Normally, Matsue Castle is closed at night. However, for a time in autumn, the nighttime castle is open. This particular time of year makes for an experience unlike any other in Japan, because the grounds of the 400-year-old castle are illuminated with hundreds of handmade lanterns.
This is Matsue Suitoro; a festival that takes place every weekend from late September to late October. Professional artists and locals alike create lanterns to display around the castle grounds, and special festival events allow visitors to experience the castle and the nearby Shiome-Nawate Street in once-a-year splendor.
The main events begin just inside the castle grounds. Despite the number of festival-goers, the effect of the soft lantern light in this historical site is nothing short of magical. Exploring the grounds and examining each lantern is like opening a treasure box; you don’t know what you’ll find, but it will be beautiful.
One of the most unique things about Matsue Suitoro is the sheer variety of lantern designs. Simple-but-elegant lanterns made of hollowed bamboo sit alongside four-sided paper portraits illuminated from within.
On the lawn that stretches out just below the castle, lanterns designed by local school kids are on display. There’s also an area around here where visitors can try their hands at designing their own lanterns!
When you finally reach the top of the hill, you have the option to climb higher still up the levels of Matsue Castle. This is the best place to get a view of the festival and the nightscape of the city.
Back at the bottom of the castle grounds, the festival continues. All along Shiome-Nawate Street, a place known for its historical buildings, more lanterns and light displays are set up along the old castle moat. You can enjoy these either by walking or by boat. The Horikawa Sightseeing Boats have a dock just in front of Matsue Castle. These small boats take guests on tours of Matsue’s old moats and canals all year round, but on the nights of Suitoro, they offer shorter night tours. The night tour will take you along Shiome-nawate Street so you can enjoy its lights from the water. Then it drops you off at the end of the street so that you can explore the sights there more fully.
A former Samurai residence and the Matsue History Museum are two of the best-known buildings on Shiome-Nawate Street. For this reason, these buildings also decorate for Suitoro. Entrance to the samurai residence is free for the nights of Suitoro as is entrance to the front courtyard of the history museum. Unless you go inside Matsue Castle, entrance to the castle grounds is free as well!
This year was my second year attending Suitoro. It’s become a must-see event for me! I love exploring Matsue on a normal day, but the dreamy nights of the water lantern festival take me to a completely different city.