The Crow Takes Flight - Mark Iandolo

Matsumoto Castle, once nicknamed the Crow Castle, appears to gain wings as a fiery sunrise unfolds.

THE OLDEST CASTLE IN JAPAN

During my travels to Japan, I made it a priority to photograph some of its iconic castles. As a history buff and lover of fantasy and ancient architecture, I enjoy taking pictures of structures like these. My goal was to make them seem imposing and dominant, an ode to the warriors who once lived there.

“From the moment they awake, the samurai devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue,” Nathan Algren said in the film, The Last Samurai. And their main pursuit was war. There is possibly no other warrior in history that invokes as much graceful power as the Samurai. I wanted to capture this power in my photos of Japan’s castles.

One of the fortresses on my itinerary was Matsumoto Castle, the oldest remaining one in the country.

LIKE YIN AND YANG

Before Matsumoto, I visited the largest metropolitan area in the world – Tokyo. I toured the city for four days before escaping to the north. It truly felt like an escape, for as many sights as the famed city has, its chaos had gotten to me. Tokyo Tower, the Skytree, the Rainbow Bridge, the Imperial Palace: all classic structures and a paradise for photographers. But the city can drain on a travel-weary wanderer.

So I headed north, into the Japanese Alps. Almost immediately, I felt a sense of calm that had been missing in Tokyo. My heart seemed to beat at a normal pace again. It was the heart of cherry blossom season, and the gorgeous trees dotted the hillsides as I headed to Matsumoto.

As I arrived in the city, the quiet, peaceful nature of the region hit me even harder. The concept of yin and yang is Chinese in origin, but it made its way to Japan during medieval times. Tokyo and Matsumoto felt like a manifestation of this theory: chaos versus peace.

I wondered, in such a serene environment, how could Matsumoto Castle be powerful and dominant? The donjon rested on a flat surface; no hills or mountains protected it. I went to sleep that night in Matsumoto not knowing what to do.

AND SO THE CROW FLIES

Before dawn the next morning, I made my way to the castle grounds in complete darkness. I had no idea what to expect. I found the fortress and set up at what I thought would best convey a sense of that dominance I hoped for: a 90 degree angle from the castle. I could barely make out its shape, but I knew there was a moat and I hoped to get a reflection shot. Then I waited for sunrise…

And, wow. Just, wow. The colors of sunrise lasted under a minute, but the profound effect they made created something I couldn’t have ever envisioned. Matsumoto Castle was once nicknamed “the Crow Castle” for its black exterior and the way it appears to look like a crow taking flight. The sunrise I got that morning added real wings to the castle. The donjon actually seemed to take off, to lurch out of its peaceful surroundings – the peak bloom cherry blossoms and rolling hills behind it – and take flight right at me. The water below it had no ripples, and thus the reflection added right to the drama. It’s like the castle was angry. Angry that I had doubted its power. And it had every right to be angry. Its dominance was unmatched by anything I had ever seen.

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