Lately, the many spots for cherry blossoms in northern Japan’s Tohoku region have been getting more and more attention. Perhaps partially due to my incessant promotion of places like the ever-amazing Hirosaki Park, I am now seeing a lot more foreign faces joining in the cherry blossom hunt up north. Alas, while these locations may be a little more famous than they once were, there is still an excessive treasure trove of unknown allures to be uncovered. Today, we are going to take a look at just one of these hidden destinations, Matsumae Castle and surrounding area.
Haven’t heard of Matsumae before? Well, I doubt you’re alone in that regard. You see, despite being considered to be one of the top 100 spots for the cherry blossoms during the spring, Matsumae barely (if ever) pops up on the radar, at least insomuch as foreign tourists are concerned. Heck, even I only found out about Matsumae recently in 2022 when I was doing research for my article on Hakodate. Unfortunately, due to my dual role as a creator cum freelance digital marketer, I was not able to cross it off of the list during that initial outing.
Luckily, I recently had a chance to head back up to the southern tip of Hokkaido and finally make my way to Matsumae. While I had my expectations set pretty high before the outing, the former castle town really managed to blow my mind. That said, Matsumae is indeed a commitment. Due to how the connections work out, you’ll need to budget for ample travel time. Luckily though, this does afford you the chance to bundle Matsumae with some other great locations up in Tohoku and/or Hokkaido.
Before we dive into the logistics though, allow me to first quickly explain why one would want to go through all of the suffering involved in actually getting to Matsumae. Historically, this northern locale was the final outpost and node of influence that the Tokugawa shogunate had in what is now present-day Hokkaido. Back then during the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan’s largest prefecture wasn’t actually yet part of the nation. Instead, what we know as Hokkaido was actually lumped together with Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands to form what was called Ezo.
Being the last bastion of the Tokugawa shogunate’s control before the untamed wilderness of Ezo, Matsumae Castle and its surrounding town were strategically vital to maintaining order in the north. Though there had previously always been some sort of settlement here, the erecting of Matsumae Castle in 1606 at the behest of the shogunate elevated the sleepy hamlet into a full-fledged samurai garrison. Thereafter, the district grew into a thriving center of shipping and mercantile activity under the aegis of Matsumae Castle, the only Japanese-style military fortification to ever have been built in Hokkaido.
While the local history of Matsumae is indeed intriguing, the most important thing for you, the reader, to know is that the castle’s grounds are home to approximately 10,000 cherry blossom trees. As if this wasn’t already enough to pique your interest, know too that Matsumae boasts over 250 different species of trees (a count that is one of the highest, if not the highest, in all of the country). Because of the sheer variety of cherry blossoms, Matsumae is home to a season that lasts far longer than most other parts of Japan.
In most cases, those visiting during late April to late May will need to forfeit seeing the country’s most iconic blossoms. Thankfully though, some portion of Matsumae’s thousands of trees will be in bloom during this period. Thus, even if you’re traveling to Japan on the cusp of early summer, you can still get your fix of seasonal pink pretties if you’re willing to trek all the way up to Matsumae. Though it is indeed a challenge to get there, I’m of the mind that the proverbial juice is more than worth the squeeze!
How to Get There
On that note, let us now cover what I consider to be Matsumae’s biggest downside — the extreme difficulty in getting there. Though I write about a lot of off of the beaten path locations in my Japan area guides, this might very well be one of the hardest to reach destinations that I’ve introduced thus far. To begin with, you’re going to need to first get yourself up to southern Hokkaido. This can be done via the bullet train or by flying should you prefer air travel. In either case, your original objective will be Hokkaido’s city of Hakodate.
Here, I guess I should come clean and say that Matsumae isn’t a destination that can be done in a mere day and will require that you overnight somewhere relatively close by. At the end of the day, the connections are just too inconvenient to allow for anything else. In my case, I made my yearly pilgrimage to Hirosaki Park and then took the last train on the Hokkaido Shinkansen up to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station. After crashing for a few hours in one of the nearby business hotels, I got up early and took the first bullet train to Kikonai Station.
In my case, I had already done the likes of Hakodate so my travel itinerary was a bit more awkward than I would suggest for anyone else. For most people, I would recommend that you budget time to also visit Hakodate alongside Matsumae. If you’re going to make the effort to come all the way up this far north, it would really behoove you to check out the historic port town. Maybe, you can even catch some more cherry blossoms at ever-photogenic Goryokaku. Trust me when I say that it will round out the trip!
Anyway, before I get too sidetracked, let’s return to the matter at hand — getting to Matsumae. If you’re starting in Hakodate, there are two means of making the first leg of the journey. You can either take one of the three-per-day direct buses from Hakodate Station or you can do what I did and head to Kikonai Station. For my trip, I had to rush back to Tokyo in the evening so I had to pony up some additional cash for the first bullet train of the day from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station to Kikonai Station. If you’re not pressed for time though, the South Hokkaido Railway also works too.
Assuming that you’re not taking one of the direct buses from Hakodate Station, the next part of your journey will involve a whopping 90 minute bus ride from Kikonai Station to Matsumae. The stop for these is located right in front of the Misogi Michi-no-Eki service station. I’ll leave this Google Map here for your reference but it is pretty easy to find. For what it’s worth, know that there is a power outlet in the waiting room right beside the bus stop. Seeing as you’ll need all the charge that you can get, I would consider topping off your devices while waiting if I were you.
After a solid hour and a half on the bus, you’ll eventually find yourself on the southernmost tip of the Hokkaido landmass. You’ll want to keep your ears perked for the Matsushiro Bus Stop as missing it could easily mean ending up somewhere in no man’s land. At the same time, it is a rather long ride so do kick back, relax and leave all of the hard work to the driver. Do note though that the view of the jagged coastline and the Tsugaru Strait from the window is not something to miss when en route to Matsumae.
Now, I’d like to close this section by emphasizing that you need to be doubly sure of your departure times when making an outing to Matsumae. Unlike in the big city, this extremely rural region does not have the logistical frequencies that you might be used to elsewhere. If you miss a key timing, not only will it cost you upwards of an hour or more, you might also find that your entire plan is now FUBAR due to an inability to get to where you need to go. Thus, you’re going to want to use a service like Jorudan like your life depended on it.
Pro Tip: To make comparing easier, I would take screenshots of any and all key connections. Oftentimes, route calculators will give you the most expedient means of travel. At least insomuch as Matsumae is concerned, that could end up putting you on a bullet train for a single stop if you’re not careful…
Alternatively, you can save yourself a lot of headaches by just renting a car. While this does mean that you’ll need to have someone in your party be the designated driver for the day, you’ll not be subjected to the terrible connections that are part and parcel of a trip to Matsumae on public transportation. Since I don’t drive, this isn’t an option for me but those of you with international driver’s licenses should consider it.
Exploring the Castle Town
When you disembark at Matsushiro, you’ll find the ocean and the Tsugaru Strait on one side of the road and a collection of shops on the other. This part of Matsumae used to be where the castle township was located. In an effort to preserve their historical heritage, the locals have done all that they can to keep the buildings looking like they did centuries ago. When I visited, I skipped this portion of Matsumae at first so that I could better budget my time and returned to it before heading home. After all, it’s right by the stop you’ll need to return to anyway!
Directly past where the old living quarters and merchant houses of the townsfolk once were, you’ll find the entrance to the grounds of Matsumae Castle atop a short incline that you’ll need to fight your way up. Now officially a public space by the name of Matsumae Park, much of the former samurai fortress’s infrastructure still remains for you to behold. While the main citadel was sadly destroyed years ago, the stone walls are still the ones that were laid here ages ago when the Tokugawa shogunate decreed that the northernmost outpost should be built at Matsumae.
These days, the interior of Matsumae Castle has been transformed into a museum. As is the case with many other reconstructed keeps, the ferroconcrete structure houses a vast number of priceless artifacts that are related to the local history and the Matsumae clan that governed this part of Japan. Entry into Matsumae Castle will run you a few hundred yen and I highly suggest that you consider paying the fee. Moreover, if you opt for the combined ticket, you can save 100 yen elsewhere in Matsumae (but more on that in a minute).
Though the 10,000 cherry blossoms are why one would want to come all the way out to a remote town like this to begin with, there are a few other spots worth checking out in addition to Matsumae Castle. I’ll detail these below and provide a link to a convenient Google Map so that you can get a sense of where each of them are in Matsumae. I was able to pack them all into an aggressive morning before I had to take my final means of transportation back towards civilization.
- The Matsumae Clan Residence
Found on the western edge of the park, the Matsumae Clan Residence is a historical theme park that recreates the Matsumae town environment from yesteryear for the present day. Inside you’ll find 14 historical replicas including merchant housing, a magistrates office, a shipping agent and a guard station. You can also rent samurai and other costumes here. Note that the Matsumae Clan Residence is part of a set ticket with Matsumae Castle.
- Matsumae’s Temple District
This collection of local temples actually have existed since before the founding of Matsumae Castle. Thus, the buildings actually predate the erecting of the samurai stronghold in Matsumae and are thereby ranked among the oldest remaining structures in Hokkaido. Don’t miss the graveyard for the former lords of the the Matsumae clan too!
- Matsumae Shrine
Located directly behind Matsumae Castle, this small shrine is surrounded by many cherry blossom trees. Due to this blessing, it is quite picturesque during the period from late April to whenever the final petal falls for the year. If you go to Matsumae Castle, you simply cannot miss it.
- The Matsumae Sakura Museum
This small facility has a curation about all of the cherry blossoms in Matsumae Park as well as a reference library that documents the variety of species. While not really a “must see,” it’s there for the flower fanatics out there.
- The Hachiju Hakusho Hiking Circuit
If you’re feeling outdoorsy, you can also sneak in a quick mountain excursion on the Hachiju Hakusho Hiking Circuit. This 20-minute-long trail leads up the side of Mt. Shogun and offers great views of the ocean as well as the cherry blossoms down in Matsumae Park.
Finally, know that Matsumae also has an annual summertime festival that it is semi-famous for. While it does look intriguing in a vacuum, the sheer logistical hurdles involved in getting to Matsumae make it a nonstarter when the cherry blossoms aren’t in bloom. There are simply too many other places in Japan to consider.
Other Nearby Attractions
This should sound like a no-brainer but Hakodate combines incredibly well with a trip to Matsumae. After all, you need to transit via the port city so you might as well make the most of it and dive into Hakodate’s history. Alternatively, you could also elect to follow in my footsteps and shoehorn in the cherry blossom festival at Hirosaki Park in Aomori Prefecture. Should you do so though, just be prepared for some extremely unsavory train connections (especially if you want to see the nighttime cherry blossom illuminations at Hirosaki Park).
Back by Matsumae, there are actually a handful of other options that are worth considering too should you be into niche allures like I am. These are as follows…
- The Seikan Tunnel Museum
As you’ll hear if you ever take the bullet train up to Hakodate, the Seikan Tunnel is the world’s longest undersea shaft and is also the second deepest. The 54-kilometer-long underwater tunnel connects the tip of Aomori Prefecture with Hokkaido’s Cape Shirakami. In the nearby town of Fukushima, you can learn all about this engineering marvel at the Seikan Tunnel Museum.
- The Yokozuna Museum
Located just a little to the northeast of Matsumae, this small facility is dedicated to two local former sumo wrestlers who quickly rose up to the highest rank of yokozuna. While I’d only suggest you drop by if you’re a hardcore fan of sumo, it’s there if you have a rental car at your disposal.
- Misogi Beach
Situated but a few minutes away from Kikonai Station, Misogi Beach is a great way to kill some time while awaiting your next connection. This waterfront strip is home to a picturesque torii gate that is used in an annual misogi festival where the local fishermen enter Hokkaido’s wintery waters during the month of January. This celebration is said to be a way of praying for a year of good fishing.
In closing, allow me to end by saying that the former fiefdoms of the Matsumae clan certainly isn’t something that I’d recommend for all. That said, if you want to get really off of the beaten path and experience one of the best springtime allures in all of Japan, I cannot more highly recommend it. While it wasn’t feasible for me, you can even spend the night and enjoy the evening illuminations of the cherry blossoms and Matsumae Castle!
Until next time travelers…