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Cultural Japan: Matsue Castle & the Village of Shirakawa-go

Matsue Castle is one of 12 original castles in Japan. I, of course, had to visit it. The castle is, more accurately, the castle keep, a structure built for fighting rather than luxurious living. That took place in a palace, now long gone.

Like castles everywhere, Matsue Castle is built at a high elevation. The 28 meter high plateau called Jozan provided sight-lines of the region. From the watchtower, visitors have a 360 degree view which would have been handy in case of attack.

After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Horio Yoshiharu found himself on the winning side with an annual income of 240,000 koku of rice. One koku weighs abvout 330 pounds supported one warrior for a year.

In 1638, the castle passed to the Matsudaira clan led by Matsudaira Narmada, a grandson of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The family kept the castle for ten generations until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

On the roof, replicas of two shachihokos, mythical creatures with the head of a tiger and body of a fish, protect the castle from fire. The originals are inside the castle.

Visitors have to remove their shoes when they enter the castle, and carry them in plastic bags until they depart. Inside, the castle is empty of furniture. The five floors connect with steep stairs that are slippery in socks.

The Matsue Shinto Shrine is on the castle grounds. Within are the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu and other prominent people.

Somewhat incongruously, there is a house called Kounkaku built by Matsue City in 1903. In 1907 His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Yoshihito stayed at the house during his official visit.

Matsue Castle was designed for efficient, defensive fighting. Yet even here, there are signs that the sense of serenity wasn’t entirely ignored.

Shirakawa-go Village

Shirakawa-go Village is a UNESCO World Heritage site with the designation Ogi-machi Gassho Style Village due to its distinctive grassho architecture. For most of its history, Shirakawa-go was almost completely isolated. Prior to World War II, it was a three day walk to Kanazawa. In winter, the village was generally inaccessible. Times change, however slowly. Electricity went in sometime after 1960, and today there is a highway. But in many ways, life is what it was before. People still grow and preserve food for the winter. For a short time, there was a grocery store, but it went out of business for lack of trade.

From the Edo Period until the early 20th century, Shirakawa-go based its economy on sericulture for the production of silk, and production of potassium nitrate used to make gunpowder. Today, much of its outside income is from tourism.

Gassho style houses are built from wooden beams that support steeply sloped thatched roofs that meet at a high peak. Sometimes these are called ‘prayer roofs.’ Villagers work together in replacing the thatched roof every 50 years. The structure is built to withstand the weight of snow which can reach 2-3 meters. All the houses face north-south to limit wind resistance and control the amount of sun exposure.

The houses are 2-3 stories with a door on each floor so occupants can leave the house no matter how high the snow.

The large attic spaces on the second and third levels were divided into 2-4 layers to cultivate the silk worms. The roof line has space to provide light and air, and warmth is drawn up from the fire on the first floor. The heat was for the silk worms, not people.

Wada House was built in 1800. When municipalities were formed in 1888, Yaemon Wada became the first mayor. The family fortune came from potassium nitre and silk production.

The family lived on the first level. There was a large hall with a sunken hearth, a living room, a separate room for the Buddhist altar, a guest room, and sleeping rooms. Upstairs, silk worms spun their cocoons in warm comfort.

This is my last blog from my recent trip to Japan. Mahalo for joining me.

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Photos by Author.

Shirakawa Village Official Website

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright is the author of Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama's Labyrinth. Both books are available in digital and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo. Rama’s Labyrinth is available as an audiobook.

Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.

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