Matsumoto, a lovely small-sized city in Nagano Prefecture, is home to one of Japan’s most beautiful castles and is well worth a visit.Matsumoto-jo has the oldest donjon remaining in Japan – construction began in 1592. It is one of five castles designated a ‘National Treasure of Japan’. It has also earned the name, Karasu-jo, or Crow Castle, due to its black walls and roof that give the appearance of spreading wings. On the 2nd floor, visitors can enjoy a collection of armor, guns, and other weapons. They can also climb steep staircases to the top floor for a fantastic view of Matsumoto City and the nearby Japanese Alps. The castle is at its most beautiful in mid-April when over 300 cherry trees are in bloom within its grounds.About five minutes walk from the castle is an interesting lesser-known sightseeing spot, the former Kaichi School. Built in 1876, it is one of Japan’s oldest remaining elementary school buildings. It is now a museum displaying material related to Japanese education from the Edo period to present day. The building is impressive architecturally and visitors are welcome to explore it on their own.The Metobagawa runs through the center of town and is also close to the castle. Originally this river divided townspeople in the south from samurai residences in the north.Running along a section of the river is a narrow stone paved street called Nawate-dori where approximately 50 shops sell a variety of local souvenirs and food.Close by is a wider street, Nakamachi-dori, lined with several well-preserved historic buildings that were part of the original merchant district. Some of these buildings are now restaurants, shops, or ryokan. If you are there on a Saturday from April through December, there is an excellent morning market.If you stay overnight in Matsumoto, I highly recommend a visit to Itoya, a sake bar/restaurant on Nakamachi-dori. Itoya has about 10 seats and is run by a lovely Japanese lady. Her specialty is oden, but she also offers a variety of small seasonal dishes – with most items made from local ingredients.I had a delicious mushroom, tofu, and vegetable noodle soup, mixed homemade pickles, and a 3-glass sampler set of local sake. It is easy to order as Itoya has a flip-card English menu with photos. Closed on Monday & Tuesday.Where to stay when visiting Matsumoto? There are a variety of options, but I really love the Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu. Established in 1896, it is a classic ‘Western’ style hotel filled with Matsumoto’s unique Mingei (folk craft) furniture. The hotel was recently remodeled, but still retains its old-fashioned atmosphere. With a main building and an annex, there are a variety of room types (and price levels) to choose from. There is also a public hot spring bath filled with ‘Fukashi water’ which was originally snow in the Japanese Alps. It is reputed to be good for your health.We opted out of including meals as the hotel is a short walk from restaurants and bars on both Nawate-dori and Nakamachi-dori. Those who include meals will dine in the hotel’s restaurant, I;caza, which focuses on creating Nagano-inspired dishes from fresh local ingredients. We did eat a reasonable breakfast on-site at the Cafe Yatoro-onkan, which also offers simple lunches, tasty desserts, and more.After spending one day in central Matsumoto City, I recommend spending the second doing one of the following:
Visit the Daio Wasabi Farm in Azumino. This farm was founded in 1915 and is the largest wasabi farm in Japan. It is filled with fields in which clear water from the Northern Alps constantly flows. Visitors can walk trails through the fields, eat a tasty lunch, visit their museum, and shop for wasabi-flavored food items. Try some wasabi ice cream – it is quite delicious!Beside the wasabi farm is a lovely stream that is part of the Sai River. If you visit, be sure to take a rafting ride that floats past traditional waterwheels. Dangle your feet into the crystal-clear water as the boat leisurely travels along. It is perfect for families or anyone who just wants to ‘relax with nature’. The company who runs the rafting trips, Azumino Kisen, also offers hot air balloon rides in the area.Getting there: Take the Oito Line from Matsumoto Station to Hotaka Station (30 minutes). From there, take a taxi (10 minutes) or rent a bicycle (200 yen per hour).Another option, is to visit Utsukushigahara, or ‘beautiful field’, which is actually a 2000 meter high plateau about an hour outside of Matsumoto. An impressive open air museum (‘sister’ to Hakone’s Chokoku-no-mori) is a highlight of the area. Built in 1981, during Japan’s bubble era, the museum consists of spacious grassy fields dotted with 350 sculptures. Structures within the museum have seen better days, but it is still definitely worth a visit – especially on a clear day when views of the Japanese Alps are incredible. It is important to note, however, that the museum is only open from April 28 to November 4 (2018).Getting there: Driving is the most convenient way to get to Utsukushigahara, but it is also accessible by bus or taxi. By car/taxi it takes about 70 minutes to the museum. It is a 105 minute bus ride from Matsumoto Station.
*Matsumoto is about three hours by car or ‘Azusa’ limited express trains from Shinjuku Station.
If you prefer a more traditional onsen experience, stay in nearby Asama Onsen, which is a short 15 minute taxi ride or 25 minutes by bus.