Matsumae is a small, out of the way, but very interesting destination. It is both the southernmost town in Hokkaido, and the northernmost castle town in Japan. Some guidebooks state that the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido began in the 19th century – this is incorrect. From the 15th century, Matsumae and its immediate hinterland was formally part of Japan, and Japanese settlement precedes this period of control by some margin. Encroachment, frontier warfare, dispossession and colonization began well before the Meiji period.
Matsumae played a key role in the trade and warfare with the Ainu tribes of the island, and in the subsequent conquest of Ainu territories that led to the aggressive colonization of the rest of Hokkaido when the Kaitakushi was established. Matsumae also played a role in the Boshin war of 1868-69. After Sapporo, Otaru, Hakodate and other new cities grew rapidly in the late 19th century, Matsumae shrank to become a small coastal town, and by escaping the bombings of WWII managed to preserve much of its cultural and architectural heritage.
Matsumae is located at the southern end of the Oshima-hanto peninsula facing the Tsugaru strait separating Hokkaido from Aomori. The harbor is the closest to Aomori, and although bitterly cold in winter, the climate is the mildest on the island. For example it is the only place on Hokkaido where bamboo and camellias can be grown, and these days Matsumae is famous for the cherry blossoms (sakura) that bloom here each May.
The story of Matsumae and the area known for centuries as the Wajinchi is a story about climate and climate adaptation. The climate explains the role of Matsumae in the history of Hokkaido. For several centuries prior to the arrival in the late 16th century of the Kakizaki clan (a minor branch of the family of Takeda Shingen), small groups of Japanese settlers established themselves on the peninsula, surviving the bitter winters by relying on fishing and through trade with the Ainu. The rice seeds available at the time were marginal at this latitude and the growing season short – scientific agriculture was unknown, cold climate farming techniques limited, and food supply tenuous. Relying on wet rice agriculture meant that crop failure was a constant threat and these economics prevented northern expansion at anything above an incremental pace. The area occupied by the Japanese was called the Wajinchi, and the frontier between the settlers and Ainu (who lived in the area known as Ezochi) was fluid, moved constantly (sometimes south in hard years), and involved continuous interaction (both cooperation and conflict) between the two peoples.
The Kakizaki family brought with them weapons, organization and for a while, support from and trade with the Takeda and other domains. They were able to bring the entire Oshima Peninsula under their control, and while the area of land involved was not enough to create a wealthy fief, the taxes generated were enough to support the samurai class. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi destroyed the Hojo in 1590, the daimyo Kakizaki Yoshihiro (1550-1618) and the various clans of the Tohoku area of northeastern Honshu submitted to his command and were recognised as the daimyo of their various fiefs. As part of the deal, in 1591 the Kakizaki Yoshihiro contributed troops to the army of Toyotomi Hideyoshi that destroyed Kunoe castle, the last organized resistance to the new hegemony.
Hideyoshi confirmed the control by the Kakizaki over the Oshima peninsula and nearby areas, and this feudal fief was later confirmed by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Over time Yoshihiro and subsequent daimyo were able to build a castle (Fukuyama Castle, now called Matsumae Castle), fund the construction of major temples and shrines such as Matsumae Jinja, invest in public works including the harbor and create a castle town from which they could rule the area of the Wajinchi.
During the next 250 years, the Wajinchi gradually expanded as seed selection slowly improved crop yields. Improved fishing techniques, the gradual inclusion into the Wajinchi area of more salmon runs (sometimes through military force), and the gradual exploitation of mineral and forestry resources helped turned Matsumae into a growth town. The main spur to growth though was trade with the Ainu.
When the daimyo Kakizaki Yoshihiro visited Kyoto and Osaka in 1606 in order to gain confirmation of his control of his fief in southern Ezo, the obscure northern daimyo became known as Matsumae Yoshihiro amongst the shogun’s retainers. The family subsequently adopted the name. Yoshihiro had taken with him maps of the domain, but also some goods to offer as presents.
Amongst these goods were items that had been obtained through trade with the Ainu, including items such as Chinese brocaded garments that the Ainu themselves had obtained through their separate trade with mainland Asia. The Ainu had extensive trade links both amongt themselves and other northern peoples including those of the Okhostk and Kurile islands, northern China, and later with Russian traders who from the 17th century were in contact from Siberia. As part of the tightening by the new Tokugawa shogunate of the policies regarding foreign trade, it was decided that only the Matsumae clan would conduct trade and other relations with the Ainu, in much the same way that relations with the Ryukyuu Kingdom and Korea would be left to the Satsuma and Tsushima respectively. This exclusive license to trade provided a financial windfall for the Matsumae, to the point where later generations of Matsumae daimyo would be accused by daimyo in Tohoku of neglecting their role as samurai in favor of business interests.
To facilitate and to control trade and relations with the Ainu, the Matsumae established the Taikan. This was a building north of the castle where tribal chiefs could make representations, and goods and services be traded. The major products sold to the Ainu were rice, tobacco, sake, and some manufactured goods. These were not necessarily useful, but within the Ainu hierarchy could be used as gifts and were therefore held in value.
From a tenuous hold on the peninsula, the Wajinchi began to expand through its trade monopoly. The Ainu repeatedly complained that the exchange rate was increasingly unfair (for example in terms of the number of pelts required to obtain tobacco). Competition between the Ainu themselves was begin to extract an unsustainable toll on the environment, causing local extinctions of some animals on the peninsula. This was combined over time with environmental destruction of some rivers due to gold mining which led to starvation amongst Ainu in some valleys when the salmon runs were polluted, illegal forestry, over fishing and other acts by Japanese settlers detrimental to Ainu interests. The wealth of the Matsumae clan was growing, to the point where the various Jinya (barracks) established as outstations began to replace the role of the Taikan, but a backlash was inevitable.
From 1669 to 1672, the Ainu warrior Shakushain led a rebellion that destroyed most of the outstations and terrorised the Wajinchi. Slashing their way towards Matsumae, the Ainu tribes took a heavy toll on miners and foresters, Ainu who collaborated with the Matsumae, and finally approached the castle vicinity. The samurai had become urbanised and their military efficiency questionable. It was not until the fighting reached cleared agricultural areas, and reinforcements from Aomori had arrived that the Matsumae were able to use steel and firearms to reverse the struggle. Shakushain was betrayed and killed. Those Japanese who had survived the original onslaught through collaboration were also killed, and on the orders of the Tokugawa Shogunate the retribution was carried deep into Ezo. The Ainu never recovered, and further loss of hunting grounds, and the spread of veneral diseases such as syphilis through rape and prostitution (both from Ainu traders visiting Japanese prostitutes and Japanese fishermen visiting Ainu prostitutes) would later facilitate full conquest.
When the last Shogun (Tokugawa Yoshinobu) resigned and transferred political authority to the Emperor, he created what was in theory a political vacuum but in reality a transfer of power to the emerging domains of the assertive Choshu, Satsuma and Tosa clans. As a large number of vassals and other supporters of a continuation of the status quo of the Tokugawa shogunate were disadvantaged by the power transfer, it was inevitable that a number of these would resist the new regime. After a series of defeats, the remaining dissidents declared that the island of Hokkaido was independent of Japan, and proclaimed that it was now the Republic of Ezo. The principal dissidents were the Shogunate’s naval force led by Enomoto Takeaki (elected “President” by the dissidents), and the remnants of the Shinsengumi (by this stage mainly led by Hijikata Toshizo), along with a few thousand samurai and ashigaru survivors of the Aizu Wakamatsu and other clans. They were accompanied by a diehard group of French advisors led by Jules Brunet.
After the declaration of the Ezo Republic, Enomoto’s new government based in Hakodate demanded the surrender of the Matsumae clan’s Fukuyama Castle. The Matsumae had remained aloof of the civil disturbances and its leadership had not yet declared their position. The primary reasons for the surrender demand was the need to deny the forces of the new Meiji government a potential bridgehead across the Tsugaru strait and to obtain civil control of the district for taxation purposes. With approximately 30,000 inhabitants, by the 1850s Matsumae was the largest town in Hokkaido. The people of Matsumae were neither consulted nor participants in the rushed “elections” held to confirm the leadership of the Ezo Republic, and under the guidance or direction of the Matsumae daimyo, the castle and town resisted the demands of the forces of the “Ezo Republic” and war ensued.
Toshizo Hijikata of the Shinsengumi led a force of about 800 men from Hakodate to demand the surrender of the castle and when he was refused, destroyed it on November 5th 1868. That the castle could be destroyed by so few men in just one day, gives a fair indication of the power that shell firing guns and rifled barrels had over traditional fortifications, designed for an era of matchlocks, arrows and spears. A large part of the town was destroyed by the fires that were lit during the battle for Matsumae, with many houses and temples burnt to the ground. It was not until April when the forces of the Imperial Government reached Matsumae that rebuilding could commence, but the town never fully recovered its former influence.
Things to See and Do:
Matsumae Castle: Although small and a reconstruction, Matsumae castle in fairly interesting due to its museum which contains a useful reference to local history, and the nice views, especially when the sakura are blooming. The main gate leading to the donjon is designated as a national important cultural property.
Cherry Blossoms: There are 250 or so varieties of cherry blossom, most developed from the original orchard. The flowers usually bloom from the end of April and most of the visitors to Matsumae (mostly from Sapporo) come at this time. If you are planning to stay overnight on a weekend, it is wise to book accommodation in advance.
Tera-machi: More interesting in some ways than the castle is the old temple district. Hogen-ji is a temple with a superb gate, the oldest in all of Hokkaido. The gate to Aun-ji Temple was originally that of the castle. Matsumae Jinja is the only major shrine in Hokkaido to have been built before the edict separating Shinto from Buddhism. The cemetery containing the tombs of the Kakizaki/Matsumae daimyo is also well preserved. A short walk away is the Nichiren sect temple, which contains the tombs of the warriors of the pro-Tokugawa force that attacked Matsumae in November 1868, including some members of the famous Shinsengumi.
Matsumae-han Yashiki: This is a bit of a tourist trap, but authentically done. The Yashiki is basically a theme park containing a replica village of the whole Matsumae Clan area in the 1850′s when the town had grown from a hard-scrabble village to some 30,000 people in 8,000 households.
Trail of 88 Buddhas: A pilgrimage trail for built during the Edo Period to provide an option for those who couldn’t afford the time or cost of a full pilgrimage to the south, the 88 stone statues are just north of the original site of the Taikan and the trail on a clear day offers spectacular views of Matsumae and the Tsugaru strait.
How to Get There:
Matsumae is about 2 hours 50 minutes by bus from Hakodate Station. Driving (even in winter) is a lot quicker. If driving the advised route is from Hakodate and if you approach from Esashi to the northwest it is a tiring and sometimes quite difficult drive due to the strong winds buffeting your car.