Apart from big metropolises like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, there are many cities in Japan with a long and rich history. Usually these are the cities where castles are overshadowing them. From the historical point of view, these were powerful fortresses, concentrating power and being a center of the region’s management. Around castles, there was an environment for trade and culture to be established and developed. Each of these cities had its own unique character, which we can also admire in many places today. One of the most famous cities of its kind is Matsumoto.
Matsumoto is a city located in Nagano Prefecture, on the Honshu island, and is the second largest city in the region. This extremely picturesque town is located between the Japanese Alps and the Utsukushigahara Heights (“Beautiful Plateau”). Matsumoto is best known for its one of the most beautiful and best preserved castles in Japan.
The city originally was called Fukashi, and it was developed in the sixteenth century, around the castle, which until now towers over the city center. It is recognized as the National Treasure, and boasts the oldest wooden watch tower in Japan.
How can you spend time in Matsumoto?
In Matsumoto you can spend time, for example, by visiting the castle or one of the many museums. You can also take a stroll through the old and new districts of the city, or take one of the local buses to the outskirts of the city and see the panoramic view of the region from the nearby hills. The city is tempting to experience its leisurely atmosphere, sophisticated culture and picturesque views. Within the urban agglomeration of Matsumoto (including rural outskirts), there are about 220 thousand of inhabitants. You will not experience here crowds of people in the streets or traffic jams in the morning. Here in the morning, you will not experience crowds or traffic jams on the streets. Here time goes slower and people are always smiling and friendly.
The city is also a good base for trips to the Japanese Alps, such as the Kamikochi, the Norikura or the Tateyama-Kurobe alpine trail (also known as the “Roof of Japan”), where the mountain trail runs at an altitude of 2400 meters.
The region is famous for its delicious apples and soba pasta (made of buckwheat flour), is a birthplace of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama and Suzuki’s method in music education.
How to get there, transport?
It is easy to reach Matsumoto, from almost any place in Japan. The choice of type of transport is very broad and depends on where we are going, how much time we want to spend on the journey and how much to pay for it.
From Nagano to Matsumoto you can get by JR Shinoi line (78 min). On the way to Matsumoto, the train stops at every single train station, but all of them are clean and tidy. One of the train station is worth a brief description, due to the fact, that place and the views that can be seen from there are unusual.
The Obasute station was opened on 1st November, 1900. The station is situated on a switchback, and has two side platforms serving two tracks, which are connected to the station building by a level crossing. The station is unattended. Trains that stop at this place are entering the station going …. back! The train first enters the hill and turns left. After the whole train has turned left, the engineer uses a return switch and train …. goes back to the Obasute station.
Here, the train stops for a while (5 minutes). After a short message in Japanese (which did not understand), all doors of the train were opened and people started to get off. Except for the vast panorama of the region in this place, there is nothing else to do. So, we have understood that we have stopped here to take some pictures and to enjoy an amazing view of the river, mountains and green rice fields. After a short break, we all got back on the train, and the train went in the same direction, we have just arrived from.
Through trains that do not stop at Obasute do not use the switchback, so after turning left they do not go back to the station. This station is very small. Statistics says, that in the 2015, the station was used by an average of 60 passengers daily (boarding passengers only).
The luxury trains
In the nearest future, Obasute station will be located on the route of the most modern and luxury trains in Japan. JR-East and JR-West have introduced luxury cruise trains in 2017. These are trains-hotels, offering a few days trip through Japan, in very luxurious conditions. Single and double rooms are available, you can also rent an entire carriage with your own balcony and private bathroom. The offer is aimed at very wealthy people, because 3-day trip, with 2 nights in a private car costs about 950 thousand yen (over 8,5 thousand $).
The Obusate Station will benefit from this project. Due to its attractive location, an evening bar will be built here in the future. Luxury trains will stay here overnight and will offer their guests the opportunity of having a dinner, surrounded by beautiful nature of the Zenkoji Valley.
Matsumoto – local transport
After leaving Matsumoto Station, you can take the local “Town Sneaker” tourist loop bus (link to Alpico.co, which manages the bus fleet), which will take you through four routes, along the main attractions of the city. One day ticket cost is 500 jen (4,5$), and it also guarantees discounts to Matsumoto Castle and several museums.
You can also cycle around the city, which you can rent here for free! Free “Sui Sui” bikes are available daily from 9 am to 5 pm in various locations of the city. They can be found in front of the “M Wing” City Hall (5 minutes’ walk from the station), in the Nakamachi parking lot or in front of the City Museum next to the Castle. There are also newer “Rikisha” bikes available to rent, which can be found in selected hotels or shops.
The castle can be reached from the station also by foot, in about 15-20 minutes. Personally, I sincerely recommend taking a walk, as when walking around the town, it gives us the opportunity to look at it with closer distance and to see more details.
Matsumoto Castle – history
Before Matsumoto Castle was built, the Fukashi Castle stood here. This castle was built at the beginning of Eisho Era (1504) during the civil war, on the order of Sadanaga Shimadachi. It is said that Fukashi Castle was the predecessor of Matsumoto Castle, but historical records are not completed and cannot be clearly deduced as to how this story began. It is not known yet how the castle of Fukashi became the Matsumoto Castle, but it is known that its construction ended in 1594. At that time, the castle changed its owners and was expanded several times, mainly to strengthen its defensive functions. Finally, the castle remained in the hands of the Ishikawa family.
Matsumoto Castle is the oldest one in Japan and one of the five best preserved original castles in the country. There are many castles in Japan, but most of them are exact replicas of originals. Matsumoto Castle is one of the best-preserved examples of a flatland castle, due to it is not built on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a triple deep moat, thick walls, narrow and winding stairs, narrow passageways and numerous machicoulis, so it had excellent defense functions. The castle is made of wood, so during the siege it was an easy target for flaming shots. However, its strategic position, made the castle difficult to take it. On the way to the main hall, it was necessary to overcome three more defensive walls, behind which the palace of the ruler was placed, and more than 1200 samurai houses.
The “Crow Castle”
The castle has 600 m2 at its base of surface and was built on a square plan. In the middle, there is a tower which is 30 meters high. Next to it, there are two lower towers as well, connected to each other by a corridor. Donjon was built on a stone pedestal, with smooth and steep walls falling directly into the water.
The location of the castle is unusual as well – as it is located on a hill (590 meters high), but on a flat ground. Castles of this type are called the ” flatland castle”. Due to its black colour of the exterior walls and roof – it is also called “crow castle”. It was recognized as a monument in 1930 and as a National Treasure in 1936.
The castle is open from 8.30 am to 5 pm (last entrance at 16.30). Visiting the castle is impossible on Mondays. Admission ticket 610 yen (about 5,5$). During the Golden week and during the “Summer Season” (2017 – 5-16 August), the castle is open from 8am to 6pm.
Matsumoto Castle – what to see?
Due to the fact, that Matsumoto lies at the foot of the Japanese Alps, the soil in this area is prone to erosion. The castle was therefore renovated several times, and the main renovation works focused on strengthening its structure and stopping the tilt of the building.
The castle has five floors, but in fact there are six floors, because in the third – secret one, samurais were gathering together in a case of the siege. In order to get to the castle, you first have to pass through the lower fortress, called Inui Kotenshu, with a hidden floor that served as the armoury. This place was also connected to the main hall by the roofed, upper corridors.
On the second floor of the main tower, there is the Teppo Gura Museum, which presents weapons and armour. It is a gift from private collection of one of the citizens of the Matsumoto (Akahane Michishige), who, in his will, has left the entire collection for the use of the city.
Being in the castle you can look closely at the thick wooden pillars on which all its construction is based. There is also an old weapon displayed on the sites: firearms, muskets, mortars and arquebuses. On the last floor, there is a tiny sanctuary, devoted to the goddess of fire protection. From the windows on this floor there is a magnificent view of the countryside and snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps. The tour of the castle ends in a tsukimi-yagura turret which was used in the past to watch the moon.
Matsumoto city, what to see besides of the castle?
Matsumoto city has been drawn into the list of cities of “special meaning”, which was created in February 2017. There are currently 36 Japanese cities with populations of more than 220,000 people and their functions which have a complementary role, comparing with the major cities in the region. The final list of cities of “special importance” was recognized by the Parliament, based on applications raised by local authorities.
In the city, you should also visit places related to the history of Matsumoto or the whole region. Besides of the castle is worth seeing:
Temple and tea house
- Kasamori Inari Temple, was built in the 16th century by Lord Ogasawara. Known mainly from the wooden entrance gate, built between 1688 – 1704, the oldest gate in the city.
The temple is a 5-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station. Free entrance.
- Ikegami Hyakuchikutei Tea Room is a historic Japanese garden house, located just few- minute walk from the castle. It has a full-size tea room, and a small but charming garden. The tea house is often used by the local community for family celebrations, so can be fully booked and not available to the public
When there is no reservation, you can visit it from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. Closed on Mondays. Free entry.
Other interesting places
- Kaichi School, built in 1876, as the first public school in the region to offer education to anyone, regardless of origin or degree of wealth. It was one of the first buildings of this type in Japan. Currently, the school is closed, and is only available to visitors.
The school is a 10-minute walk from Matsumoto Castle or a 25-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station. Entry is possible from 8.30 am to 5.00 pm (last entrance at 4.30 pm), entrance fee 300 yen (2,7 $). Closed on Mondays.
- The Baba family residence was built at the end of the Edo period. It was inhabited by a wealthy farming family, descended from samurai. The main residence was built in the typical Matsumoto area style of folk architecture. There is also a small but beautiful garden. The residence and the surrounding garden have been preserved for display to the public. It was also recognized as an “Important Cultural Property”.
The residence is open from 9 am to 5 pm (last entrance at 4.30 pm), entrance fee 300 yen (2,7$). Visiting is possible daily except Mondays.
Matsumoto – museums
There are also several museums in the city. Worth to visit:
- Museum of Clocks. The idea of the museum was born in 1974 when Chikazo Honda had decided to donate his own collection of clocks to the city. Clocks were made in Japanese and Western style, preserved in very good condition. He believed that his collection could interest others and that it would be worthwhile to find it in a suitable place. Over time, also other citizens of Matsumoto, handed over their old antique clocks to the city. That has allowed museum to be open in 2002. The great value of this museum is that most of the clocks are still working well. Outside of the building there is the largest swing clock in Japan (“Pendulum Clock”). The museum’s collection is now more than 300 clocks, dating back to the Middle Ages. Exhibits are still being collected, hoping that one-day collection will grow to such an extent, that it will become a major landmark in the city.
Open from 9 am to 5 pm (last entrance at 4.30 pm), entrance fee 300 yen (2,7$). The museum is closed on Mondays.
- Ukiyo-e Museum is a private collection of Japanese paintings and woodcuts. The museum houses over 100 thousand works, collected by several generations of the Sakai family. The rich collection of the museum consists not only of woodcut but also old paintings or books. These is the largest collection of this type in Japan. Be aware that in the museum information in English is very limited. When buying an admission ticket, I recommend taking a leaflet in English language that will provide you basic information.
It is open from 9 am to 5 pm, admission fee 1,000 yen (about 9$). Closed on Mondays. From JR Matsumoto Station, you can get to the museum by “Town Sneaker” bus, the Western Course (Government Regional Office stop) and from there about 15- minute walk.
Through the eye of the camera
When walking around the city, you can find some examples of an old architecture and contemporary art.