We did a 3D2N tour to Matsumoto City over the last weekend, just in time to catch the autumn sights. The last time we went to Matsumoto was in 2013. I lost count of the number of times I went to this beautiful city, but it’s probably 4-5 times? Anyway, there’s more than Matsumoto Castle to see in this city, and here are some recommendations.
Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
The main reason I visit this place is for the magnificent Matsumoto Castle. Built approximately 400 years old, it’s the oldest original castle in Japan and also one of the “national treasures”. There are many other castles in Japan but this is my favourite one and I can sit down all day just to admire this dark beauty.
We went early in the morning so it was really nice that we can spend all the time we want in the castle, talking to the security guard who was telling us every New Year, the castle guards will gather at the top floor to pray at the shrine. I didn’t actually realise there is a shrine!
Unlike other rebuilt castles, there is no elevator inside this castle. It means climbing up and down a lot of steep wooden stairs designed this way to slow down enemies in the past. It did give me really “good” muscle aches the next day. In return for my “pain”, I gathered a lot of new power from this “power spot”.
Former Kaichi School (旧開智学校)
This historical building built more than 150 years ago is crowned as one of Japan’s “Important Cultural Property”. It has an interesting mixture of Western architecture and Japanese / Chinese styles. The people of Matsumoto / Nagano prefecture are known to be passionate about education, and apparently 70% of the construction costs of the school is donated by ordinary citizens.
Sidetrack : During our short stay, with our brief counter with the people on the street, we did notice how earnest (真面目) the people. While Japanese people in general have the image of being earnest and well-mannered, the people in Matsumoto seems to surpass the standard. Like the young man who was asking us politely if we are interested to go for some drinking at the izakaya (usually if you go to Shinjuku in Tokyo, these guys tend to be aggressive), or the humble middle-aged staff who allow us in the soba restaurant 10 minutes just before they close their lunch time. It’s a little different from what we experience in other cities.
Yayoi Kusama (草間彌生)
Those familiar with the polka dots artworks will know this artist called Yayoi Kusama. I didn’t know she’s from Matsumoto so it was an eye-opening experience to see some of her works here in Matsumoto City Museum of Art. Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside her exhibition hall.
They even have a city bus called the “Town Sneaker” wrapped in her signature red polka dots. Apparently, if you spot this one and only bus, it will bring good luck! LOL!
Nakamachi Street (中町通り)
This street is a renewed district with nicely preserved warehouse-like buildings, which used to be sake brewery. Currently, they were revamped into restaurants, small craft shops and souvenir shops. It’s a nice walk and a photogenic area to get some photos with modernised traditional feel.
Yohashira Shrine (四柱神社)
Known literally as the “Four Pillars Shrine”, it is said to house four Shinto deities, so it covers a lot of wish-granting power. It was a nice time to visit this shrine too since the maple leaves were at their peak.
Matsumoto Shrine (松本神社)
It’s located just beside Matsumoto Castle, quietly standing in a corner covered in beautiful autumn leaves.
Natural Spring Water
Usually, we do a lot of walking during our city tours, and Matsumoto City is surprisingly compact, with most of the tourist spots within walking distance. Of course, if you are not a “walking” person, you can always buy the 500yen 1-day pass for the “Town Sneaker” that will also cover 4 different courses for your sightseeing tour.
Even when the weather is nice and cooling at an average 10-15 degrees, we are always wary of getting dehydrated. It’s amazing how Matsumoto is full of natural spring water spots, which means FREE water to drink as long as you have an empty bottle or container. Times like this, we really envy people who can stay in areas with fresh air from the mountains and natural underground spring water.
For the foodie, we know Nagano prefecture is well-known for their soba noodles, also known as Shinshu Soba Noodles. Indeed, they have really good soba noodles, whether you prefer the 100% Japanese soba noodles or the standard 2-8 soba noodles (meaning 20% wheat, 80% soba), with such good spring water, you can imagine they can make really good noodles here.
We tried 3 soba places in total. Motoki (もとき) which serves 100% Japanese soba noodles, Nomugi (野麦) and Genchi no soba (源智のそば) which serve 2-8 soba noodles. They were all really good though a little pricey for the small portion.
In case you are looking for something outside of soba noodles, there are also other local delicacies like Sanzokuyaki (山賊焼き) which is basically fried chicken, and Basashi (馬刺し) which is raw horse meat… yikes!
It’s too bad that we didn’t get to try this apparently popular unagi place called “Unagi no Matsuka” (うなぎのまつ嘉) since they were closed for 2 days when we were there. Maybe next time!
Shinshu/Ishii Miso (信州・石井味噌)
With many different types of miso paste in Japan, there is also a miso brewery which you can visit in Matsumoto. They have an English guided tour which you can learn about how they make their miso. We simply walk in before their busy lunch hours, and fortunately, they have a Japanese guide to show us their brewery, and also they serve a complimentary miso soup made from their 3-year miso paste at the end of the 10-15 minute tour.
Komatsu Bakery (小松パン店)
We actually got to know this after watching a TV program that was featuring Matsumoto 2 weeks ago. Not sure to call this “gourmet” since it’s just a local bakery. But this local bakery loved by the people since 1922, has the signature bread called the “Milk Bread” (小松の牛乳パン). It’s basically bread with a lot of butter cream, which is apparently 1200 kcal for one pack. The bread has a short expiration timeframe, so you have to consume this within 3 days. All those calories!
With many historical buildings in this city, it’s also not difficult to find traditional cafes around the area. We visited a couple of cafes which we really enjoyed the coffee and the atmosphere.
Coffee Marumo (珈琲まるも) is one of the more famous cafes that was actually part of Marumo Ryokan (hotel). They serve good coffee and cakes which you can enjoy while sitting in their traditional folkcraft furniture and get surrounded by the historic interior.
Yatoro-Onkan (八十六温館) is another cafe we went for breakfast on our last day. We actually wanted to visit this traditional cafe called “Coffee Bigaku Abe” (珈琲美学アベ) but it was closed… it means we have another excuse to visit Matsumoto again. LOL! Anyway, we weren’t disappointed with our visit to this cafe for breakfast as they serve really decent egg sandwiches with good coffee too. At the same time, we can enjoy the experience with their beautiful interior decoration and also folkcraft furniture.
In case you are interested, there is a furniture shop at Nakamachi Street that makes / sells folkcraft furniture too. As far as we checked, their furniture is priced at a premium rate (a chair at 500,000+ JPY or 6000+ SGD), given the craftsmanship to make this by hand.
We also dropped by this very decent looking cafe called “Miyukido” (みゆき堂) for a coffee break before dinner. Established in 1950, they serve really good coffee and cakes too.
Trip of rediscovery
It’s interesting that despite visiting numerous times, we can still discover new places / food to experience and enjoy. It will definitely help if we did more research in advance since the only thing we were aware of is that many of the museums were usually closed on Mondays, but we forgot there are cafes/restaurants that were closed on Tuesdays, or other days of the week. It will help us plan our itinerary next time especially for short trips like this. Matsumoto is definitely one of those cities we want to visit in different times of the year!