The cities that developed on the Sea of Japan side of the country when trade with China and other areas of Asia was the only thing important to Japan were left behind during the economic development of the Pacific Ocean side. However, those areas had an advantage in being able to preserve historical scenery and Japanese culture. Urban centers that grew during that period of economic development now have rows upon rows of high-rise buildings, and the cityscapes all look the same. Western elements play a stronger part in people’s lives and preferences, leading to the uniquely Japanese cultural facets being lost. If the center of Japan had been on the Sea of Japan side of the country, the same sort of things would likely have happened in Matsue as well. And although Matsue did not enjoy the same pronounced economic growth of other areas of the country, a cityscape with a uniquely Japanese atmosphere and a rich variety of Japanese culture were preserved in its stead. The foreign visitors to Edo of 150 years ago called it the “City of Water of the Orient,” but today, Matsue is the very place that such a term would describe.
MATSUE CASTLE / IMPERIAL PALACE
The Beauty of City-Building
The inner and outer moats of Edo Castle in Tokyo, which still remain as geographical features, were constructed using the Kanda River, a river that already flowed through Edo before the castle’s construction. The moats were not only used for defense, but also as waterways that people could put to practical use in their everyday lives. In this, you can see the Japanese ideal of including a multitude of functions in a single design. In Matsue, the moat around the castle and the surrounding areas was also constructed using a natural river, and by doing this, the townscape of that time can still be seen in the city, and it continues to function as part of the lifestyle there.
The Beauty in the Design of a “Made-in-Japan” City
Matsue Castle was constructed over a period of five years and finally completed in 1611. The moat around Matsue Castle was completed at the same time. In the entire country, there are only 12 castle towers that still remain in their original form, and Matsue Castle, which was designated as a national treasure in 2015, is one of this select group. For a long time after its completion, out of respect for the castle lords, there were no buildings built taller than the castle in Matsue. As a result, when you look out over the cityscape, you can still imagine what Matsue must have looked like 100 years ago. Long ago, the cityscape of Edo was much like that of Matsue, but due to the destruction from air raids in World War II and the city planning that emphasized the economy over everything else, very little of the Edo cityscape remains in Tokyo today. If you want to see that kind of beautiful city scenery, you must come to Matsue.
And yet, beauty is not the only characteristic of Japan’s castle towns. There were a number of functions made possible using the courses of natural rivers to make castle moats, including castle defense, the transportation of goods, and flood control. By bringing multiple functions together like this, castle town design was similar to the electronic appliances of modern-day Japan. No other former castle town in Japan has preserved the castle and townscape of that time like Matsue has.
If you want to enjoy the views of the city, you can’t pass up a ride on the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat. A small boat takes you around the city on the waters of the castle moats, giving you a unique perspective from which to see the castle and the townscape around it. You can experience the beauty of the forest surrounding the castle and the wild birds that visit the moat, and as the seasons change, no view is ever the same. There are 17 bridges over the moat tour route, and four of these are too low for the boat’s roof to pass under. In order to solve this problem, the boats were designed so that their roofs could be lowered enough for the boats to pass under the bridges. The roof goes so low that all the passengers have to lean down close to the floor of the boat, and the shared experience is much like that of a team of explorers hunched down and going through some low-roofed cave.
From the top of the castle tower, you have a panoramic view of the entire city. What kind of world did the castle lords see from here? That answer can be found in the orderly layout of the city that still can be seen from the top of Matsue Castle.
Thanks to Tokyo, Matsue is Beautiful
Did you know that Tokyo, during the Edo Period, also prospered as a “City of Water?” After setting up the shogunate in Edo, the waterways developed by Tokugawa Ieyasu did not merely allow for the transportation of people and goods, but also gave birth to new culture. You can still find the appeal of Tokyo in the city’s waterfronts.
Venice is famous worldwide as a city that developed by filling in wetlands as part of its urban development. Tokyo also has a history, like Venice’s, as a “City of Water.” About 150 years ago, as Japan moved from the last days of Tokugawa Shogunate into the Meiji Era, the foreigners who visited Tokyo described their surprise and wonder in diaries and records of their travels, calling it “City of Water of the Orient.”
During the Edo Period, many goods came in to Edo from all over the country via sea routes and then were transported inland using Edo’s network of waterways. Edo took shape around those waterways throughout the city. Around 1800, it had a population of one million people, making it the city with the world’s largest population, as well as the central city of the entire nation. Tokyo remained the center of Japan following the end of the Edo Period, and this didn’t change even after the city was reduced to burnt-out ruins during the air raids of World War II. Why? Because cities that developed through commerce or manufacturing were concentrated on the Pacific Ocean side of Japan, all with easy access to Tokyo. Infrastructure such as the shinkansen and expressways have all been built with Tokyo at the center.