Japan City Guides: Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture
Matsusaka, in Mie Prefecture on the east coast of the Kii Peninsula is just over an hour by express train from Nagoya and about 90 minutes from Osaka. The town does not feature in most guide books but has much to see and do.
Matsusaka prospered in the Edo Period (1600-1868) mainly as a production center for high-quality indigo-dyed cotton, with a distinctive striped-pattern, a design originally from Vietnam. Matsusaka kimonos became popular in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and many merchants opened stores in Edo, Osaka and Kyoto selling their wares. A number of merchants from Matsusaka were the millionaires of their day, including the founder of the Mitsui Group.
Matsusaka Castle now lies in ruins except for its impressive stone walls, but the site, now known as Matsusaka Park, is still worth visiting for its views of the town below, a number of interesting museums in the castle park and for the cherry-blossom and wisteria blooms in season.
Located on a hill south west of Matsusaka Station, the castle dates from 1588 was constructed by daimyo Ujisato Gamo - a noted man of culture who later converted to Christianity. Originally the castle's keep (donjon) had three storeys and a separate armory.
The pleasant castle grounds now contain the Motoori Norinaga Memorial Museum (Tel: 0598 21 0312; admission 300 yen) and the Suzunoya (House of Bells) - a restoration of the poet's house and study and called after Motoori Norinaga's epistolary name. Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) became the leading scholar of his generation and the museum houses the 44 volume "Kojiki den" - a manual of Japan's oldest history book that took Motoori 35 years to complete.
The Museum of History & Folklore (Tel: 0598 23 2381; admission 100 yen) has a quirky collection of early stereos, radios and electrical appliances as well as indigo cotton looms - indigo cotton production has been a major industry of the area for centuries.
Below the castle walls is the Gojoban-Yashiki Residence (Castle Guards' Houses; Tel: 0598 26 5174) where the samurai guards of the castle and their extended families used to live. The impressive rows of 19 wooden houses are still inhabited today, including 6 by direct descendants of the original soldiers.
On the approach to the castle is the old merchant area of the city with many traditional, wooden shops still selling indigo cotton goods. The former residence of Sheizawemon Odzu has been preserved as the Memorial Museum of Matsusaka Merchants (Tel: 0598 21 4331; admission 200 yen). The two-storey house has splendid tatami rooms, peaceful pocket-sized gardens, two thick-walled storehouses and a beautiful step- (kaidan) tansu under the stairs. The well, money-boxes, kitchen and toilets are still in place and the museum really evokes the atmosphere of an Edo-era business.
On the other side of town from the castle and merchant area is the interesting Ozu Yasujiro Seishunkan Museum (Tel: 0598 22 2660) - dedicated to the famous film director, who spent his youth here in rural Mie Prefecture. Ozu Yasujiro, is best known for his classic film Tokyo Story (1953). His major themes of family life portray ordinary people in ordinary situations struggling to adapt to the changes of post-war Japan. Ozu's films such as Early Spring, The End Of Summer and Early Summer are both mysterious and poignant. Ozu (1903-1963) was born in Tokyo but moved to his father's home town of Matsusaka aged 10 and lived in the town until 1923 when he returned to Tokyo to begin work as a cameraman at the Shochiku Film Company.
Matsusaka has a number of excellent traditional Japanese sweet shops - look out for the branch of Torayauiro (Tel: 0596 23 5005; Ise HQ) on the corner of the Honmachi intersection just down from the station on your right, indigo stores for cotton fabrics, kimonos and bags such as the Matsusaka Momen Tezukuri Center (Tel: 0598 26 6355) and a number of places to buy Matsusaka beef. The cows reered to produce this speciality are supposedly virgins and raised on a diet including beer and a full-body massage! The meat is soft and finely marbled.
Matsusaka has a number of festivals throughout the year including a version of Kyoto's Gion Matsuri in July with portable shrines (mikoshi) paraded through the streets by happi-clad participants. In November, there is a parade of costumed samurai warriors to celebrate the Ujisato Festival in honor of Gamo Ujisato, the feudal lord who established Matsusaka Castle.
Access to Matsusaka from Nagoya Station to Matsusaka Station on the Kintetsu or JR Line. Journey time is 1 hour, 10 minutes. Trains from Kintetsu Namba Station in Osaka take 90 minutes.
There is a high-speed ferry from Matsusaka Port to Chubu International Airport across Ise Bay. There are 8 boats a day and the fare is 2100 yen one-way for the 45 minute journey.
The Suzunoya loop bus circles the downtown area and is 100 yen per ride.
The Tourist Information Office (Tel: 0598 23 7771) is on your right as you exit the station.
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