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.

matsumoto-hotel
We stayed at Hotel Kagetsu which is walking distance to the main attractions of the Castle and the shopping streets. The hotel has 2 wings, the black coloured building on the left and the white coloured building on the right. This black and white colour theme seems to be repeated in many of the buildings here, maybe because of the castle.
matsumoto-hotel-room-view
The hotel is highly recommend based on TripAdvisor reviews and we booked our rooms through Expedia. The hotel gave us an upgrade to a larger room when we arrived, Yay! We got the attic rooms which were quite spacious and had lots of character. There is also a roof terrace which is quite under utilized but offers spectacular views of the city and castle.

What to See

Matsumoto Castle

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.

 

castle-1
There are English speaking guides available and we got one. If you would like to know more about the history of the castle this is a good option, and it’s free. The guided tour takes around 1 hour. Although the guide is free, there is an admission fee (610/adult, 300/child) to enter the castle.

 

castle-2
The castle keep which stands at almost 30m tall. You can see 5 floors from outside, but there is actually a secret and hidden floor inside. Thoughts of ninjas and assassins start coming to mind.
castle-5
Contrary to castles in Europe, Japanese castles were mostly made of wood. Besides the earth and stone breastworks, the rest of the keep is mostly wooden. It doesn’t seem like a good idea since a fire could just burn down the keep. The whole keep is supported by large timber columns and beams which can be seen in the first floor. Tradition has it that you can hug the columns for good luck.
castle-4
The stairs are really steep and high. Here you can see how difficult it is to climb between the different floors. I can’t imagine how the samurai warriors did it with their armor and weapons.

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.

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The view from the highest floor where you can see the innermost moat surrounding the castle.
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The black outline on the ground is where the palace used to be. It burned down long ago, and according to our guide, legend has it that a palace maid left the cooking fire burning and sneaked out with a guard for ahem… The cooking fire got out of control and burned down the palace. Nobody knows what happened to the maid and guard.
castle-3
There are actually 3 moats surrounding the castle as it was built on a plain instead of a hill. The moats and a series of walls and gates formed the castle’s defenses. The castle and Matsumoto city are surrounded by alps and makes for a really nice postcard.
castle-night
The castle is open from 8.30am to 5.00pm. But although it’s closed at night, you can still take photos from the castle grounds which are open. The castle is spectacular when lighted up at night.

 

Nawate Street

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.

matsumoto-streets-3
Along the way to Nawate Street, I see that the city is rather big on antiques and retro stuff. Here is a working postbox that’s out of the 1930’s.
antiques
Antiques seem to be the theme in the city and I could see pieces of antique stuff on display. Clockwise from top left: Steampunk looking cash register, Typewriter for Japanese characters, antique shop along Nawate Street, old radio.
frog-street
Scenes along Nawate Street. Most of the shops here close early in the evening, So if you want to shop here, you need to come during the day. Statues of frogs are scattered along the street giving it’s other name, Frog Street.
frog-street-temple
A shrine at the start of Nawate Street.

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.

time-museum
The Museum of Timepieces is across from the start of Nawate Street and has a huge pendulum swinging on it’s façade.
fountains
Numerous fresh water springs dot the city and you can drink or refill your water bottles with the water from here. The spring on top is just next to Hotel Kagetsu, and the one below is on the main street leading to Matsumoto Castle.
matsumoto-streets-2
A traditional styled building that is sandwiched between 2 modern apartment blocks. It’s actually a bookstore.
matsumoto-streets-1
This abandoned building is almost covered by creepers. It will probably look nice in summer when the leaves bloom.
matsumoto-streets-4
I spotted many berry plants over growing on fences and buildings. Traditional and modern, nature amongst the concrete, what’s there not to like?

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.

koyabashi-soba
Top left: Koyabashi Restaurant which is famous for it’s soba. Top right: The restaurant is quite small and you need to wait in line to get a seat. Bottom left: Horse steak. Bottom right: Soba with mackerel.

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.

Getting Around

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.

5 thoughts on “Matsumoto

  1. I have to admit that I learned about Matsumoto Castle only after my trip to Japan last year. I went to Himeji Castle and it was truly an impressive architectural and engineering feat. I was intrigued by how people moved inside the castle though, as the steps were quite steep and it must have been much darker back in the days. I really love your photo of the castle and its reflection at nighttime. Magical!

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