Strongholds of Yamabe: The Castles That Came and Went

Sat, Oct 2, 2021

If someone hears the words “Matsumoto” and “castle” in the same sentence, they probably don’t think of something like this.


Rather, chances are good that they would immediately think of this.


And for good reason. Matsumoto Castle is the de facto crown jewel of this mountain town. Yet it was not the first castle built here, or even the second or third.

Igawa-jo, constructed in the early 1300’s, was the first fortress to rise from these Fuchu Plains. Then in the 1440’s the ruling Ogasawara clan built the twin castles of Hayashi O-jo and Hayashi Ko-jo, along with nearby Suiban-jo. These in turn gave way to Matsumoto Castle which, dating back to 1594 (or 1596, depending on who you talk to), now stands as Japan’s oldest extant castle tower.

But long before Kazumasa Ishikawa turned a flatland fort into the castle we see and love today; long before Kiyomune Ogasawara laid the first stones of Hayashi-jo; round about the time that Igawa-jo came into existence, actually, another castle appeared in the mountain valley east of Matsumoto.

Yamabe Castle


It is said this castle was built around the end of the Kamakura period, meaning these stones have been here since the first half of the fourteenth century. The Yamabe clan lorded over this valley region for a time, but when the Ogasawara clan moved their digs from the flatland Igawa-jo to the hilltop Hayashi-jo, moving them toward the Yamabe clan’s neighborhood, tensions apparently arose.



When the Yamabe clan refused to submit to the Ogasawara clan’s claim to supremacy over the region Nagamasa Ogasawara laid siege to Yamabe-jo. For a while the Yamabe clan enjoyed the support of the Suwa clan, but in time the Suwa cavalry went home and the Ogasawara clan were able to take over Yamabe-jo, moving in in 1505.

Kirihara Castle


Not helping the Yamabe clan’s eventual fortunes was the establishment of Kirihara-jo in 1460. The Kirihara clan were an offshoot of the neighboring Inukai clan, and were loyal to the Ogasawara clan. Kirihara-jo was constructed on the north side of the Yamabe Valley, a few sloping ridges west of Yamabe-jo, and could very well have served as a base from which the Ogasawara clan could attack the Yamabe clan’s stronghold.



On the ridge just to the east of Kirihara-jo another castle, Shimofuri-jo, was constructed at about the same time. Interesting to note here is that this castle is also referred to as Shimofuri-toride, which gives the impression that this was more a fort set up to help protect Kirihara-jo than it was an actual and separate castle. Nevertheless, the trail to Shimofuri-jo boasts some clearly-visible remnants of its centuries-old past.



All of this castle-building would prove futile, however, because in 1550 Takeda Shingen marched up from the southern Kai province, ousting the Ogasawara clan and taking over control of the entire Fuchu-Yamabe region.

Remnants of History

The remains of a half dozen castles can be found on the mountainsides of the Yamabe Valley. Of all of them, the stone walls of Kirihara-jo are the most extensive and (in this writer’s opinion) the most intriguing.


From the road, the hike up through the forest to the ruins is not long. Getting to the trail is the harder part. For aesthetic enchantment and Instagram likes, none of these former castle sites can compete with Matsumoto Castle. But for those lured by history and motivated by imagination, walking among the remains of Yamabe’s past, particularly the stone walls and baileys of Kirihara-jo, makes for a worthwhile expedition.

And if you get thirsty you can just stumble downhill to the Yamabe Winery, right at the foot of these once-fortified mountains.

If You Go…

There are two trails up to Kirihara-jo. I recommend taking the western route, which is straight ahead from here (i.e. don’t veer left!).

 The trail head is on the right, just before the gate.


And just in case…