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Top 6 Experiences in Matsumoto: Finding traditional Japan

Japan Alps viewed from Nagano

Lia is an Aussie based in Tokyo, Japan with a love of exploring the lesser known, and learning people’s life stories. She loves to seek out onsen ryokan with private onsen baths, discovering hidden sushi omakase gems or curled up in her Totoro bed with a good book. If not travelling in Japan or abroad, her days are spent in her studio, Tokyo Kaleidoscope, reconstructing vintage Japanese silk kimonos into bespoke pieces for herself and others.

She recently spent a couple of nights reacquainting herself with the city of Matsumoto, after a previous stopover over a decade ago! We asked Lia to share her favourite local experiences and create a mini guide for us.


Kamikochi in Nagano

In Nagano Prefecture lies the city of Matsumoto. Matsumoto is the gateway to the Northern Japanese Alps (a mountain hiker’s dream) and the home of internationally renowned artist Yayoi Kusama, where many of her pieces can be found in the Matsumoto City Museum of Art

Easily accessible indirect from Tokyo Station via the Hokuriku Shinkansen (1.5hr trip on the fastest shinkansen) and direct from Shinjuku Station via the JR Ltd. Express train Super Azusa (a 2.5 hrs trip), Matsumoto is a perfect weekend destination to taste some good food, learn a little Japanese history and sip some cheeky morning sake. 

Matsumoto is part of the famed “Mitsuboshi Kaidou” (the three-star road); one of the greatest sightseeing routes of Japan which connects the cities and towns of Kanazawa, Nanto, Shirakawa-go, Takayama and lastly Matsumoto. It is named the “Three-star road” due to the many World Heritage Sites, national treasures, vital cultural kogei (arts and crafts) one can experience in all these cities which are featured in the Michelin Green Guide. There are many ancient routes in Japan, like the Ancient Tokaido Route, which connected the ancient capital of Edo (now Tokyo) to the former imperial capital (Kyoto) for matters of trade and commerce. The Mitsuboshi Kaido is part of the Nostalgic Route of Shoryudo, which encompasses an even wider area of central Japan.


Matsumoto Castle

The city’s most acclaimed attraction is Matsumoto Castle (originally known as Fukashi Castle), designated as a “National Treasure of Japan.” It is the oldest extant castle in Japan. Built in the 16th century during the Sengoku period, all that remains is the original stunning, five-tiered, six story castle tenshukaku (castle keep) sitting on the corner of the castle ground’s walls and where on clear days, it’s beautifully reflected in the outer moat. 

It was during the Edo period that the Matsumoto Domain was established by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and from that time till the Meiji Restoration, five different clans would govern as daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) over the two centuries with the last being the Toda-Matsudaira clan. 

Rickshaw experience on Matsumoto Castle's grounds

Today, you will find people leisurely meandering along the castle grounds, feeding the ducks in the moat and in springtime, enjoying the beauty of hanami, as the many cherry blossom trees which line the path bloom their soft pink petals. If you wish, like I did, you can also enjoy a traditional rickshaw experience around the castle grounds and into town.


Sake tasting with Yoikana Sake Brewery owner's wife

All over Japan, one can find some truly amazing sake, from the most internationally acclaimed large breweries to small local family establishments. In Matsumoto City, make time to visit Yoikana, a sake brewery with a long and colourful history of more than 150 years. 

Yoikana initially began with the Maruyama family whose son-in-law (Hotaka-san) took over the family business when son of the family became a doctor. Tragedy struck the family with the World Wars, and they had to stop production, and give their sake rice to other breweries; later they would form Yoikana with three other family breweries Aoki, Aoyagi and Momose who had suffered similarly. 

Inside Yoikana Sake Brewery

Located on a quiet street, still in their original building from the mid-1800s, Yoikana is an intimate experience. Currently helmed by the current Sandaime (3rd generation family head) Hotaka Keisuke, the sake brewery lies at the back of the shop where one can wander their cosy premises, learning about the brewery’s history, family stories and the sake process from Hotaka-san’s wife.

Afterwards, sit down in the shop with Hotaka-san’s wife, whose presence and smile are so friendly and sweet, as she pours for you the range of Yoikana sake to taste. Be warned though, she apparently has an eye for those who enjoy a tipple of sake, so even though the tasting glasses are tiny, be prepared for glasses filled to the brim if she thinks you are a lover of sake too! 


Ishii Miso Brewery

Just like sake, miso is intrinsic to many Japanese meals and daily eating life. Said to have various health benefits, this salty, savoury product of Japan comes in many different types, distinct in its flavouring, ageing process and colour. 

In all of Japan, there are 1000 miso producers - Nagano prefecture has 100 of them, which make 48% of all of Japan’s miso production. Matsumoto City is home to Ishii Miso Brewery, where the family business’ current head is rokudaime (6th generation family head) Kosuke Ishii. 

Ishii Miso Brewery still uses the giant traditional cedar barrels (instead of the new stainless-steel barrels) to age their miso. Each barrel lasts 200 years and can carry 4.5 tonnes of miso within them.  The cedar barrels are key to provide beneficial natural bacteria like yeast, which provides the flavour and aroma to their miso. Over a period of three years, the 4.5 tonnes of miso in each barrel is transferred to a new barrel each year, thus creating the ageing process, and options of 1-year aged miso, 2 years and 3 years. 

Lunch set at the Ishii Miso Brewery

By the time the Miso Brewery tour is finished with Ishii-san (who will happily do the tour in English), you can sit down inside their restaurant/omiyage shop area and get ready to devour one of their amazing teishoku lunches of soba, nabe, yaki onigiri, and hearty miso soup all enhanced with miso elements and finished off with miso ice cream.


Candy-making workshop

Down another quiet street in Matsumoto City, is Yamaya Candy Shop. Established in 1672, Yamaya is famed for its traditional candy made from rice syrup starch and is currently run by the 13th head of the family (Jusandaime) Ota Yoshihi. 

Yamaya began it’s foray into the candy making industry by realising that while sake was often consumed in celebration of the Japanese New Year (Oshogatsu), it was limited to only the adults. The family wished to create something with the same essential ingredients of sake (rice and water) that would be able to be enjoyed by all ages at Oshogatsu. Over time, it developed to the point that the candy was made all year round for people to enjoy rather than just at New Years.

Candy created during the candy-making workshop

Today you can visit Yamaya Candy, step into their beautiful Japanese house opposite the main shop, sit down on the tatami floors and partake in a candy-making workshop using their traditional hand-held machinery. The candy made here is known as “Matsumoto Temari”, because the simple, colourful design is inspired by the beautiful, colourful Temari craft popular in Matsumoto. These little sweet treats have no sugar too, so a perfect alternative for the children to enjoy! The mild sweetness comes from the syrup starch of the rice. 


Finish your weekend trip to Matsumoto with a visual, delicious sensation of a dinner crafted by Executive Chef Christopher Horton at Restaurant 367 (365+2) in Matsumoto Jujo Hotel in Asama Onsen Town. 

Restaurant 367 (365+2) is a feast for all the senses, where the dinner course is comprised of three themes; “from the farm, from the sea, and from the pasture” utilising local produce from all over the Shinshu region (the old name for Nagano Prefecture) and the greater Central Japan area. The restaurant’s name derives itself from the ever changing daily Japanese climate (i.e. 365 days) and to pay homage to the rich history and culture prevalent in all of the country. 

Horton brings with him not only years of experience, but the culinary expertise and avantgarde cooking style of two-star Michelin restaurant INUA (sister to the internationally acclaimed NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen) where he was chef for the entirety of its too short two-year tenure in Tokyo. 

Follow Lia as she explore more areas of Japan intimately, over on her IG @ryokanwanderings or have a read of her blog: Ryokan Wanderings for even more stories and adventures.




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