Surrounded by the majestic Hotaka Mountains and boasting the oldest castle in Japan, Matsumoto has long been a destination for hikers and history buffs. Now, thanks to its fine museums, stunning local food and unexpectedly intact historic neighbourhoods, the city is finally getting the broader recognition it deserves. Just over two hours by train from Tokyo, a trip to Matsumoto is like entering a different world. Here’s what to do when you get there.
Regarded as one of the three most beautiful castles in Japan, Matsumoto-jo is the city’s biggest draw. Known colloquially as Karasu-jo, or ‘crow castle’, because of its black exterior, this awe-inspiring fortification dates back to the 1590s. It is one of just 12 castles surviving to still boast the original keep – climbing to the top of which is worthwhile for the impressive collection of arms and armours contained within and the stunning views out over the city and the Japanese Alps. The Matsumoto City Museum in the castle grounds offers you an overview of the history of the city and the castle that dominates it. A local guide group offers free one-hour tours by reservation.
A short walk from the castle, Nakamachi-dori was once Matsumoto’s merchant quarter. Visitors can still see the evocative traditional storehouses, known as kura, identifiable by their black-and-white plaster walls. Today, this picturesque street is a popular shopping area where you can buy pottery, lacquerware and other traditional handicrafts. The highlight of Nakamachi is the Kurassic-kan, a restored sake warehouse that is now open to the public and hosts a range of interesting events and exhibitions. Running parallel to Nakamachi, across the river lies ‘Frog Street’, a charming lane comprising a range of traditional shops and cafés housed in small, historic buildings.
Tea ceremonies were first popularised by samurai during the age of Japanese civil war. Highly ritualised, with a focus on control and discipline, this gentle art reflected the samurai ideal. With every movement prescribed, it was the perfect way to bring distrustful adversaries together – there were no sudden movements allowed. Located just a short walk from Matsumoto-jo sits Ikegami Hyakuchikutei, a beautiful traditional tea house, perfectly embodying the minimalist aesthetic so cherished by the samurai who inhabited the castle. The stunning garden that surrounds it is noted for its particularly lovely foliage in autumn with its striking display of reds and golds.
Matsumoto’s Ukiyo-e Museum is the legacy of Yoshiaki Sakai, one of the city’s wealthiest 18th-century merchants. Sakai was a regular host to ukiyo-e (a style of Japanese art) masters such as Hiroshige and Hokusai, who gifted him original artworks. Today, with more than 100,000 prints, paintings and byobu (screens), this is regarded as the greatest collection of woodblock prints in the world. Roughly a 30-minute walk from Matsumoto Station, the Ukiyo-e Museum is a must-visit for anyone interested in Japanese art or history. The curator, Nobuo Sakai, a descendent of the founder, is also available to give personal tours in English of the collection – an incredible privilege.
Wasabi, the pungent green accompaniment to sushi, has spread around the world with Japanese food, but what many people don’t realise is that most of the wasabi consumed internationally is simply horseradish that has been dyed green. The real stuff, however, is a different matter entirely – an expensive delicacy requiring perfectly clean water for its cultivation. Nagano, with its intricate web of crystal-clear streams fed by snowmelt off the pristine mountains, is the perfect place to grow the finicky rhizome. Only under such immaculate conditions is wasabi cultivation possible. Daio Wasabi Farm, which provides 10 percent of Japan’s total wasabi production, is the perfect place to try the real thing. Sample wasabi donburi, wasabi sausages and even wasabi ice cream. Film buffs might recognise the farm’s beautiful water wheels from Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film, Dreams.
If you are in Matsumoto at the beginning of October then make sure not to miss this chaotic Taimatsu festival, in which burning bales of hay are rolled through the narrow streets, followed by crowds of chanting townspeople. The spectacle culminates in an enormous bonfire at Misha-jinja.
Visitors to the Matsumoto City Museum of Art are met outside the institution by one of Yayoi Kusama’s enormous signature sculptures – an explosion of colour in the form of a bundle of flowers, erected to mark the museum’s founding in 2002. Kusama was born in the city in 1929 and her time growing up in Nagano continues to influence her entire oeuvre. Inside you’ll find a gallery dedicated to her art, as well as an extensive space showcasing the work of other artists associated with the city.
Nagano Prefecture has long been known for its soba (buckwheat), which grows well in cool temperatures and at high altitude. Festivals where attendees gorge on soba noodles – a summer favourite – are held all over Nagano Prefecture every year. The Matsumoto Soba Festival attracts record numbers of people over three days in October. For the perfect souvenir of your visit, why not try making your own soba? Make your way to Fureai Yamabekan onsen for a couple of hours of kneading, rolling and slicing under the watchful eye of a couple of old pros. Afterwards, loosen up your muscles with a soak in the adjoining onsen (hot spring).
Housed inside another of Matsumoto’s distinctive Edo-era warehouses, the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum, located on the outskirts of the city, displays a collection of thousands of traditional hand-crafted everyday objects, ranging from ceramics, textiles and Edo-era signage, to furniture and even toys. The pieces on show here belong to the private collection of local collector Taro Maruyama, who amassed one of the largest collections of its kind in Japan. The exhibits are changed four times a year to reflect different themes. There are also a number of friendly and attentive guides who are happy to take visitors around the museum.