As I sit down to write this article, it’s late afternoon on a surprisingly warm and sunny Sunday. Just yesterday, Typhoon Chan-hom rolled through and dowsed Japan in sheets of rain. Only twenty-four hours prior, I had come to terms with the fact that I was going to be grounded for the weekend. Luckily though, the stormy skies abated early this morning giving way to one of the nicest days I’ve seen since summer’s end. Not wanting to waste a minute of the wondrous weather, I boarded one of the early morning limited express trains bound for Nagano Prefecture’s city of Matsumoto.
This is going to shock long-time readers but I’ve actually never been to Matsumoto. Though the former castle town has been on my bucket list since its inception, something always popped up that caused me to reschedule my visit. Thanks to the timely departure of Typhoon Chan-hom today, I was finally able to cross Matsumoto off the list. While I made a point to get an extremely early start, I think the entirety of the adventure came in at a little over fourteen hours all things considered. Though indeed aggressive for a day trip, it is easily doable for all but the most leisurely of travelers.
If you’re on the fence about visiting Matsumoto (or haven’t even heard of it before), the following guide will illustrate why you need to add it to your next Japan itinerary. Assuming that you’re staying somewhere in Tokyo, a quick trip up to Matsumoto will allow you to experience one of the few remaining original castles while also getting a taste of central Japan’s culture. As if this weren’t enough of a reason to start planning, know that you can also accomplish this feat without throwing the rest of your travel plans awry.
How to Get There
Before examining Matsumoto’s amazing medieval fortress and whatnot, let’s first do our due diligence and cover the logistics of getting there. All things considered, a visit to this important part of Nagano Prefecture is about as easy as it gets. All you need to do is board one of the Azusa limited express trains that depart from Shinjuku Station. The only real thing you need to be wary of is the schedule so be sure to reference Jorudan or a similar service. While trains are by no means infrequent, they are nowhere near as common as the bullet trains bound for Kyoto and Osaka.
At the risk of sounding painfully obvious, know that Matsumoto’s main attractions are best serviced by Matsumoto Station. Seeing as this is the final stop for the Azusa limited express trains, you really need not concern yourself with much. Just board your train (ideally one of the early morning lines if you’re day tripping) and kick back. Around three hours later, you’ll pull into Matsumoto Station. From there, the castle and the rest of Matsumoto’s allures can be accessed via the city’s bus network. Alternatively, you can just elect to hoof it as Matsumoto is extremely walkable.
In all but the most niche corner cases, Matsumoto Castle will be the primary reason why you’d want to visit Matsumoto. Originally completed during the final years of the Warring States period (1482–1603), Matsumoto Castle is one of only twelve surviving original strongholds. The fortress is often referred to by the moniker Kurasu-jyo in Japanese (lit. “Crow Castle” for you Game of Thrones fans) due to its jet-black exterior. Unlike many hilltop forts, Matsumoto Castle lies in the center of a wide open plain. This location affords it spectacular views of the surrounding Japanese Alps.
For the price of only a few hundred yen, you can actually venture inside the authentic site. These days, the interior houses an impressive collection of weaponry hailing from Japan’s bloody civil war years. Were I forced to cherry pick highlights from the array of arms, I’d have to go with the various feudal era firearms that are on display. These run the gamut from small, concealable pistols to large hand cannons. Honestly, the curation is a great reminder how it wasn’t until much later when Japan was at peace that the sword really rose to prominence as a samurai’s soul.
While you’ll have little other recourse but to follow the delineated route once inside Matsumoto Castle, you’ll definitely want to budget for ample time to enjoy the top level. From there, you’ll be able to dreamily gaze out at towering crags of the Japanese Alps. Just be sure to be cautious of the steep and often uneven wooden steps. Unlike many modern concrete reconstructions, Matsumoto Castle was erected over four-hundred years ago. As such, some features aren’t perfectly aligned nor are ceilings raised high enough for someone of my height.
Note that the entry fee for Matsumoto Castle also includes admission to the neighboring Matsumoto City Museum. This facility is located directly next to the castle and houses a number of artifacts documenting the tale of Matsumoto’s past. Though not necessarily a must visit if you’re pressed for time, it does make for a quick and convenient add-on when exploring Matsumoto Castle.
More of Matsumoto
Itching to experience a bit more of Matsumoto before heading back to Tokyo? Why not consider adding some of the following allures to your agenda. Though I always travel solo when I can (and am therefore unhindered by group dynamics), you should be able to fit a good number of these venues into a day trip if you get an early start.
- Nakamachi & Frog Street
This winsome pair of parallel streets are located but a few minutes away from Matsumoto Castle. On Nakamachi (pictured above), you’ll encounter a number of old warehouses and merchant buildings that feel very similar to Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture. Frog Street on the other hand is a narrow lane that popped up in front of Yohashira Shrine and serves as the sanctum’s main approach. The odd name comes from the fact that the words for frog and to return home are both phonetically rendered in Japanese as “kaeru.”
- The Takahashi Samurai House
Found approximately a 10 minute walk from Matsumoto Castle, this well preserved samurai domicile is well worth the hike. The dwelling previously housed the Takahashi family from the mid 1700’s until as late as 2004 yet there are no historical records noting when the home was originally erected. The building has since been donated to Matsumoto City and has been faithfully restored to reflect an 1883 floor plan. Entry is entirely free of charge.
- The Timepiece Museum
This three-story museum is an homage to all things relating to the keeping of time. Found right near the aforementioned Frog Street, the Timepiece Museum is a place that I’d highly encourage anyone interested in old clocks and watches to visit. Admission to the Timepiece Museum will run you around 400 yen or so.
- Matsumoto City Art Museum
Calling all Kusama Yayoi fans! Did you know that the internationally acclaimed artist actually hails from Matsumoto? As such, it’s not surprising that this complex houses an incredible permanent collection of the eclectic artist’s work. In addition to this dramatic draw, you’ll also find exhibits highlighting local artists which are showcased on a regular rotation. Entry to the Matsumoto City Art Museum is also reasonably priced at around 400 yen.
- The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
I am not really sure what it is about this part of Nagano Prefecture but there sure are a hell of a lot of museums in Matsumoto. Rounding out the impressive pedigree of curations is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. This facility houses the vast ukiyo-e woodblock collection of the Sakai family who started amassing works as far back as 300 years ago. Three centuries later, the collection now stands at over 100,000 pieces. Unfortunately though, the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum is more of a warehouse. Compared to the size of the structure, the number of prints on exhibit is a bit disappointing. Entry here will run you 1,000 yen.
In addition to the above list, there’s also the Daio Wasabi Farm a little further north but that might push the limits of what’s possible for a day trip.
Other Nearby Attractions
Given that the Suwa area took me two days to properly complete, a visit there is going to obviously ruin the whole day trip thing. That said, Suwa, and more specifically the collective known as Suwa Taisha, is one of my favorite locations in Japan. If you’re really itching to see the spot that gave rise to the self-mocking hashtag #DonnyThings, look no further than Suwa. You’ll find it immediately to the south of Matsumoto. Between its perplexing, syncretic religious narratives, an amazing lake, and killer onsen, Suwa is one part of Japan that just simply delivers.
Until next time travelers…