Superseded only by Himeji Castle, Matsue Castle is the second-largest of Japan’s twelve remaining original-construction castles. It was completed in 1611, eleven years after Tokugawa Ieyasu consolidated power over Japan at the battle of Sekigahara. While resistance to Tokugawa rule continued until the Summer War of 1614, Matsue Castle itself never saw battle.
In 1638 the castle was given to Matsudaira Naomasa, grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, after which it remained under unbroken control of the Matsudaira for 234 years. Then, with the exception of its central tower, the entire castle was demolished by the victorious forces of the Meiji Restoration in 1875.
The only original-construction castle in the San-in region, Matsue Castle is a 30-minute walk from JR Matsue Station. Its black walls give it the nickname ‘the black castle’, though it is also called ‘plover castle’ due to the wing-like shape of one of its gables (a plover is a kind of small wading bird). Entry is 550 yen, half-price for foreigners.
As with many Japanese castles, Matsue Castle reveals only five stories without, but actually has six levels within. The well at the base is surrounded by a variety of architectural relics, while the subsequent levels are filled with a healthy collection of swords, armor and other various pieces of antiquity. Informative narration follows visitors throughout the interior, switching to a very cute Irish voice after the Japanese narrator completes her cycle.
Three turrets on the ninomaru (intermediate wall) were restored in 2001. The moat defends not only the castle itself, but also Matsue Shrine and the Matsue Museum of Local History, as well as reasonably extensive castle grounds. The northern arch of the moat contains Uma-arai Pond, Gokoku Shrine, and Jozan Inari Shrine, the latter presaged by the hordes of fox statues to be expected of any Inari shrine.
Crossing the placid moat beyond the shrines leads to a lovely stretch of traditional buildings, housing within them Matsue Buke Yashiki (a former samurai residence), the Tanabe Museum of Art, the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, and Lacfadio Hearn’s former residence. Hearn was a late 19th-century Greek-Irish-American writer, whose descriptions of Japan and collections of Japanese ghost stories gained him popularity after the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle led to European obsession with Japanese aesthetics. Hearn lived in his Matsue residence for only seven months in 1891, but he eventually became a Japanese citizen and took on the name Koizumi Yakumo, passing away in Tokyo in 1904. His most noteworthy legacy to the modern visitor may be the impeccable English to be found at historical sites across the city.
One of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in all of Japan, Izumo Taisha has no known date of establishment. Rather, according to legend, it was a gift of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, ancestor of all Japan’s emperors, to the god Okuninushi-no-Mikoto, who created the nation of Japan and offered it as a gift to the sun goddess’ grandson. Dedicated to Okuninushi, who is also considered the god of marriage, the shrine is second in importance only to Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, where Amaterasu herself is enshrined.
Izumo Taisha defines the forms of taisha-zukuri, or ‘shrine-style construction’, notably identified by chigi, or scissor-shaped fins, at the front and back of the structure’s roof. While the current structure is low to the ground, according to the two oldest chronicles of Japan, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, Izumo Taisha was once 50 m tall, making it higher than Todaiji Temple in Nara, which, at 46 meters, remains the largest wooden structure in the world. Before Izumo Taisha stands the Kaguraden, a hall built for traditional rituals in 1776. Below its roof hangs a 13.5 meter-long, 5-ton shimenawa (sacred straw rope), the largest of its kind in Japan.
According to Shinto myth, the Japanese islands were once controlled from Izumo. Excavations from the area have found a greater concentration of bronze-age relics here than anywhere else in Japan. The small museum on the grounds (150 yen) features a Masamune dated from 1334, swords given by 4th Tokugawa shogun, and a sword from Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the warlord who unified Japan to pave the way for Tokugawa dominance, presented to the shrine by his son Hideyori.
In the old Japanese calendar, the tenth month was known as Kannazuki, or ‘the month without gods’, because it was at this time that all of Japan’s eight million gods congregated at Izumo Taisha. In Izumo alone, the month was known as Kamiarizuki, or ‘the month when the gods are present’.
To this day, Izumo resists the public decline and official disengagement from Japanese traditional religion. While most Japanese shrines have become museum pieces, silent and empty, shrines in both Izumo and Matsue are full of pews, with bells and flutes to be heard as worshippers gather early on a Saturday. Hordes of ojiichan and obaachan (gandpas and grandmas) regularly descend upon Izumo Taisha by the busload.
Izumo Taisha is roughly one hour from Matsue by train (790 yen from Matsue Shinjiko Onsen Station). At present, the shine is still undergoing its first full reconstruction since 1744, but much of the concealing siding was removed in March, with the final touches to be completed in 2014.