Serious Woodwork, Old & New

Day 18 – Monday, 15 April 2024

Finally, a day which didn’t involve driving until one or other member of the family got snappish and said something brusque and ungenerous to another. I’d like to say that we sacked the fool who planned the last couple but, in truth, he just got lucky. A shortish drive to Tateshina Shinyu Onsen via Matsumoto. Breakfast at the onsen was our first full scale experience of the Japanese idea of that meal – rice balls and miso sauce over an open flame, fish, pickles, soup, you name it, all in a room set aside for just us, tatami and paper walls and all.

Mood lighting

Matsemoto is home (saith the guidebook) to one of the most impressive of the Shogunate era wooden fortresses, called the Black Castle because, as you have probably guessed, it is bright pink with yellow polka dots. It was our first time inside one of these structures, and I was fascinated to see the two sorts of embrasure (if that’s the term, I’m no aficionado of Renaissance era military engineering), big tall ones for archery and small, lower ones for musketry. This was, in other words, already a post-gunpowder structure, which means it can only have been transitional, surely obsolete by the time it was finished. How any wooden fortification had any effective function after the invention of the cannon is beyond me. As a consequence, how the place survived to the present day is equally a mystery. But it clearly functioned as a centre of power – at least as a potent symbol – into the industrial age. Perhaps the most fascinating information board on the inside of the structure told the tale of how its then custodians, during the late-eighteenth century Meiji era creation of the prefectural system that in modified form yet survives, had to petition the central government for years to save the structure from mandatory destruction. That government was clearly nervous of the possibility of such a castle being a nexus of regional power and a challenge to Tokyo even at that late date.

We traipsed up and down its six floors, at times queueing to take our turn up the narrow, steep steps that separated the levels, clearly designed to make it a terrible job to go up against determined opposition and to make it a much easier job to be that opposition. When we got out, Anna took some lessons in ninja-ing, which is good, because I may need someone to kill me silently in my bed one of these days.

The monstrous regiment

After a hastily scarfed lunch from a konbini, on we went to Tateshina and a delightful surprise. The onsen was a wonder of darkly lacquered wood, an enormous library, constant mid-twentieth century French chansons piped throughout, an immediate impression of serious luxury.

Bath time

After the hot spring bath, down to dinner in the samue suits provided for serious slumming round in the facility. Dinner was an n-course extravaganza, all local, most entirely new to all of us, seriously haute in the Japanese manner. Now this is relaxing.


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