Matsumoto Castle’s Taiko-mon is open to the public!
The Taiko-mon, the “masu-gata” gate over on the eastern edge of the Matsumoto Castle grounds, is worth checking out on any day. The 22-ton Genba Stone and the massive crossbeams of the inner gate are stand-out features though there are several other, more subtle aspects to the area in and around this main entryway to the once-restricted Ni-no-maru area that add a nice dose of detail to your visit to Matsumoto’s crown jewel.
But occasionally the good folks holding the keys to the castle throw open the doors of the Taiko-mon to us commoners, giving us a glimpse of a part of Matsumoto Castle few one-time visitors have the chance to see. That occasion is now.
As of this posting there are only five days left in the present open-to-the-public period, coinciding with the latter half of Japan’s string of springtime national holidays known as Golden Week. Aside from this April-May stretch the Taiko-mon is open two other times during the year, in August for the O-bon holidays and again in September-October. If they’re feeling particularly crazy they may open up their doors outside of these times, so it’s worth inquiring.
If you are lucky enough to visit while the Taiko-mon is open, don’t hesitate to take those stairs to the upper tier of the gateway and step inside.
Before you duck into the gate’s second level interior treat yourself to the new perspective of the castle grounds being up on the landing offers.
Take in the view of the area to the north where a sprawling complex of castle residences and administrative chambers once stood.
Inside the upper level of the Taiko-mon you’ll find a fantastic display of the architectural woodwork used in the original 17th Century structure. The stout beams boast patterns made by the cutting of the wood with a tool that even the volunteer information guides standing by probably can’t name.
Notice too the way the beams interlock. No nails were used in the construction of the Taiko-mon (same goes for the castle itself). The techniques employed can be seen up close in the small-scale models that look like puzzles, sitting there in the middle of the floor if the above-mentioned volunteers haven’t forgotten to put them out.
Also normally on display are a pair of centuries-old “shachi” – the legendary sea creature seen on the rooftops of castles all over Japan. The shachi are said to spit water at their enemies, making them the perfect imaginary guardians against the very real threat of fire, every Japanese castle’s greatest nemesis.
Additional aspects of your visit to the Taiko-mon will (likely) include a pictorial history lesson of Matsumoto Castle, a video of the gate’s reconstruction efforts, a chance to take a silly photo with a cardboard ninja, and, outside, just above the door, an up-close look at a shachi in action.
And take advantage of the chance to bang on the taiko drum on display. After all, the Taiko-mon got its name from the fact that this was where the nobility as well as the citizenry of Matsumoto were notified of the time of day, not to mention of the impending arrival of war, via the sounding of the taiko drum from this very place.
Of course, no visit to the upper interior of the Taiko-mon would make sense if you didn’t try to get that bonus view of the main castle towers through the west-facing windows. It may not make sense, however, to try to fight the trees and the late afternoon sun in your attempt to snap a photo of the view. But hey, give it a shot anyway.
As mentioned above, the upper level of the Taiko-mon is only open for a few stretches of time each year. If you don’t happen to visit during one of those times, it’s still well worth your while to swing by for a close-up look at its impressive exterior features. While you’re at it, place yourself in the tourist minority and check out the rest of the eastern castle grounds.
But if your timing is right, make it a point to climb those stairs and step inside the place built specifically to warn of the war that would never actually come. Because banging on that taiko drum is a kick even in peacetime.