individual parts of the forested area had other functional purposes, but the main purpose of the little woods was for defense.
Why go with trees when you can have such a cleverly designed wall? Well, trees are cheaper, and stone walls have a high labor and material cost, and establishing a whole town around your new castle is rather costly, as well as the moving process. In short, they ran out of budget. Thanks to this lack of money, we get to enjoy a number of trees that are hundreds of years old!

Horio Yoshiharu (1542-1611) (personal name Mosuke) is the founder of Matsue. To say why, we need a brief overview of the period of history he lived in.

Prior of the long period of peace and development in the Edo era (1603-1868), Japan was composed constantly warring fiefdoms, and notable samurai lords such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga, and Tokugawa Ieyasu gradually gathering enough supporters to become major figures in shaping Japanese history. Their activity eventually led up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and over 200 years of nationwide stability followed.

Yoshiharu was drafted into military service at a young age, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi heard about young Mosuke wrestling with a wild boar. Why he was wrestling with the boar, we can only guess.

These guts proved very useful to Hideyoshi, as Yoshiharu went on to thwart high-profile enemies over the course of Hideyoshi’s campaigns against Oda Nobunaga, and he was awarded land to rule over near Mt. Fuji in the old Totomi Province after major victories. That was how the samurai warlord system worked–if you wanted to rule over multiple fiefdoms, you did so by rewarding the people who serve you. Well-accomplished warriors would rule directly, but still take orders from their overlords. Everyone was happy! If they were samurai, anyway–farmers were probably just happy with whoever wouldn’t terrorize them.

Hideyoshi didn’t live to see the end of the warring states period, though, and after he died Yoshiharu entered Tokugawa Ieyasu’s service, earning property in the old Echizen province facing the Sea of Japan (but still pretty far east of the San’in region). Though he was phasing some of his position over to his son Tadauji at that time, Yoshiharu’s services on and off the battle field were still necessary.

A particularly notable example was at a dinner party he attended with Mizuno Tadashige (an ally) and Kaganoi Shigemochi (a fremeny, if you will–his family had previously served the Oda clan until they surrendered to Hideyoshi and recieved land from him to rule over). Shigemochi got drunk and killed Tadashige, and Yoshiharu therefore killed Shigemochi, thus wiping out the Kaganoi clan and putting the territory fully in Ieyasu’s control. That land would have been in the way of a military manuever enacted soon after, but having Shigemochi out of the way was a big help to Ieyasu.

Though that raised Yoshiharu’s status, he was injured in the battle with Shigemochi, and therefore could not personally partake in the Battle of Sekigahara two months later. Tadauji, however, was present and won honors in his father’s stead. Once Ieyasu took effective control of the country and needed to organize it in such a way that would cement the central government’s control over all the provinces, Horio received his final property to rule over: the Izumo Province.

Here comes Lord Horio, marching through the streets of modern-day Matsue in the annual Musha Gyouretsu (Warrior Parade)!

Yoshiharu and Tadauji hurried out here to the San’in region, stayed in an old castle in present day Yasugi City, and started making plans for building a more suitably located castle. That process is a story for another entry, but you can read about the naming of Matsue right now.

Yoshiharu ruled until he died in 1611, the same year construction on Matsue Castle was completed. He was well-liked and known for having the temperment of a Buddha, and therefore nicknamed “Hotoke no Mosuke” (the Mosuke Buddha).

How did the city of Matsue get its name?

First, let’s take a look at the kanji: 松江
松: pine tree
江: bay, inlet

It would be too simple to write this off as “Bay of the Pines,” because someone had to think of that at some point. There are two possible stories.

The first took place in 1534, 70 years before the founding of the city, when a man named Oomori Masahide (or Tadahide? we aren’t sure…) from Fukui Prefecture went on a pilgrimage to Izumo Taisha (the second most important Shinto shrine), and left records of where he had been. He wrote, “On the second day of the fifth month, I reached Izumo’s ‘Bay of the Pines’ (Matsue) area.” This area was likely around the mouth of the Iu River in Higashiizumo, where there were pine planted around the “Brocaded Bay.” The area was named for this scenery.

You can see flying fish in Matsue all the time, but these flying fish only come out once a year.

The Iu River in relation to the rest of Matsue

However, that’s a pretty narrow area, and even today, a good 20~30 minutes drive from, say, Matsue Castle. The other story (and probably more common one) goes that Matsue’s founder, Horio Yoshiharu, was given the following advice (more or less) from his trusted Buddhist monk friend, Shun-Ryuu-O-Shou: “So, Yoshiharu, I was looking at the scenery around Lake Shinji, and it reminded me of the scenery around the Songjiang (淞江) area in China. The character for ‘Song’ (淞) is pretty much like ‘pine’ (松), you know? They sound the same, too! Anyway, Lake Shinji also has the same sea bass and water shield plants that their river does, so I was thinking, you should totally name this place ‘Songjiang’ as well! Just write it as 松江, and it will be pronounced ‘Matsue’ in Japanese instead of ‘Zunkou’ (like 淞江). Cool, huh?”

Most of my research points to this being the modern day Songjiang district in Shanghai. In general, the natural scenery in Matsue still resembles that of southern China. My biased opinion is that it’s more like Hangzhou than Shanghai, though. Since they are Friendship Cities, someone else must have thought so, too.

Either way, the connection between pines and water is pretty clear.