Matsumoto, an unassuming town in Japan’s alpine foothills, is a convenient base from which to explore some of central Honshu island’s many treasures.
Words and photography by Mark Parren Taylor
No such trouble getting from Tokyo to Matsumoto, 220 km northwest in the heart of the main island Honshu. Jump on an Azusa or Super-Azusa train at Shinjuku rail station, and in a little over two-and-a-half hours you’ll arrive at this genteel city on the eastern fringe of the North Japanese Alps.
Everyone who comes to Matsumoto comes to see its castle – a stunning wooden keep that dates from the 16th century and is (astonishingly) mostly original. I visit it in the evening, as the sun’s last rays highlight its white eave beams, but it’s such an imposing, powerful structure that it is equally impressive in the snow, the rain, the morning mist.
It’s also known as ‘Crow Castle’ because its walls and shutters are as black as the feathers on a crow’s wings. And in fact, at dusk, flocks of crows sweep across the city, beckoning the night with a thousand ‘caws’.
A little south of the keep, Nawate-dori provides countless browsing opportunities in its row of knick-knack and bric-a-brac stores. The weary might like to find a seat outside SWEET (which has been serving French-style patisserie since 1913), sip a coffee and watch other people souvenir shop. There’s a tasty breakfast buffet too. On Sundays in fine weather, a small arts and crafts market sets up near to Yohashira shrine. And across the bridge, a few minutes south of Metoba river, Nakamichi is lined with traditional kura buildings – merchant shophouses with distinctive crosshatch relief decoration and heavy-duty window shutters. Many have been turned into cafés and boutique tatami, kimono or pottery shops.
Noodling In Nagano
From December until March, this region is blanketed in snow – and people take the train to Nagano to see the Japanese macaques, or ‘snow monkeys’, which famously (and very photogenically) submerse themselves in the steamy waters of an onsen (or hot spring) in Jigokudani, about 35 km northeast of the city.
The rest of the year the day-tripper will find plenty of distractions in the town, particularly at Zenko-ji temple – with its handsome, serene hondo (main hall), which is considered a National Treasure – and the row of memento stalls, snack shops and restaurants that line its processional approach.
On Daimon-cho, just before the temple’s main gate, Yawataya Isogoro has been grinding and blending spices for almost 300 years. Its ‘seven-flavour’ seasoning is renowned as a tangy-peppery topping for soba noodles.
Made from (at least 30%) buckwheat flour, soba noodles reputedly were a local invention (buckwheat grows quite happily in these hilly, chilly conditions). Nearby Togakushi village is famous across all Japan for the quality of its noodles … but the timesensitive visitor has no need to make the (admittedly scenic) 50-minute bus ride into
the hills. Just across the road from Yawataya Isogoro, Kado no Daimaru restaurant serves traditional sinshu soba noodles – and you can even watch a chef making them from scratch at a quaint glass-walled counter fixed into the shopfront.
For those with a sweet tooth, consider a pit-stop at Heigoro, a few doors south. This elegant French-style patisserie-café is part of the Fujiya Gohonjin, a hotel that has been offering weary (and wealthier) pilgrims a place to sleep since 1648.
Into the Valley
Visitors get to know Matsumoto’s rail station well during their visits. The line that heads north to Nagano continues south to Shiojiri, where the tracks split and one branch becomes a small-town local line that trundles along Kiso valley and seemingly into a bygone era.
Nakasendo, the ‘Central Mountain Route’, was one of five historical ‘highways’ that connected Tokyo (then called Edo) with Kyoto (the former capital). Between the 16th and late-19th centuries, this 534 km-long trade route was an ever-busy artery that saw countless merchants, samurai, pilgrims and messengers heading one way or the other. And each afternoon, probably without exception, the same thought would cross the minds of every man and woman on the Nakasendo: where will I rest tonight?
Consequently, the route was punctuated with 69 stations: ‘post towns’ where travellers could find food, accommodation and a little light entertainment. And in the Kiso valley, amongst the forest of cypress, matsu pine,
cedar and even cherry trees, a string of these post towns still exists.
I hop on an early train – there’s one that pulls out of Matsumoto at 7.41am – and within an hour I am finding my bearings at Narai. It’s the longest post town remaining in Japan: one kilometre of traditional wood and brick-and-wood townhouses with overhanging beams, makuita modesty panels, shitomi shutters and latticework.
It is delightful walking along this parade of machiya townhouses at any time, but especially at 9am. It’s just me and the occasional local, perhaps tying a display of some autumnal twigs laden with red berries to the lattice work on the front of their home. As I stroll, birdsong carries from the woods beyond and my progress along the street is marked by the trickling of spring water at public fountains – there are six dotted through the town.
Back to the Future
By 10am, the trinket shops are open and restaurants prepare for their first diners. Two museums – the historical homes of local merchant families, namely Tezuka and Nakamura – offer a rewarding insight into the interiors of these splendid residences, and the businesses that had paid for them. Towards the north of the town (at No. 583),
a little café called Matsuya Sabo is a good spot for a siphon coffee while being entertained by the owner’s pooches,
called Chopin and Piano.
Next, the train carries me almost 60 km to Nagiso station, followed by a short hop aboard a waiting minibus to Tsumago. This post town was the 42nd along the Nakasendo trade route from Tokyo (eight along from Narai) and elevated positions, such as that occupied by Kotoku-ji temple, offer rewarding views across its Edo-era rooftops, the bustling street below and the valley beyond. Noteworthy properties here include Waki Honjin Okuya (a rest-house for the staff of a lord, built of Japanese cypress), Tsumago-juku Honjin (an inn fit for lords, run by the Shamazaki family) and Kami Saga-ya (a humble hostel).
Opposite, at Sawadaya (No. 805-1), spend a moment enjoying a kuri kinton cake with its smooth blend of candied chestnut and sweet potato. Or, for something more savoury, try a plate of chilled, handmade soba noodles with grated yam at Yoshimuraya at the north end of town (No. 860-1).
That evening I am back in Matsumoto within two hours. Rather wistfully, I imagine the train had transported me to Edo-era Japan, and that I was on the hunt for a bed for the night in one of these evocative, inviting post towns of Kiso valley.
Jakarta and Denpasar to Tokyo (Haneda and Narita)
Frequency 14 ﬂights per week
From Colours October 2016
5 Senses – Sound
The sound of trickling water is calming and refreshing. Age-old drinking fountains abound in both the little mountain post towns and the heart of big cities Matsumoto and Nagano. Don’t be afraid to top up your bottle: the water is fresh from underground springs. Matsumoto has dozens of wells and spring-water streams, and a handy ‘concierge map’ from the tourist office lists them. Look out for Genchi Well, three minutes south of Nakamachi.