Alpine Air in Matsumoto

After a 41 hour trip door-to-door, I’m back stateside. My first night back, I somehow slept for thirteen hours, but last night I got only two and a half, so I know it’ll still be some time before I’m readjusted to time here, not to mention life and the food. I saw Hiroya Tsukamoto perform his guitar music at a concert in Tiverton yesterday, though, and that was a nice reminder of Japan with songs reminiscent of my time there. In any case, now that I’m back I plan on catching up on my last trips in Japan, and today I start with one of my favorite places in Japan: Matsumoto.

Matsumoto is located in Nagano Prefecture, famous for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, the Japan Alps, fresh air, and soba. Flights from Chitose to the airport in Matsumoto are nonexistent, so I flew into Narita, took a train into Shinjuku Station, and caught a three-hour highway bus through Honshu to Matsumoto. Matsumoto is most well-known for its castle, called the Crow Castle for its black exterior. The ryokan, Japanese style inn, where I was staying lends free bikes to their guests for the duration of their stay, so I rode down to the castle my first night right around sunset. With the Japan Alps in the distance and water reflecting on the moat, the castle is dramatic and peaceful: even during the following day of my trip, the city was relatively empty of tour buses and day trippers.

The following morning, I toured the castle after breakfast at the ryokan. Unlike Osaka Castle, which has been converted to a museum inside, the interior of Matsumoto Castle has been preserved in its original state. Visitors walk up steep staircases and through the different wooden floors, learning about samurai or guns in the gun museum. On the upper floor, stairs get progressively steeper, but the view at the top is worth the effort.

The castle ticket is a combo with the next-door Matsumoto City Museum, which is also worth a visit. The history detailed here ranges from old (like ancient remains found where Matsumoto Castle currently stands) to modern. Here you can learn more about crafts famous in Matsumoto and how Tanabata is celebrated in the city.

History buffs will also appreciate the Kaichi School, the oldest elementary school in Japan opened in the 1870s with western influence during the Meiji Restoration. In addition to appreciating the architecture, guests can enjoy perusing old educational materials.

Matsumoto is also known for its food. Nagano has been rated one of the best prefectures in Japan to live. With mountain air, fresh water from the alps, and amazing healthy foods like soba, it’s little question as to why. Perhaps most famous in Matsumoto is soba, one of my favorite Japanese foods. I took a soba making class at my Airbnb in Tokyo back in January and since then have been smitten. I had soba multiple times during my stay, but the best was from Nomugi, a recommendation from my sister when she stopped by for lunch on her honeymoon. The space is small and the turnaround a little fast during the lunchtime rush. After finishing your noodles, you can also drink the soba-yu, or tea made from the remaining hot water used to cook the soba. This is said to be chock-full of stuff good for your skin and your health in general.

Another Japanese staple from Nagano is miso. Nagano produces about 48% of the country’s miso supply, and in Matsumoto there is the Ishii Miso Brewery. Guests can take complimentary tours and learn about the three year miso brewing process and how the entire barrel must be turned over year to year. The tour was short, informative, and friendly, and I believe the staff also speaks English. There’s free miso soup to taste after, plus lots of miso souvenirs, but I had my eye on the miso soft cream. While it definitely tasted like miso, I won’t say that that’s a bad thing.

I spent some time walking around Matsumoto’s main shopping streets, along Nawate Dori and in Nakamachi. These areas are full of places to stock up souvenirs (Grain Note for crafts), beer (Matsumoto Brewery), or sweets (Furusato Taiyaki). Nawate Dori sits along the river and Nakamachi is full of dramatic white buildings. Throughout the city are wells of spring water from the alps, and I enjoyed filling my water bottle with delicious mountain water whenever I ran low.

 

In the evening, I visited Hot Plaza in Asama Onsen, a popular onset area in the outskirts of the city near my ryokan. The onsen was small but pleasant. There were some large bees buzzing around the rotenburo, though, so I didn’t linger outside.

Another highlight of my visit was my stay at Ryokan Seifuso. I’d never been to a Japanese ryokan and was excited to stay at a small, family run inn. This one was a bit cheaper than many I’d found online elsewhere, and offered many personal touches like pick-up and drop-off at Matsumoto Station. They have a good Japanese style breakfast in the morning and also serve their own homemade yogurt. Using their bike to get around town made navigating Matsumoto easy and efficient, and as a result I was able to see much more of the city.

For people looking for scenery, good food, an ambient castle town, and a quiet Japanese city to relax, Matsumoto is a great pick.

 

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