On our recent Japan trip our route was set to pass through the small city of Matsumoto in the Nagano Prefecture (220km / 137 mi by road north west of Tokyo) and we took the opportunity to stop in for a few hours and visit Matsumoto Castle and surrounds. When I was planning our trip itinerary I identified that we would need to change trains in Matsumoto, and after researching options I decided that it would be great to visit Matsumoto Castle en route.
We arrived at Matsumoto Station after spending the morning travelling from Kyoto to Nagoya Station, then changing trains to the line to head for Matsumoto. We very much enjoyed the gorgeous scenic trip through the mountains between Nagoya and Matsumoto. Matsumoto is a lovely small city which is surrounded by mountains in every direction. We visited in Autumn so the mountains were bare of snow, but in winter the snow capped mountains would definitely be a feature.
Matsumoto Castle is a 1.6km walk each way from Matsumoto Station – there are some bus options but the timings did not work for us so we walked instead. Walking gave us the opportunity to see a bit more of the town of Matsumoto along the way.
After storing our luggage in lockers and visiting the Tourist Information counter we set off, map in hand with a few interesting things to see along the way. We had about three hours before we needed to be ready to catch our train on to our final destination of Shinano Omachi in the Nagano Prefecture and we planned to make the most of it!
Nawate Street Area of Matsumoto
Our first stop was Nawate Street, which is a local market area beside the main river of Matsumoto about halfway between Matsumoto Station and Matsumoto Castle.
The Nawate Street has a clear theme of frogs – they were everywhere! The area is in a lovely location beside the Metoba River which runs through town, and I can imagine what the river would be like during the spring snow melt. We were there in October so the river was running steadily and we were able to walk down the steps to the river bank to have a closer look.
After resisting the temptation to purchase souvenirs from the many shops we then walked up the hill towards Matsumoto Castle, noting that we had not yet actually seen it! Unfortunately there are many other medium rise buildings in the area which block the view of the castle.
We finally entered the grounds of Matsumoto Castle via the eastern Taikomon Gate, walked around a couple of corners and were finally able to see Matsumoto Castle, sitting within what is left of the moat system which once protected it from invaders.
We admired the view across the moat and courtesy of a lovely local gentleman who gave us some bread our children enjoyed feeding some of the many carp which live in the water. We then purchased our tickets to enter the castle grounds. The ticket enables admission to both Matsumoto Castle and the Matsumoto City Museum which is next door (note that the museum website is Japanese only, but they do have English langage brochures and signage).
History of Matsumoto Castle
Construction of the Matsumoto Castle complex commenced in 1504, and over the years to 1871 there were 23 rulers from six different clans who ruled the complex. After this time the Japanese government took control of the complex and much was demolished in this time. In 1936 the remaining structures were designated as a National Treasure, which was reconfirmed in 1950 after World War 2.
The remaining five structures of Matsumoto Castle include the great keep, the small northwest keep, Watari Tower, Tatsumitsuke Tower and Tsukimi Tower which are all connected.
Climbing Matsumoto Castle
We walked through the grounds to the main keep, and then had to take our shoes off and carry them in the provided plastic bag.
If you plan to climb the keep please be warned that you need to be able to climb (and descend) very steep ladder like stairways (at 55 – 61 degree incline) to ascend each level, but it is definitely worth making the ascent. You have to follow a defined pathway and are not allowed to wander off route.
The main keep is made from wood, and along the way a range of historical relics were on display which were very interesting. You can also look out of the windows on each level apart from the ‘hidden level’ which has no windows – where the gunpowder and money used to be kept.
From the top there is a great view across Matsumoto in all directions. I estimate that we spent around 45 minutes climbing and descending the castle before exiting. We all enjoyed the experience of actually being inside a keep as so many of the similar structures are not accessible to visitors.
Below is a series of photos of our climb up the keep, including both the outside view and the interior points of interest.
Visiting the Matsumoto City Museum
We decided to have a quick look through the small Matsumoto City Museum before heading back to the train station, and we were pleased that we made the effort to visit.
The displays were very informative and we were amazed to see the model of how the town used to look, back when there were five concentric moats protecting the Matsumoto Castle area. It was also really interesting to see information about the earthworks around the castle and the range of weapons which were used. You definitely did not want to be on the wrong end of the police clubs!
Below is a series of photos of our highlights from the Matsumoto City museum.
Overall we really enjoyed our visit to Matsumoto as it was our first visit to a smaller city in Japan after immersing ourselves in Tokyo and Kyoto. The fact that it was not overwhelmed with other tourists was a definite bonus…
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