Easy access to snow monkeys, mountain ranges, historic shrines, and perhaps the best-preserved castle in Japan; first-class bars selling regional wine and sake, a local football team whose fans are amongst the most loyal, and people whose genuine smiles warm the hearts of locals and tourists alike – this is what awaits you in Matsumoto (松本)! A mere two and a half hours away from Tokyo by rapid train, Matsumoto is a truly magical region of Japan, high in the Nagano (長野) Mountains, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, fresh clean water, and surprisingly modern facilities.
The journey from Tokyo to Matsumoto on the Azusa (あずさ) limited express, named after the river that runs through Nagano Prefecture, is a pleasant one. The comfortable train ride from Shinjuku (新宿) snakes its way through the countryside of Yamanashi (山梨) and into Nagano. Reasonably priced, the rapid train offers the best deal. You can also take a bullet train directly to Nagano and then a local train to Matsumoto, but unless you have a Rail Pass, it’s expensive and the journey is not as interesting.
The JR Matsumoto Station (JR松本駅) is large and clean. The hotels in Matsumoto are better priced than in resort towns and Nagano City. I stayed at a business hotel, Hotel Montagne Matsumoto (ホテルモンターニュ松本), which was both affordable and comfortable (and only a minute away from the station), but there are many similar places dotted around the city center.
Matsumoto’s history is an interesting one. Established in 1907, the city is relatively new. However, the township can trace its history back to the Stone Age. Artifacts from this area have been uncovered and can be seen in the city’s museum, which is located next to the castle.
In the Nara period (奈良時代), Nagano Prefecture was called “Shinshu (信州)” or “Shinano (信濃),” and its capital was in Ueda (上田). However, the capital moved to Matsumoto during the Heian times (平安時代) due to its more dominant castle and access to river and mountains. Matsumoto remained the capital throughout the Kamakura (鎌倉時代) and Edo periods (江戸時代).
When the Meiji (明治) Government was formed, Matsumoto became the capital of Chikuma District (筑摩郡). However, due to a local fire and merger, Chikuma became part of Nagano Prefecture and the capital moved to Nagano. This caused a lot of resentment and there still is a strong rivalry between the two cities now. This is most evident in football when Matsumoto Yamaga Football Club (松本山雅FC) and AC Nagano Parceiro (AC長野パルセイロ) play against each other in the Shinsu Derby (信州ダービー). Games between these two teams are full of history, fun, and a little bit of passionate anger.
If you come to Matsumoto for only one thing, then the castle has to be it. Matsumoto Castle is historically preserved and has not been modernized like many of Japan’s more famous castles. Known as the “Crow Castle” because of its black walls and roofs, which look like spread wings, the castle has a long history. Established in 1504, it remained a power center of the region for centuries. During the Edo period, the castle was ruled by the 23 lords representing six daimyo (大名) families.
The beauty of the castle cannot be overstated. Be it in the morning when the sun is bright and clear, in the afternoon when the sunset adds a yellow tinge to the walls, or at night when the lights add a glow to the spectacle, the castle is a must for any photographer. Here are my shots of it at different times of the day:
Yet the castle is not the only historic site in Matsumoto. The city boasts some wonderful shrines, too – the two most photogenic being the Yohashira Shrine (四柱神社) and the Fukashi Shrine (深志神社).
The Yohashira has a very traditional look to it, with several halls including the main shrine area and a gift shop. It has the added advantage of being next to Nawate Dori (縄手通り), an excellent street full of the Edo character, good quality cafes, and souvenir shops.
The Fukashi Shrine is one of the more colorful shrines in Matsumoto and is the shrine dedicated to the ume (梅 – plum) deity. This god is associated with success in exams and many students come to pray here. The shrine has many colorful displays, minor shrines, halls, and during the New Year, sake (酒) is on display for prayer and good harvest. It is also one of the few shrines I have seen that prominently displays the national flag of Japan.
Matsumoto Shrine (松本神社)
The other two shrines worth seeing are much smaller. The first of these is the Matsumoto Shrine. Located behind the castle, this historic shrine seems to take a back seat to its larger neighbors. Yet its wooden structure and ambiance make it an ideal resting spot. It also has fresh spring water that you can drink while taking in the atmosphere.
Kasamori Inari Shrine (瘡守稲荷神社)
Even smaller but still much more colorful is the Kasamori Inari Shrine located close to the JR station, and next to the much bigger Jorinji Buddhist Temple (浄林寺). The Kasamori Inari Shrine pays respect to the Shinto god of rice and fertility. The entrance is through a series of torii gates (鳥居) and the main shrine has two splendid statues of oinari-san (お稲荷さん – foxes), a male and a female, on either side. Foxes in the Shinto faith are messengers of Inari and guards against evil.
Aside from shrines and castles, Matsumoto is also famous for football. Matsumoto’s football club (currently in the J2 division) was founded in 1965. Its name comes from a cafe in front of Matsumoto Station and its symbol, the raichou (雷鳥) or the rock ptarmigan, is the state bird of Nagano Prefecture.
Matsumoto Yamaga FC has some of the most vocal and loyal supporters in Japan. Instead of the word “Nagano” on their logo, they have adopted the traditional prefecture name of “Shinshu,” steaming back to the change in capitals. The club has many supporting businesses and you can often see flags and signs outside shop windows promoting the local spirit.
If you have the chance, you must see a game. Try and get seats on Matsumoto’s side and revel in the atmosphere! Their color is green and their war cry is “One Soul.” Matsumoto’s fans are not only the most vocal supporters, but are also very active (constantly chanting and jumping up and down) and very friendly – you will soon feel welcomed.
Into manga? orange (オレンジ), a popular Japanese comic written by Ichigo Takano (高野苺) and made into a TV series, was set in Matsumoto. If you are a fan (or even if you are not), you can follow some of the comic illustrations to sites in Matsumoto. A bit like the current craze with the film Your Name or Kimi no Na wa (君の名は), you can search for places immortalized in the comic books. But, unlike Your Name, you don’t need to guess as there are maps available at the tourist board highlighting each location.
Matsumoto has many bars and cafes. Some of the best for good food and lively atmospheres are PUBLIC BEER HOUSE OLD ROCK and CELTS. CELTS play football on their big screen most nights and OLD ROCK has a wonderful English feel to it, with excellent food and drinks, including some special Matsumoto homebrew beer and wine. At both, you are sure to make friends with the locals.
Matsumoto also makes for an excellent base to travel throughout the prefecture. Many, as I mentioned, use it to head up into Kamikochi (上高地), a remote highland valley within the Hida Mountains (飛騨山脈) and a fantastic place for hiking and clean mountain springs. However, if you really want the wildlife, then an hour local train ride (very cheap – only 1,400 yen for a same-day return ticket) to Nagano and an express bus gets you to the foot of one of Nagano’s prime attractions – the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The park is not actually in Nagano, it’s in Yamanouchi (山ノ内), but most people know it as Nagano’s Monkey Park.
Established in 1964 and featured in National Geographic, the park is located in the Jigokudani Valley of the Yokoyu River (横湯川). The monkeys, while relatively tame, are wild. It is not a zoo – the monkeys are free to roam, and on your 30-minute walk up to the park entrance, you are bound to see some foraging in the surrounding forest or while crossing the road.
Originally attracted by the heat of the region’s onsens (温泉), the large troop of monkeys has stayed in the area ever since. Inside the park, you have access to the monkeys as they bathe in the onsen and local river, or wander through the rocks nearby. They are used to tourists and you can really get close to them. Their interaction with each other makes for both comical and moving photos. But be warned, these Japanese macaques are bold, so don’t take food into the area or they (the monkeys) will take it from you. Admission to the park costs 800 yen for adults and is well worth it.
So what more can you ask for from a town that has a wonderful castle, historic shrines, excellent accommodation, lively bars, a passionate football team, and a location that makes visiting mountains or snow monkeys a breeze? If you want a change from the city life of Tokyo and Osaka but don’t want to visit a backwater, then Matsumoto is the place to be. A beautiful city where old and new combine, in a package well worth a visit!