Matsumoto Castle (or Crow Castle), a black Japanese castle

Matsumoto – A Beautiful City in the Japanese Alps

This post was last updated on June 11th, 2020 at 01:45 pm


Our reason for visiting Matsumoto was mainly because of Kamikochi, a mountainous nature reserve located about 50 kilometers from the city and a paradise for hikers.

 

Still, we have to say that Matsumoto pleasantly surprised us. It is pleasant and the location between the mountains is beautiful. Furthermore, it is a perfect destination to spot autumn colors and cherry blossoms and you can sleep in unique accommodation. You have probably also heard about the local castle, the structure for which the city is so famous.

 

Matsumoto is a city with over 200,000 inhabitants and is located in the prefecture of Nagano, on the island of Honshu. The city is centrally located in Japan and lies at a relatively high (± 1500 meters) altitude in the mountains. The higher location ensures a less humid-warm climate than in the surrounding cities.

 

All in all, we can definitely recommend a visit to Matsumoto. Both for the town itself and for the environment. In this article, we tell you all about it.

 

Best Things to Do in Matsumoto

Matsumoto has several nice sights but is best known for the famous black Japanese Castle, which is also known as Crow Castle. Below you’ll find our top 6 sights of Matsumoto, most of which can be seen in one day.

 

1. Matsumoto Castle (Crow Castle)

The black Matsumoto Castle (Crow Castle) surrounded by water in Japan

Right in the center of Matsumoto, less than a 10-minute walk from the station stands the famous Japanese Crow Castle of Matsumoto. In total, the castle has six floors (over 29 meters high) with five different layers/floors. A rough estimate dates from 1593-1594 in which the castle was commissioned by Kazumasa and Yasunaga Ishikawa.

 

It is by far the most epic castle Japan has to offer. The environment, the water, and the black walls with the authentic red bridge complete the picture. Standing there you can really imagine yourself living in the time of the samurai and shoguns.

 

Did you know that Matsumoto Castle is one of the few authentic castles in Japan? Most have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years. Osaka Castle is a good example of this.

 

The atmosphere that hangs in the old wooden rooms of the elite but also the cannon and gun holes make it complete. This is a fortress that you can’t conquer easily.

 

Side of the Japanese black castle in Matsumoto (Crow Castle)

 

There is a nice little museum that takes you through every floor of the castle. Here you will learn about more than 400 years of history.

 

The original fort was much larger. There were three canals to protect the city and the castle. Within the first ring were the two palaces Honmaru and Nonomaru, where the shogun resided in peace. These were heavily protected by samurais and normal civilians were not allowed here.

 

If you cross the moat, you will almost immediately enter a beautiful Japanese garden in front of the castle. Here you can enjoy a delicious ice cream or something fresh in the shade with a special view.

 

TIP – Have you already seen our top 10 castles in Japan? Crow Castle ranks as number 2.

 

2. Walk Through the Cozy Nawate Street

Cozy Nawate Street in Matsumoto City

 

Near Matsumoto Castle lies the historic street of Nawate. It is a cozy place to walk through and stop for a coffee, Matcha, ice cream or to sit on a terrace.

 

Nawate used to be called Frog Street because there were many frogs in and around the street. After a severe flood in 1959, however, they have largely disappeared. However, the frog theme is still evident today. You can see plenty of frog statues and signs.

 

Adjacent to Nawate Street you’ll see the Yohashira Shrine. This shrine is not very special, although it is often very atmospheric because of the food stands and the music that is played there.

 

3. Japanese Alps Park

Huge cherry blossom trees at the Matsumoto Alps Park

 

From the castle, you can see the beautiful ridges of the Japanese Alps in the background. Rent a bicycle (mountain bike or regular bicycle are both fine) and drive to the beautiful Japanese Alpine park called Matsumotoshi Alps Park in just an hour.

 

This park is specially designed for the Japanese who want to relax. It has beautiful views of Matsumoto and the snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps. It is also a fantastic place to visit with children. There are playground equipment and steel dinosaurs everywhere, hidden between the trees. The toboggan run may be the highlight for young and old in terms of action, but the views make every person happy.

 

You can also get there by bus for a nice walk, but cycling is a lot more fun because the roads are very passable. For more information about the park check out the official website here.

 

4. Epic Food in Matsumoto

Chopsticks taking soba noodles from a bowl

 

We already knew that the Japanese can cook. But every region has its specialties and around Matsumoto, you can find the famous soba noodles, sanzokuyaki (Matsumoto-style fried chicken), and miso. Be sure to try this at one of the following restaurants; Kobayashi Soba, Kamon Jigoya, or Moimoi.

 

Looking for a terrace? Yes, that is quite difficult in Japan, but we found one in the Media Garden on the second floor! Enjoy a craft beer or cup of coffee in the sun.

 

5. Ukiyo-e and the Timepiece Museum

Timepiece Museum in Matsumoto

 

Matsumoto has two great museums namely the old Ukiyo-e museum and the Timepiece Museum. Ukiyo-e is a style that uses wood block prints that have also become popular in Europe since the 18th century.

 

It has inspired several famous artists, such as Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. The entrance to the museum is 1,200 yen (~ US$11), making it quite pricey but well worth it as Ukiyo-e is one of the largest museums in Japan. For more information, you can check out their website.

 

In the Timepiece museum, you will find one of the largest collections of clocks in Japan. The majority of these clocks were donated by Mr. Chikazo Honda in 1974 from which the museum eventually emerged.

 

6. The Utsukushigahara Plateau

The Utsukushigahara Plateau during a sunset

 

Just outside the city, in the east, lies the Utsukushigahara plateau at an altitude of about 2,000 meters. The plateau is beautifully situated in the mountains with green fields full of grazing cows and many different types of flora. But what makes it even more interesting is that there is a small open-air museum, with about 120 objects. You will also find a lot of bizarre works of art, it looks like an EXPO.

 

Close to the plateau, you’ll find the famous hot springs Asama Spa and Utsukushigahara Spa. These hot springs are ancient and famous all over Japan. You can reach the plateau by taking the bus from the train station, the journey takes about an hour and a half.

 

Visit a Wasabi Farm

Daio Wasabi farm with pink cherry blossoms trees in the back in Nagano near Matsumoto

 

Wasabi, the spicy green paste that Japan is so famous for. Delicious with soy sauce and sashimi. Just outside Matsumoto lies one of the country’s larger wasabi farms, the Daio Wasabi Farm. From Hotaka Station, it is a nice walk to the farm. You will be on the road for about half an hour and you will pass vast rice fields and undulating landscapes. Cycling is another option, you can rent one at Hotaka station.

 

On the 100 years old farm, you can see how they make wasabi with your own eyes. Various hiking trails have been laid out through the green fields. They take you past old-fashioned water wheels, the Daio Shrine, and a clear river. This river consists of freshwater that flows directly from the Northern Alps. The wasabi plants grow slowly, after which they can be harvested.

 

Of course, tasting is also part of it. And not just as you might be used to, because wasabi burgers, ice cream, and even chocolate are also offered.

 

A Trip to Kamikochi

Kamikochi is without doubt one of the most impressive natural areas we’ve seen in Japan. From Shin-Shimashima Station – where you go by train from Matsumoto – buses run there, after which you can go for a walk through untouched nature. Coincidence or not, but when we went there it turned out to be the last day that Kamikochi was open. Because in winter, or actually at the end of autumn, the ‘doors’ close and no more buses go there.

 

The main attraction of Kamikochi is Kappa Bashi, the iconic bridge that crosses the river and from which you can see snow-covered peaks. From here you can hike all kinds of routes through Kamikochi. Multi-day birch treks are also possible.

 

The clear river in Kamikochi with green trees and the Kappabashi Bridge (or Kappa Bridge) in the distance

 

On the last day, when Kamikochi is still open to tourists, a closing ceremony always takes place. The same is true at the opening of the park, at the end of April. This is a must-see if you want to experience a bit of culture.

 

The bus trip from Shin-Shimashima to Kamikochi (1 hour) is absolutely great. You go straight through the Japanese Alps, which in our case were completely dotted with brightly colored autumn trees.

 

Hiking in the Magome Region

If you can’t get enough of hiking in the wilderness, a trip to Magome is highly recommended. Walk the 7-kilometer track on Nakasendo Trail between Magome and Tsumaho, it is one of the nicer walks you will find in Japan. You cut right through the green Japanese Alps, passing waterfalls, authentic houses, temples, shrines, and stunning views over the Kiso Valley. About halfway you can stop at a tea house to try some local tea and have a rest.

 

Image of: Autumn Colors in Magome-juku, Central Japan
Beautiful autumn colors we saw during our walk on the Magome-juku trail

 

We recommend you take the train from Matsumoto Station to Nakatsugawa. There you can take a bus towards Tsumago where you can start the hike to Magome. The other way around is also possible. The total journey to Tsumago takes about 2 hours. Take a look at Tsumago itself, because there are all kinds of picturesque wooden houses that will take you back in time. The same goes for Magome, although it is a lot more touristy there.

 

Matsumoto Nightlife

Some shops, bars, and restaurants can be found in the center of Matsumoto. Compared to the major cities of Japan, the center is quite small. It is, therefore, better to go shopping in another (larger) city. Matsumoto is especially nice for a few days of rest but there are plenty of bars for a nightcap!

 

Where to Stay in Matsumoto

Until now, Matsumoto is not very touristy. Fortunately, that benefits hotel prices. You can already go to a number of hotels for less than US$25 per night. Because it is not very touristy, there are also fewer guesthouses and apartments for rent for tourists. A hotel close to the station (because everything is within walking distance) is the best choice. We can recommend the Hotel New Station, which has free bicycles and excellent rooms (in 1980s style). The location and price/quality are world-class.

 

If you want to see all accommodations in Matsumoto you can take a look here.

 

A Unique Accommodation

You can choose to stay in a hostel or hotel downtown, although there’s another option. At L-BASE, about 4 kilometers from Matsumoto Station, you can spend the night in a very cool place.

 

The very nice owner Masaki has made container houses on his private property that are decorated in a traditional Japanese style. One funny detail is the constructed rails on which a small hobby train runs. It is also nice that you can use the washing machine and the available (small) bicycles for free. It felt nice and homey to us.

 

We walked there from the station in about an hour to immediately explore the area around Matsumoto. And we wouldn’t regret this choice. Autumn was in its peak, so in some alleys, it seemed like we were looking at a painting. So beautiful!

 

Facts About the City

 

  • Matsumoto is home to the Fujigengaki company, which is Japan’s largest guitar manufacturer;
  • The world’s largest wasabi nursery is located just above Matsumoto;
  • Kaichi school was the very first high school in Japan. What is especially nice about the building is the European appearance of the school. The school opened in 1873 and was completely renovated in 1876.

 

You can find much more useful information on the city website.

 

Questions & Answers about Matsumoto

Matsumoto Castle (Crow Castle) between green trees with the mountain range in the distance

 

How do I easily travel to Matsumoto?

Matsumoto can be reached in about three hours by JR trains from Tokyo on the Limited Express Chuo Line or within 1.5 hours from Nagoya on the Shinano Line. The train is by far the best option to travel to Matsumoto. With a Japan Rail Pass, you can use it for free. If you have a rental car, this is also a great option. You can reach Matsumoto in about the same time.

 

What is the altitude of the city of Matsumoto?

The city is located in the middle of a valley in the Japanese Alps at an altitude of 2115 meters. The surrounding mountain range is called the Hide Mountains with an average height of 3000 meters, of which Mount Hotakadake is the highest at 3190 meters.

 

How long should I stay in Matsumoto?

The city is very small and can be visited in a single day. Many travelers stay here for one night in front of the beautiful crow castle and often travel to Takayama or Kanazawa.

 

What is the best time to visit Matsumoto?

The best time to visit Matsumoto is between April and June. During this period you’ll have sunny days with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Take a look here for more details on the best months to travel to Japan.

 

What’s Next?

Thanks to its central location, you can continue in any direction. The only problem is that you are in the mountains so traveling takes just a little longer. Some places that you can reach quickly from Matsumoto are;

 

  • Takayama (Hide) for your dose of real Japanese culture
  • Yudanaka to spot the famous snow monkeys
  • Take the train to Kyoto, the second city of Japan
  • Walk the famous trail between Magome & Tsumago
  • The gigantic city of Nagoya
  • Skiing in the Nagano area
  • Mount Fuji is a stopover from Tokyo
  • For a beautiful piece of nature, you can visit Kamikochi

 

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