Had Soba buckwheat noodles every day you’ve been in Nagano and want to excite your tastebuds even more? Fear not, there is plenty more to offer around Matsumoto. If you’re looking for a taste of Chinese cuisine Shaochi is a good option. It’s on the opposite corner of the square outside Parco Department store’s south exit. Open for dinners 6 till midnight you’ll find a huge menu of well-known and rare Chinese dishes here and all in English too! Shrimp in chilli sauce (Ebi-no-chiri-sosu) or mango creme caramel (mango pu-rin) have featured whenever I’ve enjoyed dinner here. If you plan to make a party of it their weekday 3500 Yen all you can eat and drink plan will have you calling for a taxi to get you back to Ryokan Seifu-so.
Conveniently located a couple of minutes from Matsumoto station, this is the place to sample tonkatsu in Matsmoto. Built in a solid Kura storehouse this down to earth restaurant gives a taste of home to students and businessmen alike.
Tonkatsu, cutlets of pork or chicken simply breadcrumb-coated and deep-fried are a great way to fill up before a night on the town. Takuma’s signature tonkatsu teishoku (set menu meal) comes with rice and a garden of vegetables.
Curry with a Japanese flavour is also available and you can pick a beer of your choice from the fridge.
Japan’s image in the eyes of the west is a contradiction of sorts. Renowned for the bright lights and cutting edge, futuristic, almost comic book stylings of the big cities like Tokyo yet also portrayed as an almost fanatically traditional society – with old style architectural motifs – not limited to the many temples and shrines – and traditional Kimono and Yukata robes a common site on any street. For the most part though these contrasting ideas co-exist on nearly every street and quite often in the same buildings as though flaunting their differences and declaring that just maybe it is possible to be two very different things at one and the same time.
All of which can make it very difficult, sometimes, to separate the traditional from the retro. To get a sense of what old Japan was really like amid the ever-present modernity. Well thankfully the Japanese feel this way too, which is why they have made an effort to preserve some of their heritage an create gateways into a time before Pachinko or neon or the bright, flickering lights and sounds of modern Japan. One such place can be found on the Kisokaido, an ancient trade route that connected Tokyo with Kyoto. In the middle of the stunning Kiso Valley you will find the Edo period towns of Tsumago-juku, Magome and Narai which have all been restored to make the area a virtual time machine and one of the most memorable places to visit in all of Japan.
Tsumago-juku and Magome have been connected by a restored part of the ol
d trade route allowing visitors to re-enact the pilgrimage taken by many during the 1700′s. (Albeit a much shorter version of the journey) The path will take them not only through both meticulously restored and maintained towns, but also through a peaceful forest featuring waterfalls. With shrines dating back to 1180AD and a 500-year-old temple this area is true example of living history and a great place to visit to experience Japanese culture at its most original.
A Kisokaido Print of the Tsumago trade route
Narai, which is only a short distance away, is just as full of old charm and history. As well as being site to the same restored houses and trade route Narai also features the famous Kubinashi No Maria – a statue dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Christianity fame. Though you wouldn’t recognize her at first look as the statue was built during a time of oppression when no religion but the two sanctioned state religions were permitted. Followers of the Christian faith were forced to disguise their beliefs by making their idol appear to be that of the local deity of childcare, Kosodate Jizo. When it was discovered that the statue was in fact Christian the local lord ordered that she be “beheaded”.
Of course this is only a small example of the kind of things you might expect to see on a trip to the Kiso Valley – for more details visit Japan Guide.com where they have much more details and prices for the various places of interest.
To get to any of the 3 towns simply take the Chuo line from Matsumoto station towards Nakastugawa. The Stations have the same names as the towns. It is a good idea to check the timetable for your return journey as they trains can be infrequent compared to some routes.
No doubt you have probably tried Sushi, Japan’s most popular culinary export, at least once in your life (and if you haven’t – what are you waiting for??) – so you are probably already familiar with the spicy, green wasabi paste that usually accompanies it. If, like me, you have ever added just a little too much to your shoyu (soy sauce to you and me) then it’s something you won’t forget very quickly.But did you ever stop to wonder where wasabi comes from? Or what it is?
You may have heard wasabi referred to as Japanese Horseradish which, although it is related, is actually a bit misleading. Wasabi belongs to the same family of plants as cabbage, horseradish and mustard – which comes as no surprise as the spicy kick hits you in very much the same way. Being an integral part of Japanese food there are many very large wasabi farms to found throughout Japan, but the largest of all of these, and most famous is the Daio wasabi farm in the Nagano Prefecture.
Opened in 1915, Daio wasabi farm is not only Japan’s largest wasabi farm b
ut also one of the largest farms overall – covering 15 hectares of Japanese countryside. Found in the small town of Azumino, just north of Matsumoto, it has become a popular tourist spot because of it’s beautiful natural surroundings, tranquil walking routes and it’s magnificent water mills. Fans of Japanese cinema might recognize the river and mills from Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film “Dreams “. (Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded as Japan’s foremost Director being responsible for such epics as “The Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo”)
But Daio wasabi farm is not just a place to enjoy the peaceful Japanese countryside. The farm also has some fantastic wasabi themed food where you can try the freshest wasabi you will ever taste. You can even have a taste of wasabi ice cream and wasabi beer if you are feeling adventurous.
And there’s plenty to see in the surrounding Azumino area too, on the off chance that you find yourself with time to spare after exploring the wasabi farm and checking out the size-able gift shop. With art museums, Shrines, Temples and a hot spring foot bath just for starters it is the perfect day trip for anyone.
The Farm have a Japanese website (here ) – no english sorry – but you can see some pictures and the map of the farm.
Take the O’ito line from Matsumoto station to Hotaka (30min) and then it is a 15 minute walk to the farm.
Bicycles are available to rent at the station for 200¥ per hour
After a long day’s travelling or sightseeing (or for some of us – working), there is no better way to relax than to take a nice hot soak at a Japanese Onsen, where naturally forming hot spring water is pumped up into large purpose-built bath-houses for the enjoyment of Japanese and ‘Gaijin’ alike – but it seems we are not the only species to take advantage of this gift of nature.
Imagine, instead of travelling or sightseeing (or working) – imagine you have just spent the morning foraging for grubs and insects (we’ve all been there), travelling through thick forest on steep mountainous terrain, often in snow deeper than you are high, what better way would there be to relax then to find a naturally forming pool of hot spring water to soak your tired bones in while one of your friends removes ticks from your fur. Well for one group of Japanese Macaque monkeys this is exactly how they spend their days.
Jigokudani (which translates as Hell’s valley) is a region of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in Nagano, where the Yokoyu-River flows through and steam from underground hot springs rises through the cracks and crevices giving the valley its name. Steep slopes, thick with dense unforgiving forests surround you on all sides giving the valley an other worldliness – appropriate given that the sight of monkeys taking a bath is not something you get to see every day (or anywhere else for that matter – unless you’re on the set of pg tips commercial).
In 1963, story has it, a female member of the Macaques troop inhabiting the area climbed into a pool of hot spring water to recover some soya beans that were bobbing about on the surface, inadvertently discovering the pleasures of the Onsen experience in the process. Since then the practice has been copied by each generation – this particular breed of Macaque are well-known for their high intelligence and social learning – and the monkeys come down from the mountains to relax and groom each other and, particularly in the winter, get out of the cold. In fact the image of the monkeys relaxing in the hot water during the height of the winter season is so pervasive it has earned them the nickname “snow monkeys”.
Although very famous worldwide, thanks in a large part to photographs of the monkeys, the park never seems to be crowded. Unlike other popular destinations in Japan, where busloads of tourists and schoolchildren can dilute the experience, the snow monkey park has relatively few visitors, thanks in part to the narrow path that must be navigated to get to the visitor’s center. Although not a particularly difficult path it is well advised to wear decent walking shoes, particularly in winter when the snow can get quite deep.
The monkeys themselves are quite used to visitors and will gladly carry on about their business as though you weren’t there. Visitors are advised not to bring food into the park though – on the off-chance that one of the monkeys might take a fancy to a bit of what you’re having! They also advise against staring into the monkeys eyes as this might cause them to become agitated or aggressive – though why you would want to have a staring contest with a monkey that is just trying to relax is beyond me!!
To get to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Matsumoto take the train from Matsumoto Station to Nagano (about 1hr) and then switch to the Nagaden line to Yudanaka (about 45mins). From Yudanaka Station there is a bus up to Kanbayashi Onsen (15 mins) and then it is a 30 minute walk through red pine and Japanese larch to the visitors center. The total journey cost is about 2000¥ per person including entrance into the Monkey Park.
Find the official Jigokudani website here – you can view a live camera of the monkeys from the site
One of the hidden treasures of Matsumoto is the wonderful collection of traditional Japanese art to be found at the Matsumoto Ukiyo-e Museum.
Ukiyo-e, which literally translates as “pictures of the floating world”, is a type of woodblock printing in a style that has become synonymous with Japanese culture and one which dates back to 17th century Japan. Said to have gained popularity during the Edo period, due to their inexpensive manufacturing process and a large middle class looking to bring a bit of style and sophistication to their homes, Ukiyo-e paintings were originally printed in monochrome with Indian Ink but techniques very quickly became more sophisticated giving us the style that anyone would recognise from postcards, posters and even desktop screen savers.
Home to the Sakai family collection of over 100,000 prints, books and paintings, the Matsumoto Ukiyo-e Museum boasts the largest privately owned collection of these works in the world. Begun in 1790 by Yoshiaki Sakai, a wealthy businessman and art collector from Matsumoto, the collection has been handed down through generations with each adding to the collection of works. With their position as renowned art collectors, the family were visited by important literary figures and calligraphers as well as famous ukiyo-e artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. This helped them to amass a collection that is second to none.
The Museum aims to promote this stunning Japanese art form worldwide by continuing to collect and exhibit and educate on what is an important part of Japan’s heritage.
Located 15 minutes walk from Oniwa Station on the Matsumoto – Kamikochi line or about 7 minutes by car from the center of Matsumoto.
Admission is 1050¥ and the Museum is open from 10 until 5 (doors close at 4:30).
The Museum is closed on Mondays except national holidays in which case they close on the following day.
The Museum’s English Homepage can be found here .
Actually you only need one…
and until you have walked along the Azusa river, surrounded by the glorious peaks of the Hida Mountains and taken in the now famous sight of Mount Hotaka sloping sharply to mark out this historic valley – until you have walked the trail from Taisho Pond to Myojin Bridge surrounded by the preserved natural splendor of one of Japan’s most popular nature walks – when you have seen for yourself why Kamikochi is something the Japanese people are proud to share with the world, only then, will you know why you only need one reason to go – and that is to experience the place for yourself.
Ironically it was a British missionary named Walter Weston who is credited as being the first to recognized the importance of Kamikochi as not only a place of spectacular beauty but also as one of the best places to enjoy a bit of mountain climbing in Japan, if not the world. After lobbying to stop the extensive logging that had been taking place up until the mid 19th century, Reverend Weston was instrumental in getting Kamikochi listed as a protected area and helping to promote it as a must see place in Japan. Incidentally, he is also partly responsible for popularizing the idea of calling the surrounding mountain range the Japanese Alps.
Kamikochi has gone on to become a very popular destination for the Japanese summer holidays when people come from all over Japan to experience the Alpine valley first hand. And it doesn’t disappoint. With a convenient visitors center at the heart of the valley where you can fill up on delicious Soba (buckwheat) Noodles, camping grounds and trails for everyone from experienced hill walkers to those looking for a casual stroll through some of Japans foremost scenic views. At Myojin pond you can enjoy fish freshly caught and cooked over an open fire and in Autumn you can experience the changing of the seasons as all the leaves turn copper orange for a time leading up mid October.
To get to Kamikochi from Matsumoto you can catch a train from Matsumoto Station to Shin-Shimashima Station (30 minutes) followed by a bus direct to Kamikochi (about 1 hour).
The one way fare is 2400 Yen, while a discounted round trip ticket costs 4400 Yen.
Please note that the Japan Rail Pass is not valid on the Matsumoto Electric Railway and or the buses to Kamikochi.
There are also a small number of busses travelling direct from Matsumoto bus station.
Kamikochi can also be accessed by car but please note that as private vehicles are prohibited from the park you must park in one of the parking lots that are available around the entrance gate to Kamikochi. Cost of parking is approx. 500 Yen per calendar day.
From the parking lots you can reach Kamikochi in about 20-30 minutes by bus (around 1000 Yen) or taxi (around 4000 Yen).
Kamikochi is closed from November 16 until the opening ceremony festival on the 27th of April.
For more information or help in getting there do not hesitate to ask a member of staff or check the official Kamikochi website here .
Arguably the most popular reason for visiting Matsumoto (but far from the only reason you should) is the famous Castle that lies at the center of the town.
No doubt, for most visitors to Matsumoto, climbing to the top of “Crow Castle” – so called because of it’s crow coloured exterior and wing-like roof, is number one on their list of things to do.
And while you’re are up there, looking out over the City stretching below them through the narrow slit windows, you might imagine yourself as a yumi (japanese bow) wielding warrior or as one of the many foot soldiers pouring hot water out onto an advancing enemy. Or standing at the top of the narrow staircase to the lords chamber they might imagine themselves as one of the Samurai class holding off an enemy – protecting their master to the last utilizing some of the many weapons on display throughout the castle and nearby museum.
Except that never happened – ever. Thanks to the unique design of the castle as an inpenetrable fortress and with the surrounding town itself being an extension of the castle – a fact that can be seen still today in the layout of the roads and bridges – no one dared even attempt to take the castle. It was deemed more trouble than it was worth. Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, strategist and author of The Art of War, would have been proud.
Originally built as a fort in 1509 by Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan, the Castle as it stands today was completed in around 1593 by Ishikawa Norimasa and his son Yasunaga after they had been placed in charge of the region. They built not just the Castle and it’s keep, but also designed the entire area to be a ever narrowing passage of roads, bridges, moats and gatehouses, with only one way to the castle – through the living quarters of the Samurai. In fact the winding narrowing layout of the Castle itself was replicated large scale for the lay out of the town making it an impressive feat of military architecture.
The Castle was almost lost in 1872 when it was sold for redevelopment (the keep had begun to lean to one side and there were rumours the Castle was cursed) – but local townsfolk petitioned the governor and the castle was bought back by the local authorities. Then in the early 1900′s a local school teacher named Kobayashi Unari raised funds for renovations, which, along with further renovations in the 1950′s, has made this one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions as well as a designated National Treasure.
With Taiko drum festivals held at the castle every summer and torchlit plays called Tagiki Noh, not to mention the cherry blossom Ohanami (literally flower watching) festival and the Moon Viewing Ceremony in Autumn (held on a special moon viewing veranda built during times of peace and romanticism) Matsumoto Castle has more to offer than just the experience of visiting a piece of living history.
Be sure to ask the staff at Ryokan Seifu-so or the local tourist information about any festival or events that might be on and they will be glad to help
Be sure to ask about our discount tickets too