Japan City Guides: Matsumoto
Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture's second largest city after Nagano city, is a gateway to the Japan Alps for skiing and hot springs in the winter and hiking and walking in the mountains of Shinshu in the summer.
Matsumoto is a tranquil city, which enjoys cooler weather in Japan's sultry summer. For the winter snow, there are a number of interesting hot spring resorts in and around Matsumoto including Yokota, Asama and Utsukushigahara all located to the east of the castle.
Matsumoto Castle, is the city's must-see attraction and is among Japan's oldest fortresses. Together with Himeji Castle, Hikone Castle and Inuyama Castle, the building is designated as a National Treasure.
Matsumoto's black, wooden keep (donjon) is the oldest such structure in Japan, dating from 1595. The black paint gave the castle its nickname "Karasujo" (Crow Castle) and the dark color was designed to terrorize approaching opponents. Matsumoto Castle is built on level ground and this has a wide moat as its primary means of defence.
Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture
Construction of the castle started under the Ogasawara clan in 1504 and was restructured by Kazumasa Ishikawa, a follower of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, from 1593-4.
The castle has six storeys, including a hidden floor where the samurai warriors could rest, store their food and keep their powder dry. Visitors to the castle remove their footware as they climb up the steep steps. There is a recorded English and Japanese commentary and displays of armor, guns and Japanese swords. Enjoy the stunning views of the Southern Alps from the top viewing deck on a clear day.
The castle was not built for permanent occupancy, purely for military purposes. Look out for the openings in the walls for arrows (yazama), guns (teppozama) and for dropping large stones (ishiotoshi).
The surrounding grounds are planted with cherry trees and pine trees and contain a souvenir shop.
The superb architecture of Matsumoto Castle draws most visitors to this lovely city in Nagano Prefecture
Matsumoto's other attractions include the old merchant area of Nakamachi-dori, a street of restored Japanese inns, restaurants, sake breweries and shops. The Nakamachi Kura-Shikku-Kan (Tel: 0263 36 3053) has local products and crafts for sale including Matsumoto's famed temari (colorful thread balls), dolls, sake and the local food specialty - Shinshu soba noodles.
Matsumoto has a couple of historic school buildings which have been preserved as museums: Kaichi School (Tel: 0263-32-5725; admission 400 yen) north of the castle and the Historical Matsumoto High School Museum in Agatanomori Park. The European-style Kaichi School was built in 1876 from contributions from local residents and was in use for almost 90 years. On display are photographs, school books and other educational items from the school's long history.
Matsumoto's other museums are the Matsumoto City Museum (Tel: 0263 32 0133) in the grounds of the castle with displays of historical artifacts and folk art from around the region. Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum (Tel: 0263 33 1569), housed in a preserved warehouse in the Yokota Spa area, has some beautiful objects including furniture, ceramics and lacquerware. Take a bus from the station to Shimoganai Mingeikan Guchi.
Period architecture in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture
Yayoi Kusama on the cover of Tokyo's Big Issue
The Matsumoto City Museum of Art (Tel: 0263 39 7400) is a modern facility (opened 2002) showcasing Japanese modern art with an emphasis on locally-born artists. These include contemporary works by Kusama Yayoi, calligraphy from Shinzan Kamijyo and landscape paintings by Tamura Kazuo. The museum is directly east of the station on Agatanomori Street on one of the Town Sneaker loop bus routes, get off at the Bijutsukan stop.
Virtually across the street is the Matsumoto Performing Arts Center (Tel: 0263 33 3800) housed in a striking modern building designed by Ito Toyo. From mid-August to early-September the center plays hosts to the Saito Kinen Festival - a series of classical music performances in memory of the local conductor and music educator Saito Hideo (1902-1972).
Yet more Matsumoto museums are the Matsumoto City Museum of Measurement Instruments and the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum (Tel:0263 36 0969) at opposite ends of Nakamachi, south of the Metoba River. The Matsumoto Timepiece Museum displays a collection of working clocks and watches, some of which were once owned by the clock collector ChikazoHonda. The Matsumoto City Museum of Measurement Instruments is housed in a former weights and measures shop dating from 1902.
The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum (Tel: 0263 47 4440), a 15-minute walk from Oniwa Station on the Matsumoto Dentetsu Line, three stops west of JR Matsumoto Station displays over a 100,000 wood block prints collected by the Sakai family. There are works by all the great masters including Utamaro Kitagawa and Hokusai Katsushika.
Matsumoto even boasts the Matsumoto Rekishi no Sato (Tel: 0263 47 4515 ) or Japan Judicature Museum, a wooden courthouse dating from 1908 and conveniently situated next to the Ukiyo-e Museum. Besides the last remaining Meiji-era courthouse, the open-air museum has a juvenile prison cell and Horaiya, an old hut where girls working in the silk industry once lived.
A street in Matsumoto & the Matsumoto City Museum of Art with modern art sculptures by Yayoi Kasuma
Getting Around Matsumoto City
It is relatively easy to get around central Matsumoto on foot or free bicycle but the city is quite spread out so making use of one of the Town Sneaker buses is a good idea. There are three loops, north, east and south radiating out from the main station. Fares are 100 yen or buy a 300 yen day-pass.
There is a Tourist Information Office (Tel: 0263 32 2814) inside the modern JR Matsumoto Station. The Furiai International Information Center, in the M Wing building on Isemachi-dori has more tourist information, English-language newspapers and books as well as internet access. (Tel: 0263 48 7000).
Azusa Express Train, Matsumoto Station, Nagano Prefecture
A colorful Matsumoto manhole cover with temari and the Matsumoto City Museum of Art
Matsumoto is famous for its Shinshu soba noodles, horse meat, sake and mountain vegetables including the fiery root wasabi, the green paste added to Japanese sushi. The ubiquitous temari patterned balls, wood carvings and cloth dolls are its most noted crafts. There are many fine noodle restaurants on Nakamachi, and a selection of bars and izakaya around town especial in the Chuo (central) area. There's an Indian restaurant, Royal Hind (Tel: 0263 36 1671), with vegetarian options not far from the station.
Matsumoto's many festivals include the bizarre Ofune Matsuri in May, when wooden boats are dragged through the streets accompanied by drums and flutes, a taiko drum festival at Matsumoto Castle in late July, a costumed Obon dance procession, Matsumoto Bon-bon in August, a phallic Dosojin (roadside guardian) Festival in September in Utsukushigahara onsen and an ice sculpture festival in January also at Matsumoto Castle.
Shinshu Matsumoto Airport (Tel: 0263 57 8818) is 8km southwest of the city with buses to and from JR Matsumoto Station (20 mins). A taxi costs around 3500 yen. There are flights to Osaka (55 mins), Fukuoka (1 hour, 40 mins) and Sapporo (1 hour, 30 mins).
There are JR express Shinano trains from Nagoya (2 hours) and Nagano (50 mins). The Super Asuza Express from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo takes 2 hours and 30 minutes. There are local trains on the JR Oito Line to Hakuba (55 mins) and Hotaka (30 mins).
Trains to Matsumoto include the Super Asuza Express (left) and the Shinano
Book Hotel Accommodation in Matsumoto Japan