In the list of interesting yet offbeat Japan destinations that I have, I just recently added the second-largest city in Nagano Prefecture. It’s charming, it’s historic and it’s cradled by the Japan Alps — the city is called Matsumoto (松本市 Matsumoto-shi, formerly Fukashi). (Things to Do in Matsumoto)
If I may so myself, Matsumoto is one of Japan’s finest cosmopolitan cities that still have that rural feel. Rest assured, this is the kind of place that can keep you occupied, what with its stunning castle, captivating districts, and enchanting vistas.
To give you an idea of the array of things that you can do in Matsumoto, let me give you my top 10!
NOTE: If you’re a Japanese anime fan like me, Matsumoto is where the movie, anime, and manga “Orange” was based in!
» Quick Travel Planning
Things to Do in Matsumoto
1. Visit Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle or Matsumotojō is said to be one of the most complete and most beautiful original castles in Japan — and it’s not hard to see why. As a hirajiro, or a castle that is built on a flat area rather than on a hill or mountain, the castle is known for being a National Treasure in Japan both have a secondary castle keep (or donjon) and a turret (or tower) connected to its main keep.
Its lovely black wood paneling exterior has also earned it the name of “Crow Castle”, and personally, I fell in love with this castle because it seemed more sophisticated compared to some of the Japanese castles that I’ve already seen before. To add, I also felt extremely giddy when I saw that they had a staff who wore the armor of a samurai (historic Japanese warriors)!
Apparently, they have staff daily who go on shifts and walk around the castle like this with traditional clothing on. Visitors are free to take pictures with them and for sure, I jumped on the opportunity!
When you’re at Matsumoto Castle, don’t also forget to go inside because its wooden interiors will certainly give you a more authentic feel which is unlike most of the other castles in Japan that are built of concrete. Moreover, the 2nd floor of the main keep features an interesting museum exhibit of the olden guns, armor, and other weapons that the castle held.
It was actually in this part that I got to learn from my Japanese guide that the weapons and armor of the samurai have greatly influenced Star Wars — most especially the helmet of Darth Vader! When I learned of this fact, my mind was blown because I felt stupid for not realizing it sooner!
Later on, when you reach the observation deck at the top, it will offer you great panoramic views of the castle’s surroundings as well as of the city.
HOURS: 8:30AM to 5:00PM (4:30PM end of admission)
DIRECTIONS: Just a 15-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station.
2. Admire the city (and the castle) during sakura season
Japan is famous for its sakura or cherry blossom season; and when you’re in Matsumoto, it becomes more of an amazing affair when the sakura trees around Matsumoto Castle’s grounds start to bloom around mid-April each year.
In fact, the town holds a Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing wherein you can admire the sakura in full bloom around Matsumoto Castle as they are illuminated by lights, thereby making the place even more magical than it is!
The best part? Entry to the inside of the castle becomes FREE during this event while performances of various traditional songs are held nightly.
TIME: Usually 3 days after cherries begin to bloom and lasts for 8 days
DIRECTIONS: Just a 15-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station.
3. Drop by Daio Wasabi Farm
Daio Wasabi Farm is the largest wasabi farm in Japan at over 15 hectares, and it is surely a popular tourist destination!
First thing off, you will find rows and rows of fields that have been meticulously maintained by a network of small streams. The water from those streams hails from the Northern Alps which surely helps in the great cultivation of the wasabi on the farm. To better accommodate tourists, walking trails have been made between these fields and there are even ample exhibits that will educate you about how wasabi is grown and made (which mind you, has a very interesting science behind it that’s worth knowing about!).
Aside from these, you can also get to enjoy its surrounding watermills, as well as a shrine which they call Daio Shrine (a local hero is said to be enshrined here, named Hachimen Daio who the farm is obviously named after).
Before you leave, make sure that you check by their shops and restaurant where you can buy freshly picked wasabi and taste their wasabi-flavored ice cream (among other wasabi-themed products).
ADDRESS: 1692 Hotaka, Azumino, Nagano
HOURS: 9:00AM to 5:20PM (but until 4:30PM only in November to February)
DIRECTIONS: From Shinanno-Omachi Station, take the Oito Line heading to Matsumoto. Get off at Hotaka Station. From there, you can take a taxi to the farm (takes 10 minutes) or you can rent bikes in front of Hotaka St. for ¥200 per hour.
4. Stroll through the picturesque Nakamachi-dori
Just a 5 to 10-minute walk away would be the lovely street of Nakamachi-dori and which is filled with several well-preserved olden buildings. Some of them are kura (warehouse) buildings which you could easily pinpoint given their massive size and picturesque white-painted walls. Apparently, this is a feature that was common among former merchant districts.
Today, some of the houses on this street are now restaurants, shops, or inns (ryokan).
5. Go through some museums
Photos by Richard / CC
One of Matsumoto’s wealthiest merchants was named Sakai Yoshiaki. With his money, he started to collect ukiyoe or woodblock prints as well as other pieces of art. Over time, his descendants have continued to do this practice until it reached over 100,000 pieces! Truth be told, it is said that theirs is one of the world’s largest private art collections.
Today, you can witness a portion of this impressive collection in the Japan Ukiyoe Museum.
HOURS: 10:00AM to 5:00PM
DIRECTIONS: If you ride the Matsumoto Dentetsu Kamikochi Line (¥170 from Matsumoto Station) and get off Oniwa Station, the museum will just be a 15-20 minute walk away. You could also hail a taxi which can get you there in 10 minutes from Matsumoto Station.
Another interesting museum you should check out is the Museum of Art. One of Japan’s world-famous artists, Yayoi Kusama, has several of her artworks displayed here (given that the city is where she was born). In the museum, you’ll find a lot of her “dot” art starting from her childhood as she uses it as a medium of relief from her visual and auditory hallucinations.
ADMISSION: ¥410 for adults
HOURS: 9:00AM to 5:00PM
DIRECTIONS: 12-minute walk from Matsumoto Station.
6. Shop or window shop at Nawate-dori
If you go a few blocks away from the castle, you will find an old-fashioned shopping street dotted by a huge frog statue by the bridge.
The place is called Nawa-dori and it is full of small shops that sell anything from souvenirs to food! As for the frog statue, the street refers to the frog as its mascot and this is not only because of the presence of the frogs in the nearby river but it’s also a bit of a pun on the Japanese word kaeru (which both means ‘return’ and ‘frog’ — return because they aspire that money and goods will return).
One of the things you must try here is the taiyaki, a kind of waffle that is in the shape of a fish and is filled with a sweet red bean paste.
7. See some of the city’s shrines
Photos by Fluoride (sasablog) / CC
One of the most important shrines in Matsumoto would be Jorinji Shrine and it is well-known for its wooden gate which is said to be the oldest gate in the city.
In this place, you can relax and enjoy the inner garden; but before you leave, don’t forget to drop by another beautiful shrine as well that’s called as Inari Shrine. (It will just be beside Jorinji Shrine). Inari Okami is one of the principal kami or spirits in Shinto religion and you can easily spot Inari Shrine with its kitsune (fox) statues at the entrance.
DIRECTIONS: Just a 5-minute walk away from Matsumoto Station
8. Indulge in some of the local specialties: soba and oyaki!
Soba is a Japanese buckwheat noodle and Matsumoto is famous for this kind of fare. It is important to note though that soba should not be mistaken for ramen (thin wheat noodles) or udon (thicker).
For one of the best places to try soba, check out Soba-dokoro Gassho which makes homemade soba from freshly made buckwheat. (See details here.)
Once you’re done with your soba meal, make sure to also try oyaki later on as a snack! This is a local specialty which is basically a steamed dumpling made from buckwheat dough that’s wrapped around vegetables, meat, or bean paste. Given its popularity, you won’t have a hard time finding a shop to buy this from.
9. Attend one of Matsumoto’s major festivals and events
Matsumoto is a lively city that holds an array of festivals throughout the year! Some of the highlights would be the following:
- Ofune Festival (May): This is one of the oldest local festivals in which boat-shaped wooden frames are pulled and paraded. It is said that this is done due to the city’s connection to Azumi-zoku, an old sea-faring group of people to immigrated centuries ago.
- Harquebuses Shooting Event (April or May, October): Harquebus (long gun) collectors in the city will wear samurai-style clothing and/or armor as they carry their guns and do shooting demonstrations in the garden of Matsumoto Castle.
- Taiko Drum Festival (July): also held in Matsumoto Castle, several groups from all over Japan will do drumming performances with taiko (unique Japanese traditional drum).
- Matsumoto Bon-Bon (August): Obon or Bon is usually done to pay homage to one’s ancestors and it is in this affair where you can witness a typical Obon celebration of the Japanese as they dance the summer night away.
- Matsumoto Ice Sculpture Festival (January): Ice sculptors not only from Japan but from all over the world would bring ice carving tools to Matsumoto Castle and they will start carving away for a night until the next morning. It is a great way for witnessing the artists at work as you, later on, admire their craft.
10. Make some amazing side trips along the way
Due to Matsumoto’s prime location, there are actually an array of things that you can do nearby, namely:
- Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route: Known as the “Roof of the Japan”, this unique route goes through the lush scenery of Mt. Tateyama for 90km long as you traverse through several stops on various vehicles (a bus, a cable car, or a train) — with the highest elevation at Murodo station (at 2,450 meters high). Two of the best attractions that you can find here are the famous “Snow Wall” and “Kurobe Dam”.
- Kamikochi: With wondrous mountain sceneries, you can enjoy a day in Kamikochi by hiking along one of its many trails along the Azusa River. Just remember that access here is closed from mid-November to mid or late April. For things to do, see here.
- Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi: Have you ever seen those adorable photos online of monkeys bathing in a natural onsen (hot spring)? Well, you can visit it yourself in Jigokudani Monkey Park! Those monkeys are called Japanese Macaques or ‘Snow Monkeys’ and they are very accustomed to humans so you can watch them play up close in this park (which is their natural habitat). The park is open all year but if you want the best photos of the monkeys, come from January to February when the park is covered in blinding white snow and the monkeys come bathing in the hot spring.
- ADMISSION: ¥800 / TOUR: Book online)
- ADMISSION: ¥800 / TOUR: Book online)
- Miharashi Farm: this is one of the largest agricultural farms in Nagano prefecture and you can enjoy fruit-picking goods like strawberries (from January 1st to the middle of June), blueberries (from early September to late October), apples (from late August to late November) and so much more! There are also an array of other food experiences that you can do on the farm and one of my favorites would be the making of soba (Japanese buckwheat)
• • •
Matsumoto Travel Guide
» How to Get to Matsumoto
The closest international airport would be Chubu Centrair International Airport near Nagoya. From there, you can reach Matsumoto by train in about 3 hours via the Meitetsu Line and JR limited express train. Either way, below are some routes you can take by train from major cities:
From Nagoya. Take the JR Shinano limited express to Matsmumoto (2 hours).
From Tokyo. Take the JR Azusa or Super Azusa limited express train in Shinjuku Station (takes about 2.5 hours for ¥6,380 for non-reserved seats).
From Kyoto. Take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen heading to Nagoya (35 minutes) and then transfer to the JR Shinano limited express to Matsmumoto (2 hours).
From Osaka. Take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen in Shin-Osaka Station to Nagoya and then transfer to the JR Shinano limited express to Matsmumoto (2 hours).
If you need further help, just use the directions feature in Google Maps — I find this a very helpful tool if I want to reach a certain place from a particular location. (However, Google Maps doesn’t work offline if you want routes or transportation schedules, so I recommend that you get a pocket WiFi or a SIM Card to stay connected online).
– – –
» Best Places to stay (accommodations) in Matsumoto?
To search for other accommodation options at the best prices, I suggest checking out Agoda and Booking.com. If you’re rather interested in renting affordable yet comfortable houses or apartments, always check AirBnB.
– – –
» How to Go Around Matsumoto?
Matsumoto’s highlights can be easily reached by foot. For far areas, there is a Town Sneaker Bus that is found in front of Matsumoto Station which departs every 30 minutes and makes a circular trip to all city sights (¥190 each time you get off).
Another option you can do is to use the FREE bicycles that are available daily (8:30AM to 5:00PM) at various locations in town, including the Matsumoto City Museum next to Matsumoto Castle and the Kaichi Gakko Primary School.
For more info, inquire at the Matsumoto Tourist Information staff for details. Otherwise, you can rent a bike from JR Eki Rent-A-Car beside the station for ¥1,500 per day.
– – –
» Visa to Japan
If you’re NOT a citizen of any of Japan’s exempted countries, you are then required to avail a visa beforehand. If you’re from the Philippines, you can read my guide on how to get a Japan visa in Manila here.
– – –
» Helpful Japanese Phrases
Hello: Konnichiwa (Kohn-nee-chee-wah)
Thank you (normal): Arigatō. (Ah-REE-gah-tohh)
Thank you (less formal): Arigatō gozaimas (Ah-REE-gah-tohh goh-zahy-mahs)
Thank you (informal): Dōmo (DOHH-moh)
Yes: Hai (Hai)
No: Iie (E-eh)
Goodbye (long term): Sayōnara (Sah-yohh-nah-rah)
Goodbye (informal): Ja ne (Jahh neh)
Excuse me: Sumimasen (Soo-mee-mah-SEN)
I’m sorry: Gomen nasai (Goh-men-nah-sahy)
Is there someone here who speaks English?: Dareka eigo ga hanasemasu ka? (Dah-reh-kah ey-goh gah hah-nah-seh-mahs kah?)
Help!: Tasukete! (Tahs-keh-teh!)
Cheers!: Kanpai! (Kan-pie!)
• • •
More than its stunning castle, Matsumoto clearly has a lot to offer to its visitors!
Now, it is my hope that you get to discover its wonders and then fall in love with it all — much like I did. Enjoy!