With an ancient architecture made primarily of wood and hundreds of years of volcanic eruptions, civil war, earthquakes, air raids and tsunamis, I was surprised to learn that there were still original medieval castles left in Japan. After looking at photos of friends on weekend trips from Osaka to Tokyo smiling in front of countless keeps clad in clay tile, it felt like there were more than the dozen the guidebooks had listed.
Reconstructions, most of them, poured from concrete and stuccoed over to look like the original, empty shells for tourists surrounded in meticulous landscaping overrun with wedding photographers. I wanted something more, something real, to get closer to the past by not only seeing what the samurai saw, but touching what they had touched, our footsteps standing in the same spot.
So I got on a train to Matsumoto. Where the main road led away from the train station there had once been warrens of shops for sake brewers and kimono makers that supplied the town castle and its samurai, who could protect the town from their vantage point on the sixth floor of the keep. But the city had grown and the buildings had risen like a forest of trees, hiding the ancient castle behind a wall of shopping malls and industry.
I hurried past the anime frog sculpture built to honor Matsumoto’s river residents, past the famous clock tower, the largest in Japan, past the brutalist apartment buildings with laundry hanging off the balconies, and past the stores underneath selling Hello Kitty wristwatches. Near the end of the street I saw a few people taking photos of an old bookstore with an ancient tiered roof covered in tile, sandwiched between two modern apartments. I didn’t stop; it was a replica too. It was built in the 1950’s as a way to attract tourists on their way to the keep.
As I turned the corner, Matsumoto Castle revealed itself fully, perched on the rocks like the black crow it was named after, its dark roofs tiled in black feathers arched upward ready for flight. I had only a moment to take a photo before the banner of grey cloud that had been unfurling all morning into the sky ripped open and released a torrent of rain.
In the downpour the black keep looked foreboding, gloomily hunched over its island of stone, scaring away the tourists who stayed indoors and dry. As I entered through the gate I looked up at the black façade and a feeling of discomfort trickled down my neck like a drop of rain, as if I were being watched.
I bought a ticket, stowed my shoes, and climbed up into the stairs in stocking feet. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the warm darkness. There were no people, and there was no furniture, just wood, on the floors, on the walls, on the ceiling and in the windows, wood from trees cut hundreds of years ago, living things that had breathed the same air as medieval Japan.
I took a slow step forward and the wood planks creaked under my feet. Darkened with age and smooth from use, pock-marked from thousands of dropped objects, the air beneath the planks whispered to me, inhaling in the cold and leaving just enough space to exhale into during the hot days of summer.
My eyes followed the grain further into the room, and then stopped at the figure of a person emerging from the darkness, lit faintly by a wisp of sunlight squeezing through the tightly barred windows, only large enough to admit the barrel of a gun. It was a dark figure heavily clad in medieval Japanese armor, his helmet peaked with two small wings, his chest made of hard scales with a sword at his side.
He began to move towards me as I approached, our feet moving in synch, those eyes that had stared down at me from the gate now fixed to mine. Just before I could reach out to him the room suddenly brightened, a break in the clouds, and I could see that I had been following my own reflection, and that he was just an empty suit of armor behind a case of glass.
With a self-conscious smirk I ran my hand along the edge of the case, then rested it on the heavy wooden column next to it to lean in for a closer look. He was a faceless, figureless phantom, looking out from the past, forever weighed down by his glistening armour and the threat of war. I traced the line of his shoulder, down his arm and to his gloved fingers, then looked at my own hand on the other side of the glass.
It hadn’t been him outside at the gate, it had been the castle itself. It had been the memory of thousands of feet climbing those same stairs, the memory of hands leaning on those same pillars, it had been the memory of the past stored in the grain of the wood, absorbed like the moisture from a rainy day.
I listened to the drops of rain hitting the tiles outside, just as they had 400 years ago, and pulled my hand away. Before I turned to go back downstairs, I touched the spot again. It was still warm.