Matsumoto is a destination many forget when planning a trip to Japan. About 2 hours away from Tokyo via JR, the touristic importance of this city relies mainly on the Matsumoto Castle, one of the 4 castles that are a National Treasure in Japan. But there’s more to it, the oldest school in Japan, some interesting museums and temples…
I visited Matsumoto in the midst of the Golden Week, the most important holidays season for the Japanese. And the city was pretty crowded, although not overcrowded, so it might be quite easy to visit the city in about half a day in your way to the Nakasendo route.
Going to Matsumoto (and getting around)
I left early from Shinjuku Station from Tokyo and arrived at the train station of Matsumoto around 9.30 in the morning. It was raining, but not enough to stop you from walking around, so I chose to walk from the station to the Castle (about 15-20 minutes.)
There are buses that take you there in about 5 minutes, just ask at the tourist office at the station (they speak English and Spanish.) Also, as in many japanese cities, you can buy a day pass for the “town sneaker”. Most major attractions are close to each other, but it might be Handy if you want to do a fast trip around. The day pass is for the round line and costs about 500 yen, including a 10% discount on the Castle tickets. Take into account that a regular bus ticket costs about 200 yen for this line.
Any other regular bus has a rate that depends on the distance. The mechanics are similar to the ones in many other cities in Japan: you access the bus from behind and get a “number”, when you leave the bus (from the front door) you see your number on the screen and pay the Price as indicated. Also, you don’t give the money to the driver, but pay on a machine (exact amount, there are change machines for bills and such.)
Note: The city is approx. 2 hours from Tokyo, 2 hours from Nagoya and around an hour from the Nagano Kiso Valley.
Visiting the Castle of Matsumoto
The Castle of Matsumoto is unique in many different ways. First, it is one of the only 2 raven castles in Japan (the other one is at Okayama), named that way after its black walls. It is also one of the only 4 castles that are a National Treasure of Japan (the other 3 are in Inuyama, Himeji and Hikone.) Also, it is one of the very few that is not on a hill or somehow “elevated” from the surrounding land.
The Castle was built on the XVI-XVII centuries and is almost in its original condition (it has been restored but not rebuilt). And what’s most important, it was the castle of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great shogun who unified and centralized Japan in the Seventeenth century, beginning the Edo period which moved the political centre from Kyoto to Tokyo.
The castle can be visited inside, but if you are short of time, the gardens and moats around it are free and provide a wonderful view of the building. Just look after the signs indicating where to make the best pictures :)
But if you want to witness how it was to defend a fort like this as a Samurai, you can enter the castle for a 610 yen ticket average (see next section for info on pricing and tips). Just take into account that the castle is not decorated inside except for some rooms with weapons and maps, as it was a battle castle.
The tour around the castle lasts for about and hour (just the building), with no elevator, nor escalators. And you have to do it barefoot (they provide you with bags to carry your shoes with you), through all the 6 wooden floors.
Each floor is connected to the next through stairs. They were designed to prevent the siege, so you will climb steps that are 40 cm high with up to a 60% angle with very small space for your feet (mine are small and somehow they didn’t fit that well… So it’s more of a hiking than a typical museum visit. I just wonder how armed Samurai that weren’t more than 1.5 meters tall could do it running.
Each floor is unique and although we didn’t take a guided tour (it was too crowded for that) there are many signs explaining the different floors in English. But the best is on the top, might be because of the feeling of having achieved such a feat. There are very interesting views in the 4 directions, both from the city and the Japanese Alps.
The only thing now is that you have to go down, through the same stairs…
Prices to the castle and some tips about it
Entering the Castle at Matsumoto costs around 610 yen. The ticket also includes admission to a small town museum (all in japanese) that is at the surrounding gardens. But you can get a 10% discount with the town sneaker bus day pass.
Also, you can get free guided tours in English from time to time, mostly from volunteers and English students, but not when it is a peak season, as it gets somewhat crowded.
A very important thing to know is that once you go through the walls, you’ll see a sign saying how long you wil have to queue to enter the building. It was 80 minutes for us and it was raining a bit, so we didn’t want to wait in line. So what to do about it? You know Japanese don’t cheat…
There are two options:
- wait in line, which would have taken us waiting until 12:30
- skip the line and get an “appointment”, leave and come back at the selected time, skipping the queue (ours was at 14:00)
It might not seem a huge advantage, but you don’t have to wait in line for and hour (standing) and you can use that time to visit other parts of the city or eat or take a lot of pictures of the Matsumoto Castle.
How to make a reservation and skip the line at Matsumoto-jo
You can only get an appointment once you have purchased your ticket and enter the castle grounds. Once you go thrgough the main door (the one that controls the tickets), you’ll see an small building where the castle offices and the souvenir shop are. Right in front of this building you’ll see a table with a sign and some people giving out some green papers. Those papers are the ones that will allow you to get in the castle later and skip the line.
The people giving those papers do not speak English, but the papers set the time you’ll be allowed to enter the Castle (there’s some marging, just check the paper). They will ask you how many people will enter with you, and you’ll get as many papers.
Once you have it, you can get out the castle. At the set time just come back showing the general ticket and the green paper. To skip the line just go through the pathway in the middle of the garden. There are guardians that will let you in all the way up to the building.
What to see in Matsumoto, besides the Castle
Just around the Castle, in the surrounding gardens:
- The city museum I told you about before. Not an amazing exhibit, but if you have some time to kill, the ticket is free with the Castle entrance.
- The Drum doors, a reproduction of the original ones, but free entry
Close to the Castle, but outside the gardens, there are two small shopping streets:
- Nakamachi, full of traditional buildings, restaurants, izakayas and Antique and craft shops
- Nawate Doori, by the river and full of souvenir shops and Street food stalls. You’ll recognize it by the frog prepared for the battle. It also has a temple near by.
Behind the castle, less tan a 10 minutes walk away, is the former Kaichi School. This primary school is the oldest in Japan. It was founded in 1873 and now is a museum you can visit for around 300 yen. It is an interesting example of the Meiji architecture, although it might not be that interesting if you compare it to other touristic spots.
Closer to the JR station, you will find the Art Museum that hosts a permanent exhibit from Matsumoto artists. Some very interesting Works from Yayoi Kusama are also here.