Cradled by some of the highest peaks in the Central Honshū region, home to one of Japan’s best preserved historic castles, and the birthplace of internationally renowned artist Yayoi Kusama, Matsumoto is a historical and cultural hub in a stunning natural setting.
Japan’s Central Honshū is well known as a land of healing hot springs, the Japanese Alps, and the striking Kiso Valley. A gateway town to the region, Matsumoto is the second largest city in the Nagano prefecture but is usually used only as an overnight resting place. However, this valley city has much more to offer those passing through than a good night’s sleep. It’s also easily accessible from Tokyo and makes for a great culture-filled weekend getaway or day trip.
Dating back to the 8th century, Matsumoto’s rich history combines with a laid-back bohemian culture – its streets are characterised by a tranquillity that may come as surprise for those only familiar with Japan’s larger cities.
Starting from Tokyo, take the JR Azusa line (included in the JR Rail Pass) from Shinjuku station and if possible try to bag a window seat. As the train reaches full speed and the buildings of the concrete megalopolis start to thin, on clear days it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped Mount Fuji in the distance.
THINGS TO DO
The city’s main attraction, Matsumoto-jō (4-1 Marunouchi), is claimed by some to be the oldest of Japan’s remaining castles. Built during the Sengoku period, between the years 1592 and 1614, it is encircled by traditional gardens and a moat crossed by typical red footbridges (called uzumibashi) and home to carp and swans. Fondly known as Crow Castle thanks to its sleek black lacquered exterior, this impressive tiered fortress is set atop stone foundations and boasts two turrets as well as a central tower with five floors. By night, well-placed lighting transforms this already magical structure into a true Japanese fairy-tale, reflecting it back in the waters below.
As is customary in Japan, visitors are expected to remove their shoes upon entry, so expect your tour to include the creaking of floorboards and the shuffling of socked feet sliding on polished mahogany; and if the intricate detail of the castle’s interior doesn’t leave you feeling dizzy, its steep wooden stairs will! Keep an eye out for the mashomado sliding warrior windows and the dreamy moon-viewing room, which are two of the castle’s many highlights. When you reach the top of the main tower, meanwhile, the views of the city and surrounding mountains are pinch-yourself stunning.
On the other side of the river lies Nakamachi, once a bustling merchant district back in Japan’s iconic Edo period (from the 17th to mid-19th century). Today it is home to charming black and white earthen-walled storehouses-turned-artisan studios, tearooms, and quaint shops selling hand-crafted items and antiques. Take it all in on foot to truly appreciate the charm.
Coffee enthusiasts and history buffs alike will enjoy the Kurassic-kan buildings (2-9-15 Chuo). Entry is free, so if you’re in the area it’s worth popping inside just for that straw-like tatami smell and to marvel at the handsome, well-preserved wooden beam structures. A former sake brewery, these three buildings are situated around a Japanese garden and inner courtyard with a delightful hand-pumped well. The coffee shop and tearoom also serve delicious, locally made cakes.
An unmissable stop for art lovers is the Matsumoto City Museum of Art (4-2-22, Chuo), which often hosts exhibitions of work by one of the city’s most famous daughter’s, the polka dot-obsessed, avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama. A permanent display of her famous giant plastic flowers welcomes visitors to the space.
Matsumoto is also home to the world’s largest private collection of ukiyo-e artworks – the classic woodblock prints and paintings that typify 18th and 19th century Japanese art. Due to the delicate nature of the collection, despite having upwards of 100,000 pieces, the Ukiyo-e Museum (2206-1 Shinkiri) only displays relatively small numbers at any one time – though these are easily enough to keep visitors occupied for an hour or more.
WHERE TO STAY
Tabi-shiro Hostel (1-chōme-3-6 Josei) is a great option, around ten minutes on foot from the train station and a swift stroll away from downtown Matsumoto. Guests have the choice of spacious private Japanese-style tatami rooms or modern dorms with snug wooden bunks. Solo travellers will also be glad to hear there’s always someone to talk to in the cosy lounge area and bar. With rooms starting at 4,000 yen, it is slightly more expensive than some other options in the city, such as the centrally located Matsumoto BackPackers (Shiraita 1-1-6), however the welcoming staff and tasty breakfast make it worth the extra yen.
A more lavish option is Hotel Kagetsu (4-8-9 Ote), conveniently located between the train station and Matsumoto-jō. Its interior decor seamlessly combines the charm of Japanese “folkcraft” or mingei with Western comforts. For a truly healing experience (or just to relax your tired feet after a busy day sightseeing), visit its heated onsen baths, which use water sourced from the nearby Japanese Alps.
Across the river from the charming Nakamachi district is Marumo (3-3-10 Chuo), a traditional ryokan and coffee house. The cosy tatami-floor rooms of this inn are connected by a creaky wooden staircase and narrow corridors. Their adjoining coffee shop, which opened in 1958, is the ideal place for leisurely breakfasts or an afternoon pick-me-up. The piano and dark wood interior add to the homely ambience.
RESTAURANTS & CAFES
The web of narrow side streets between the castle and the waterfront is ideal for exploring hidden-away izakayas, the modest bars serving small, inexpensive dishes popular among locals. These can normally be spotted by the noren curtains covering their entranceways. Many serve a selection of sake – order it hot (atsukan) in the winter months to warm you from head to toe, or chilled (hiya) for a refreshing kick in summer – accompanied by a small menu of rotating specials, some of which often include sake-marinated fish, vegetable soups, sashimi and Korean kimchi.
Also in this area is Sweet Bakery & Café (4-2-12 Ote), a business founded in Seattle in 1913, which opened its doors to this outlet in Matsumoto in 1924. This spot serves a range of sweet and savoury baked products, along with their famous miso-crust French-style baguette.
For a sit-down option, head east down the river to find Hikari-ya Higashi (4-7-14 Ote). It serves beautifully presented kaiseki (multiple-course) meals made using local ingredients in a 130-year old building. Dimmed lighting and tatami floor seating make for an intimate experience.
Soan Zama (3-2-9 Chuo) in Nakamachi is also worth a visit if you’re prepared to brave the staff not speaking English (there is an English menu available). Try the chilled soba noodles if you’re visiting in summer. The set menus at lunch and dinner change according to the season and the restaurant is known to close sporadically, so consider it a happy coincidence if you happen to walk by and it’s open, and have a back-up just in case.
As you head back towards the Metoba River you’ll find Nawate-dōri, an old-world waterside promenade lined with colourful shops and stalls selling souvenirs, hand-crafted goods and a tasty selection of snacks perfect for lunch on the go. Choose from yakitori skewered meats, oyaki steamed buns stuffed with exotic flavour combinations such as walnut and miso and taiyaki carp-shaped waffles with sweet and savoury fillings. Here is also known as “Frog Street” due to the many frog figurines in a range of shapes and sizes that line the sidewalk.
Finally, Tsukiji-Ichiba-Shokudo (1-4-6 Chuo) is a cheap and cheerful eatery close to the station, perfect for lunch before catching the train back to the capital or your next destination. The fish served here is shipped daily from Tokyo’s world famous Tsukiji fish market. Happy hour is 3pm to 6pm with 100-yen beer. What you see is what you get: simple, affordable dishes in a no-fuss restaurant popular among locals. The specials are scrawled on pieces of paper and stuck to the walls, but they also have menus available in English.