Due to the strange quirks of the Japanese rail system we chose to spend a couple of nights in Matsumoto in the Japanese Alps to break up our journey from Kawaguchiko to Kyoto.
In our minds it was going to be a fairly small mountain town. In reality it was a fairly large city of 250,000 people that sprawls along a valley between two mountain ranges. But it had something about it.
The castle is the main attraction as it’s the oldest one in Japan, and we managed to find a hostel where you could literally see it from our room. This is about 100m from the hostel.
It also has a selection of small pedestrian streets that work around a river with great examples of Edo architecture. This is a book shop sandwiched in between modernity, reminds me of Fleet Street in London.
In the middle of the city was a sculptured fast flowing river from mountain streams. Fast flowing streams were a common feature in Matsumoto, just outside the city they help to irrigate the rice paddies with small sluice gates.
A lot of the buildings are now little shops or cafes, which makes a great place to sit and take in the olde worlde charm. We went to this one a few times, the bread was so incredibly soft.
The castle was incredible, and so unlike anything that we would consider a castle in England or even Europe. It looked like a grand pagoda with layers of sweeping roofs, surrounded by a lake moat – very picturesque, especially in the evening when it was beautifully lit.
Getting closer to it and reading more information you could see the features that made it a defensive castle: arrow holes, rifle holes and hidden drop holes around the edge of the structure to drop rocks on unsuspecting intruders. The pagoda grooves make amazing patterns. This reminds of a building on the North Bank of the Thames with yellow on the underside of each balcony.
We got a free guide from a voluntary service, run mainly by pensioners which is a really nice idea. He walked us into the grounds, telling us facts – that he was 76 – and helping us get photos with the resident samurai and geisha.
Then he left us at the main door to the castle saying that he’d be waiting for us at the end. We didn’t quite understand why he didn’t come in until we started walking round and discovered the incredibly steep steps that get steeper as you go up – another ploy to give the inhabitants the upper hand against intruders. Needless to say, we never saw our old man again; maybe he’d forgotten that he was on a tour, or really needed a wee?
I think the major difference, apart from the aesthetic, is that they defend upwards rather than inwards. In all European castles I’ve been to there are inner rings within the keep where the defending army can retreat to as each layer gets breached. The Japanese model starts like that, with numerous moats on the old maps, but as soon as you get to the building they retreat upwards. The most important people live (and hide) right on the top floor. The staircases on each floor are in different places, creating a kind of maze to confuse anyone that gets in. I think the idea is that if they ever got trapped right in the top, they would all commit suicide rather than be disgraced by becoming prisoners. Or maybe there was some kind of hidden fireman’s pole as the final surprise tactic.
The town itself is very quirky and stylish, with a lot of well dressed people, and it had more of a centre than Kawaguchiko seemed to. We met some very helpful smily people and ate amazing food, including a Japanese BBQ meal where we cooked our thinly sliced pork on a grill on the table. Amazing.
On the last morning, before we caught the train, we wandered along to this beautiful old primary school building that is historically important in Japan.
Matsumoto’s importance to Japan’s history may have passed it’s glory days but the city is a great place to hang out, and it is a perfect base for some Japanese Alps hiking.