If you find yourself in Hokkaido with the urge to go see a legitimate castle, you have to go to Matsumae to find the only one on this island.
Matsumae is about a two-hour drive from the city of Hakodate. It’s accessible by bus from Hakodate and the airport, but you’re better off renting a car and driving there if you’re really interested. Personally, I love castles and when my family came for a visit, we decided to stop by this place because it’s definitely worth it if you can make the trip there. The drive from Hakodate to Matsumae town is quite beautiful as you go through winding roads up and down mountains. That is, if you like driving through lush forests and seeing the break of trees for farms and brief glimpses of the sea.
The best time to visit is, of course, during the cherry blossom season in early May. The surrounding park around the castle is surrounded by hundreds of sakura trees of all varieties. It’s one of the most popular spots to visit for cherry-blossom viewing. To avoid the crowds, you can always try to see if you can go a little bit early before full bloom or right before the flowers start to fade.
The castle itself isn’t very big, as you’d expect from an island that doesn’t have a lot of history. There are only three stories and you have to go up really steep steps, so be careful. Most of the interior serves as a museum with lots of artifacts and photos from the time the castle was being used as a fort. According to local history, the castle was built by the Matsumae clan as a stronghold against the Ainu during the period where the clans were at war with the indigenous people of the island.
Again, the best thing about the castle is the wide open spaces around the castle. The grounds are always nicely landscaped and there’s lots of smaller buildings and statues to discover. There are a couple temples and their respective gardens in the area. Since the castle is located atop a mountain, it’s a bit of a climb to get to the crest, but the path is gently sloped so even elderly people won’t have trouble walking all the way to the castle. The view from the top is quite amazing as you gaze out into the town and into the sea.
If you’re interested in castles and history, then I highly recommend this place. If not, it’s a small enough town that you won’t really miss it.