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Added 7 mountaintop castles around Matsumoto February 20, 2016

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Added 7 mountaintop castles around Matsumoto

Matsumoto (Nagano Pref.) is well known for Matsumoto Castle, a National Historic Site and one of only 12 original castle main keeps remaining. However, surrounding the plain where Matsumoto sits are actually many fascinating mountaintop castles from the Sengoku Period. Most of them display some unique stone wall remains, which are also rare for the Sengoku Period.

Yamabe Castle

From the Tokuunji Temple, the western ridge trail starts from the back side of the graveyard (left side of the temple). There are no signs until you get close to the main part of the castle, but the “trail" is not difficult to follow. Along the way, there are several small baileys and trenches that a castle fan should be able to pick out. The stone wall is amazing. Just beyond the main bailey are a series of 4 large trenches and a couple more baileys. On the way down I took the more direct route via a bunch of switchbacks that lands you at the opposite side of the temple. Steeper and less to see, but I think it’s a good quick way down. I would recommend the same course to anyone visiting Yamabe Castle. After Yamabe Castle I cycled to Kirihara Castle.

Kirihara Castle

After Yamabe Castle, I hopped on my bike and took off for Kirihara Castle. It’s about 3km away so even without the bike you could walk it. Yamabe is a higher elevation than Matsumoto so there are some stunning views along the way to Kirihara. It would be an enjoyable walk too. Apparently the Yamabe area is famous for grapes and wine. Much of the way is surrounded by grape vineyards and the Yamabe Winery is near the entrance to Kirihara Castle. I heard some people will walk back to the winery from Kirihara Castle and call a taxi to meet them there. Maybe I'll try that next time.

Before the central baileys there are some great earthworks, several trenches and entrances. The main route to the central bailey is amazing. There are stone walls marking off rings of baileys up to the top and many other castle remannts. The central bailey is huge with a large embankment around the backside. There are much more stoneworks and earthworks than I had imagined before visiting. Kirihara Castle was defintely the best of the castles on this trip to Matsumoto and probably my favorite site of 2015.

Haibara Castle

The hiking trail to the castle is easy to find from Rengeji Temple, but once you start, there are very few signs. You really should take your own map. The castle ruins are not well signposted and the trails are easy to lose. I got quite lost and shot well past the castle ruins once. Haibara Castle has few stone walls but it has some of the most huge, complex and simply amazing trenches and earthworks of any castle I've seen. The photos really don't do them justice, especially if you think that they have naturally filled in up to 2 meters over the last 400 years.

Since I stayed the night in Matsumoto, I took a taxi in the early morning (2700 yen) to the Rengeji Temple and took my bike with. I actually started this hike before 7am and was back down and on my bike on the way to the Hayashi Castles around 10am. The route to Hayashiko Castle is mostly downhill so it was a fun and easy ride.

Hayashikojo Castle

This is a fantastic site. I wish I could rate it higher, but it's definitely a must see site around Matsumoto for fans of mountaintop castle ruins. There are many stone walls remaining and some very large earthworks and trenches around the site. The horikiri on the south side of the first bailey is especially impressive.

This castle should be visited in combination with Hayashiohjo Castle. There is a trail starting from the base of Hayashiohjo Castle up through the castle down the back entrance and then over to Hayashikojo Castle.

Hayashiohjo Castle

There is actually a road from the northeast side up to the top of the castle, but if you're going to walk it anyway, you might as well walk the main trail up the ridge. It's much more interesting. The ridge has countless small baileys all the way up.

Inukai Castle

After Hayashiohjo Castle, I had a little time left before dark so I thought I'd bike here too since it's just north of Matsumoto Station but it was actually a really tough climb. The mountain was much higher and steeper than I expected. I probably pushed the bicycle more than half the way. The ride back was fun though. A very small ruin with only a few baileys and trenches to see. If you didn't know any better, you'd just think it was part of the park. If you have some time when you are in Matsumoto it is worth the visit at least for the views.

Aoyagi Castle

On the third day of this Matsumoto trip I left Matsumoto and my bicycle behind and went to Sakakita Station on the borders of the Uesugi domain to visit Aoyagi Castle.

From the reconstructed gate and watchtower, it’s a pretty easy trail that crosses several baileys and trenches until you get to the main bailey. The main bailey has a well defined entrance and a nice section of stone walls. The view from the edge across the valley and on to the snow capped mountains is incredible. The site is well maintained and signposted. At the base of the castle was also a well developed post town of the Zenkoji Highway. Unfortunately, there are no well maintained buildings left to see.

Except Aoyagi Castle, none of these mountain castles have good signs or maps to guide you. You really need to take your own maps to enjoy the site and to prevent getting lost. Even though it was a bit expensive, I think the 信濃の山城と館 (4) book was absolutely fantastic and really helped me to get around the sites better and enjoy them more. The 長野の山城ベスト50 book also covers these same sites, including maps.

It probably goes without saying, but hiking shoes and a trekking pole are a must to visit these castles. The ground is soft and covered in a thick bed of leaves and pine needles so you can easily slip on the slopes. Undergrowth at these sites is minimal so you could probably enjoy them year round (except in snow) but you they would be best during autumn or spring.

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