shimane — part II: matsue castle


Matsue Castle is one of the few castles in Japan that hasn’t been burnt to the ground in some conflagration or other and then rebuilt in concrete.  Like Himeji-jo, Matsue-jo retains its original wooden construction, though of the original castle buildings only the main building still exists today.  The castle’s construction was finished in 1611 and in 1638 the Matsudaira clan moved in.  They liked it so much that they stayed for 234 years.

The castle is painted black, from which it gets the enticingly clever nickname of “black castle.”  I personally prefer the other, much more elegant, nickname of “plover castle.”  The keep appears to be five stories high from the outside, but actually has six floors on the inside.  These built-in ‘false floors’ seem to be a feature of many Japanese castles, though I’m not quite sure whether or not there’s any intended utility at work.  You can find a lot of in-depth information about Matsue-jo at the impressively nerdy Jcastle site, and there are gallons of photographs as well.

Every Japanese castle worth its salt has a museum featuring the castle history somewhere on the premises, and every Japanese castle museum inevitably features a reconstruction of the surrounding city as it existed in relation to the castle grounds ‘back in the day,’ as well as a large wooden model that exposes the castle’s wooden framing so you can see how it was constructed.

The thing to do when you visit any castle is, of course, to go up and up and up until you reach the top.  Once at the top it’s de rigueur to circulate from window to window, stare down at the surrounding urban sprawl, and contemplate the question of historical distance.  It’s almost impossible not to do this.

The grounds at Matsue-jo aren’t extensive, but they are nice to walk around in.  One especially great feature of Matsue-jo is the fleet of moat boats that are available for hire.  The tour around the moat takes about twenty or thirty minutes and it allows you access to views that you can’t get any other way.  Touring the city like this also has the effect of creating a bubble of defamiliarized space within which everything appears different.  Just as the most ordinary objects can become intensified sites of focus and contemplation in a museum, so the city itself becomes different within the bubble of the moat world.  This is especially the case because the boat rides below the level of the street and so for large portions of the trip you can almost forget about asphalt and the automobile, the ubiquitous unconscious of contemporary urban infrastructure.

The trip around the moat takes you past Lafcadio Hearn’s house in Matsue, which has since been converted into a museum.  Hearn has all kinds of things to say about the Matsudaira clan in his writings, none of which are very nice.  I have no idea what the ‘real’ historical Matsudairas might have been like, but the picture one gets from Hearn’s writing is that they were arrogant to the point of stupidity and cruelty.  Naturally this makes for some good stories.  One of the best of these involves a story that Hearn is told by one of the priests at Izumo-taisha, which Hearn refers to as “the Temple of Kitzuki”:

When Naomasu, grandson of the great Iyeyasu, and first daimyo of that mighty Matsudaira family who ruled Izumo for two hundred and fifty years, came to this province, he paid a visit to the Temple of Kitzuki, and demanded that the miya of the shrine within the shrine should be opened that he might look upon the sacred objects — upon the shintai or body of the deity.  And this being an impious desire, both of the Kokuzo unitedly protested against it.  But despite their remonstrances and their pleadings, he persisted angrily in his demand, so that the priests found themselves compelled to open the shrine.  And the miya being opened, Naomasu saw within it a great awabi [abalone] of nine holes — so large that it concealed everything behind it.  And when he drew still nearer to look, suddenly the awabi changed itself into a huge serpent more than fifty feet in length; — and it massed its black coils before the opening of the shrine, and hissed like the sound of raging fire, and looked so terrible, that Naomasu and those with him fled away having been able to see naught else.  And ever thereafter Naomasu feared and reverenced the god.

The Matsudaira clan also features in an aside about the Musical Stones of Oba:

There is a tradition that these [stones] cannot be carried away beyond a certain distance; for ’tis recorded that when  daimyo named Matsudaira ordered one of them to be conveyed to his castle at Matsue, the stone made itself so heavy that a thousand men could not move it farther than the Ohashi bridge.  So it was abandoned before the bridge; and it lies there imbedded in the soil even unto this day.

These stories — both from Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan — showcase the arrogance of the Matsudairas, but it’s a story about the beautiful young wife of a priest that showcases the cruelty that Hearn associates with the family.  The story is too long to quote in its entirety, but the general idea is that the Daimyo Matsudaira becomes smitten by the beauty of the young woman and demands that she leave her husband and become his concubine.  She refuses — being not only a loving wife, but also a mother — and the Daimyo leaves without speaking.  Later the Daimyo banishes her husband on trumped up charges and he dies in exile.  Once he is dead, Matsudaira summons Kamiya, one of his ministers and the father of the beautiful woman, and tells him that now that she is no longer married Kamiya must bring her to him immediately so she can become his mistress.  When Kamiya returns he brings a box with her severed head in it and presents it to the Daimyo.

There are innumerable branches of the Matsudaira family — including the branch that would eventually become the founding family of the Tokugawa shogunate — but I have no idea what contemporary historians have to say about the Matsudairas who held the seat of power at Matsue Castle.  Perhaps some of Hearn’s stories of arrogance and cruelty are exaggerations, or perhaps not.

One thing for certain, however, is that it’s impossible to exaggerate the samba-tastic skills of Matsudaira Ken, a famous actor and entertainer who isn’t actually a Matsudaira at all.


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