Continuing on about our first road trip in Japan, this blog post is about Matsumoto, the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture. It’s the second largest city but it does feel small if you compare it to Tokyo. Matsumoto is about 1.5 hours drive from Nagano city and is a noteworthy stop along the way. We drove from Yamanouchi where we had our first encounter with the Snow Monkeys.
For history buffs, Matsumoto is well known for it’s castle, and for foodies, soba noodles is it’s specialty. With a population of 241,000 residents, Matsumoto is a small city and most of the attractions are within walking distance of each other. Getting a hotel close to the castle will be the most convenient option, but if you can’t then any hotel within the city center is just fine, since you can easily get around by bus or taxi.
What to See
If you were a fan of the 1980’s TV series Shogun (back before Richard Gere there was Richard Chamberlain), you would be fascinated by Matsumoto castle which dates back more than 400 years to the Edo period. Built between 1592-1614AD, the castle is one of the most complete and well preserved in Japan, and is listed as one of Japan’s National Treasures. The other castles which are also listed as National Treasures are Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle.
In a rather Tolkienish way, Matsumoto Castle is known as the Crow Castle because of it’s black colour, while Himeji Castle is known as the White Heron Castle due to it’s white exterior. How fascinating! It’s like the Two Towers in Lord of the Rings.
There is isn’t really much on display inside the keep. There is a collection of old musket guns, tools and some samurai armor on display, but most of the keep is empty. According to our guide, this castle was built in an era when guns were the main weapons of choice and the samurai was dying out. In fact the castle was designed for gun warfare, with vertical slit windows and wooden louvers for protection.
Also known as Frog Street, Nawate Street is one of the shopping streets in Matsumoto. Located on the side of small river, this is a rather short street that has frog themed statues along it. Numerous small shops and temporary tent stalls sell food and handicrafts along the sides. There are also several cafes where you can sit, have a cuppa and people watch.
There is another street called Nakamachi Street that’s on the other side of the river from Nawate Street. It’s well known for it’s houses which have been restored to their original black and white look with geometric patterns. You will find mostly bars, cafes and restaurants here. Somehow, I didn’t find Nakamachi Street interesting.
If you have been spoiled by the large shopping streets in Tokyo or elsewhere, then Matsumoto isn’t the place to expect a lot. Both Nawate and Nakamachi streets are short and quaint, but don’t offer much in terms of goods and services.
Elsewhere in Matsumoto
I do find Matsumoto interesting for some street photography due to it’s blending of old and modern architecture.
What to Eat
Matsumoto is famous for it’s soba or buck wheat noodles. You will find many soba restaurants around the city. We decided to visit one of the more well patronized restaurants for lunch. It helped that the restaurant is just on a side street beside our hotel. Other notable foods here are the raw horse meat (basashi) and wasabi from the world’s largest wasabi farm nearby.
How To Get There
JR trains connect Matsumoto to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and takes 2.5-3 hours with a fare of ¥6,710. There is a cheaper option which is to take the highway bus from Shinjuku and takes only 3 hours to reach Matsumoto JR station (¥3,400). Of course if you have the Japan Rail Pass, then all the train rides mentioned are free.
Due to it’s small size, walking is a good option especially if you are staying in a centrally located lodging. There is no subway here, so buses and taxis are the only public transport options available. Otherwise, you can actually cycle. It looked pretty safe to me as there was little traffic and there are cycling lanes on most of the roads. The hotel that we were staying had bicycles for rent and there is a bicycle rental company near the train station that rents out bicycles for ¥1,500 a day. Free bicycles are also available from 8.30am to 5.00pm at various locations around Matsumoto.