There’s so much to see and do in Japan. The popular destinations of Tokyo and Kyoto are great, but there is so much more to Japan. “Off The Beaten Path” is a new series that explores some of the lesser known yet amazing places in Japan.
Our first stop was Nakasu (中洲) ( read about the night food market capital of Japan here). For our second stop, we go to Matsumoto（松本）in the Nagano prefecture, located northwest of Tokyo. Matsumoto is a small and tranquil city with a population of 250,000; though the city is small, it has a lot to offer. Surrounded by pristine mountains, Matsumoto is a gateway to the Japanese alps, offers great hotspring onsens, a craft goods and foodie mecca, and home to the oldest original Japanese castle.
During the feudal ages (15 th century), there used to be hundreds of Japanese castles in Japan. However, at the end of the feudal age (1868) the government demolished many castles to rid the country of old traditions. Additionally, during WW2 many remaining castles were destroyed during the air raids. Unfortunately, today there are only a dozen original castles left. Matsumoto Castle is the oldest original castle (construction began in 1592) in Japan so it’s definitely a must see!
Old Matsumoto Castle before upkeep
Formerly the site of the Fukashi Castle (1504), it was the seat of power for the Ogasawara family. In 1550, it came under the rule of the Takeda clan and eventually the Ishikawa clan, the daimyo of the area serving the then shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It was the Ishikawa family who constructed the Matsumoto castle that you see today. During the Edo period (1603), the Tokugawa shogunate established the Matsumoto domain and gave administrative rights of the region to the Matsudaira clan. The castle is also referred to as the Crow Castle (Karasu-jo) because of its black walls and roofs, resembling a crow spreading its wings.
View of the city from Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto is the gateway to the Japanese alps and is not too far from where the 1998 Nagano winter Olympics were held. For all the nature lovers, the Norikura park is not to be missed, with its beautiful hiking trails and breathtaking views.
Daio Wasabi Farm
Wasabi can only grow in the presence of extremely clean water. Thankfully, Matsumoto is at the base of the Japanese alps, giving it access to some of the most pristine water in the world. Because of this, the world’s largest wasabi farm “Daio” is located just north of the city and is quite a site to see. You can learn how wasabi is grown, try freshly grated wasabi, and even taste their famous wasabi ice cream!
Onsen Hot Springs
Tobira Onsen in the winter
Japan has lots of hot springs, but the ones in Matsumoto are particularly well known. The clean volcanic waters combined with natural scenery and amazing food is unbeatable. Check out Tobira onsen for a great getaway.
Ukiyo-e by Hiroshige
Ukiyo-e (meaning ‘pictures of the floating world’) are traditional woodblock art prints which flourish in Japan during the 17 th-18 th century. One of the largest museums dedicated to Ukiyo-e is in Matsumoto. Famous ukiyo-e artists include Hokusai and Hiroshige.
In addition to wasabi, Matsumoto is known for many other delicious regional foods. Soba (buckwheat) noodles from Matsumoto are some of the best in Japan ( check out Miyoda Soba Restaurant). For the more adventurous eaters, this region of Japan is also famous for “basashi” or horse meat sashimi. Horse meat from Matsumoto in particular is prized around the country. For more common foods, definitely try the Azusagawa apples and the Yamabe grapes, which are some of the best in Japan. Lastly, since Matsumoto is surrounded by the Japanese alps, be sure to try some unique edible mountain vegetables.
Matsumoto is the perfect quiet getaway, offering a mix of traditional and modern Japanese cultures. It's a tranquil city that is sure to offer something for everyone.
Matsumoto City Streets
Traditional stores in Matsumoto
Back alleys of Matsumoto
If you liked this article, check out our post about other amazing places in Japan!
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Nagano is not often spoken of as a primary tourist destination in Japan. But a couple of notable claims-to-fame make Nagano a very interesting place to visit indeed.