Our first taste of Japan outside of Tokyo was the compact city of Matsumoto and the historic town of Narai in the Kiso Valley.
I’d naively assumed Matsumoto was small but as soon as you exit the train station it’s obviously a city of a decent size, though by the standards of Tokyo and Osaka it’s tiny. Anyway it was the perfect size for exploring on foot, which is always a bonus for us.
Matsumoto is famous for having one of the best preserved castles in Japan, and so naturally this was our first stop.
Around 400 years old, the castle is without a doubt the landmark of the city, surrounded by a large moat. It’s stunning, and one of the best examples of a traditional Japanese castle.
While plenty of towns and cities in Japan still have castles, a lot have been re-built. But Matsumoto’s is the real deal. The interior has of course been renovated, but the layout is as it would have been.
There are quite a few different levels, some vert narrow but one level has larger walkways that allowed Samurais in full armour to run unimpeded if under attack. There was also a very low storey purely designed for storing gunpowder (which seemed rather dangerous for a wooden castle!)
Some features reminded us of English castles, such as windows designed specifically for archers to fire from.
We also got to pose with a ‘samurai’ who I managed not to accidentally stab with the sword I had to hold.
Next to the castle is an ugly and judging by the lack of people in it, under visited museum. They were missing out because although small, the museum was fascinating and full of interesting artefacts about the history of Matsumoto.
Another cool feature of Matsumoto was the spring water openly running along the pavement in special channels. At certain points it was connected to a tap you could drink from.
While walking back we went into an amazing bookshop in an old almost temple like building stacked to the ceiling with old books, mostly in Japanese of course but also some bizarre old English and German books. Could have spent hours nosing around in there. I forgot to take a photo, but the goodandbadjapan Twitter account has a couple.
Close by was Nawate-dōri, an old fashioned shopping street with some interesting restaurants and for some reason full of frogs. Statues, signs, clothes, carvings – every shop was selling something to do with frogs.
Only 45 minutes by train from Matsumoto, Narai is like a different world. An Edo period post town, it is very small and consists of a few streets of beautifully preserved wooden houses.
Some are private residences, some are souvenir shops (not that there were many tourists there at all) and some are soba noodle restaurants, the local speciality.
Behind the houses are several small temples.
If it wasn’t for the occasional car, it would have really felt like travelling back in time.
We had wanted to walk the Torii Pass to Yabuhara, a 6km forest walk, from where we could get a train back to Matsumoto, but after 1km of steep hills, the cold weather got to us and we decided to turn back. It would have been a lovely walk in warmer times.
After that is was definitely time for lunch, so we stopped at one of the soba restaurants. Of all the places we ate in Japan, this was probably the most traditional. They had 4 tables and only served soba or a local rice cake topped with sesame.
The soup doesn’t looks hugely exciting but it had an amazing savoury flavour, definitely one of the most complex broths we had, and not full of oil like some noodle soups. The soba were delicious and fresh, all in all it was a great meal. The only thing we weren’t enamoured with was the rice cakes – the burnt sesame paste one especially was a bit too intense.
I later found out another local speciality is a similar rice cake but on a stick and grilled with miso – now that sounds delicious! Shame we didn’t see them.
On the way back to the station we checked out the Kiso Ohashi bridge, which is a modern wooden structure but an attractive bridge nonetheless.
We also saw another shrine and hundreds of very old Buddhist Jizo statues in the forest – these are placed as protection for travellers and so they are seen a lot in this town which was on the historic Nakasendo – one of five Edo period highways.
Unfortunately our day didn’t end well as we had forgotten to check when the trains ran – they are infrequent. So we had an hour of waiting at the tiny station. There wasn’t even a train to the next town along. Overall though Narai is well worth a visit, though perhaps as a half day trip rather than a whole one!
Matsumoto is around 3 hours from Tokyo by train. We took the Shinkansen part way as we had a rail pass but Limited Express trains ply the route for a lot less, and some even leave direct from Shinjuku in Tokyo. The train without a rail pass is just under ¥7,000.
The direct train from Matsumoto to Narai is only ¥580, though again free with a rail pass.
In Matsumoto we stayed at Hotel New Station, a business hotel near the station, funnily enough. It was our first introduction to the cramped but fully featured rooms of business hotels, and was way better than a hostel. Cost was ¥6,100 per night.