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    I love ramen. Not the instant stuff served in Styrofoam cups, but the fresh noodles served in a bowl of rich soup stock topped with…

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matsumoto castle

NAGANO Matsumoto

Matsumoto, Japan

The artsy hometown of internationally-acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama is one of the best bases for journeying into the Northern Japan Alps

Matsumoto is a gateway to the Japan Alps and a destination in its own right. Apart from being home to Japan's oldest extant castle, it is also the birthplace of avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama. Hop on a bus, that is decorated with polka dots in her honor, to see the sights and explore the central Nagano region.

Don't Miss

  • Venturing inside the jet-black castle—aptly nicknamed Crow Castle
  • Bathing like a samurai in historical hot springs
  • The natural splendor of upland Kamikochi in the nearby mountains

How to Get There

Matsumoto is the ideal hub for exploring the region and serves as a gateway to the Northen Japan Alps .

Easily accessible by train from popular destinations such as Tokyo's Shinjuku Station (2 hours 40 minutes), theNagoya Station (2 hours), or the nearby Nagano Station (50 minutes).

Convenient bus service connects the area with Takayama in the neighboring Gifu Prefecture (2 hours 30 minutes).

Explore a national treasure

Built in the late 16th century, Matsumoto Castle is among the oldest surviving castles in Japan. The striking five-story-tall main tower, flanked on either side by smaller structures, is one of the most famous castles in Japan. As you travel through the original wooden interiors, past displays of medieval weaponry, stop to peer out through the narrow window and feel like one of the archers fighting in battles of old. Venturing to the top of the tower is well worth the reward, featuring a superb view of the city, as it stretches out to the Northern Alps.

Consider timing your visit with one of the castle's seasonal events, such as Japanese taiko drumming and Noh theatre performances in the summer, a soba noodle event in the fall, and a glittering ice sculpture festival in the winter. The spring scenery is perhaps the most vibrant, with hundreds of cherry trees alongside the castle moat, bursting into bloom. Lively blossom viewing revelers flock to the banks, especially at night when the trees are illuminated.

Laze in luxury

After a long day of exploring, rest your weary feet at Asama Onsen. You can choose from dozens of bathhouses, ranging from simple public baths to luxurious traditional inns providing the ultimate onsen experience, complete with fine Japanese cuisine.

The therapeutic pools of Asama Onsen were once restricted to the noble class, but now, everyone can take a dip. Of note is Biwa-no-Yu, which proudly boasts the title of being “The Rulers of Matsumoto Castle's Favorite Bath”. Soaking in Biwa-no-Yu's secluded wooden outdoor tub may give you an idea of why the old rulers of Matsumoto held these springs in such high regard.

An abundance of art and culture

Wandering through Matsumoto's many museums is a fantastic way to spend the day. If you enjoy classic Japanese prints, the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum houses over 100,000 pieces lovingly collected by a local merchant family over the centuries, which includes work by such masters as Katsushika Hokusai and Hiroshige Utagawa. The Matsumoto City Museum of Art has a more contemporary focus; it features Matsumoto native Yayoi Kusama's internationally-acclaimed dotted creations, as well as the work of several other Nagano artists.

Drop by the Former Kaichi School—the oldest elementary school in Japan— for a look at late 19th century western-inspired architecture and to see how students used to spend their days. If you're looking for a one-of-a-kind souvenir from your trip, the Agata no Mori Park hosts several craft fairs throughout the year.

Time for a drink

If you still have energy to spare for a night out on the town, look no further than the many dining and drinking spots that fill the streets between the station and the castle. The Old Rock Pub, an Irish-inspired watering hole offering Japanese-style fish and chips, is popular among the locals. Serious beer-lovers should head to the Matsumoto Brewery, whose taproom offers tiny size belies the superior taste of its brews.

Bask in the beauty of Kamikochi

Nestled in the Northern Japan Alps , Kamikochi offers some of Japan's most splendid mountain scenery. The pure mountain air, stunning views, and blazing fall colors make it a must-visit for nature-lovers. With easy access to and from Matsumoto, it is a shared starting point for serious treks through the mountains, as well as relaxing day hikes along the crystal-clear Azusa River.

The central area around Kappabashi Bridge can get busy at times, but keep hiking along the Azusa River and you'll soon break away from the crowd. As you walk down the paths, keep your eyes peeled for a chance to see wild monkeys playing in the trees or roaming around.

Other Nearby Highlights

Delving into a variety of wasabi-based cuisine at the impressive Daio Wasabi Farm

Hiking in summer and skiing in winter in the Hakuba area

The towering walls of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route's snow corridor

The time-lost atmosphere of Narai at the eastern entrance to the Kiso Valley

Springtime sakura

Matsumoto Castle is rightly famous for its prestigious cherry blossom viewing and, as a result, can be quite crowded. For an equally picturesque picnic spot, hop on the train for a short trip to Minami-Matsumoto station. A leisurely stroll will take you to Koboyama Park, home to thousands of cherry trees that bloom over a two-week period amidst jaw-dropping vistas of the Northern Japan Alps. If you have your heart set on seeing the blossoms at Matsumoto Castle, the evening light-up makes for the most striking pictures.

Summer specials

Should you find yourself in downtown Matsumoto in mid-August, you shouldn't miss Matsumoto Bon Bon. The whole city center transforms into a vibrant and colorful dance party with local troupes performing Matsumoto's signature mid-summer moves all evening long.

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