Some 50km southwest of Nagano across the Hijiri Kōgen mountains is MATSUMOTO (松本), gateway to the Japan Alps. This attractive city, Nagano-ken’s second largest, is famous for its splendid castle, Matsumoto-jō, and Nakamachi, an area of traditional white-walled houses, several of which have been renovated into ryokan, cafés and craft shops. Art lovers can enjoy traditional prints at the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum and the contemporary work of native-child Yayoi Kusama at the Matsumoto City Museum of Art.
Matsumoto also has a reputation as a centre for classical music. It was here that Dr Suzuki Shin’ichi, an internationally famous music teacher, encouraged children to learn to play instruments by using their natural gift for mimicry. His “Suzuki Method” is taught in the town’s Suzuki Shin’ichi Talent Education Hall, around 1km east of Matsumoto Station. The Saitō Kinen is a major classical music festival held from mid-August to early September in memory of another local talent, Saitō Hideo, celebrated conductor and mentor to many famous musicians, including the festival’s director, conductor Seiji Ozawa.
The city centre’s other main attraction is Matsumoto City Museum of Art (松本市美術館). Outside are Yayoi Kusama’s The Visionary Flowers – giant technicolour tulips crossed with triffids. There’s a fascinating gallery inside devoted to this famous contemporary artist, who was born in Matsumoto, as well as ones for the calligrapher Shinzan Kamijyo and the landscape artist Tamura Kazuo. Also look out for Yayoi’s polka-dotted take on a vending machine outside the gallery. The museum is about 1km directly east of the JR station along Ekimae-dōri, just past the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre, a striking building designed by Ito Toyo that is worth a peep inside.
Some 3km west of the station, the forlorn Japan Ukiyo-e Museum (日本浮世絵美術館) has woodblock prints by all the great masters including Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. Only a fraction of the museum’s splendid collection of 100,000 prints is ever on display and it’s likely that the amiable curator will give you a personally narrated slide show. The closest station, a fifteen-minute walk south of the museum, is Ōniwa on the Matsumoto– Dentetsu line; or catch a taxi here for around ¥1500 from the town centre.
If you’ve an interest in Japanese folk crafts, head to the worthwhile Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum (松本民芸館=), a fifteen-minute bus ride out of the city towards Utsukushigahara Onsen – get off the bus at Shimoganai Mingeikanguchi. Set in a traditional-style building, the museum contains some exquisite objects, including giant pottery urns, lacquerware inlaid with mother of pearl, and wooden chests. If you’re here for the last weekend in May, it’s worth checking out the Crafts Fair Matsumoto) in Agatanomori-kōen, a twenty-minute walk east of the JR station.
Much like Kamikōchi, NORIKURA KŌGEN (乗鞍高原), an alpine village some 30km southwest of Matsumoto, offers splendid mountain scenery, hiking trails and onsen. In winter, ski lifts shoot up the lower slopes of Norikura-dake, while in summer the hike to the peak of the same mountain can be accomplished in ninety minutes from the car park, where the Echo Line road leaves Nagano-ken and becomes the Skyline Road in Gifu-ken. This is the highest road in Japan, providing spectacular mountain-top views (the upper section is closed Nov–end May). The car park is an hour’s drive from Norikura Kōgen.
The closest thing to a centre in this straggle of a village is the modern onsen complex, Yukemurikan (湯けむり館), which has both indoor wooden baths and rotemburo with mountain views. Nearby are the ski lifts and an hour-long trail east to Sanbon-daki (三本滝), where three waterfalls converge in one pool. An alternative hiking route from the ski lifts is south for twenty minutes to another beautiful waterfall, Zengorō-no-taki (善五郎の滝), reached along a clearly marked nature trail, with signs in English – a rainbow often forms in the spray across this impressive fall during the morning. Twenty minutes’ walk further south of Zengorō, a small reflecting pond, Ushidome-ike (牛留池), provides a perfect view of the mountains. Continuing downhill from the pond, you can choose to walk towards another small waterhole, Azami-ike (あざみ池), or to the main picnic area, Ichinose (一の瀬), a picturesque spot at the confluence of two streams. A cycle and walking track leads directly north from Ichinose back to Yukemurikan, where the best plan of action is to soak in the rotemburo.
Matsumoto’s castle is the main attraction, but on the way there from the station be sure to walk down Nakamachi-dōri, which runs parallel to the southern bank of the Metoba River. Along this attractive street of black-and-white-walled inns, antique and craft shops and restaurants, you’ll find the Nakamachi Kura-no-Kaikan (中町蔵の会館; daily 9am–4.30pm; free), a beautifully restored sake brewery with a soaring black-beam interior and traditional cross-hatching plasterwork outside.
Opposite here, at Geiyukan (芸游館), there’s performances every Sunday at 1.30pm and 3pm on the classical Japanese string instrument, the shamisen; the ¥700 admission includes green tea. Cross the river by any of several bridges and return to Daimyō-chō-dōri via the colourful market street Nawate-dōri; the castle grounds are just a couple of hundred metres north of here.
Matsumoto-jō (松本城) remains hidden from view until the very last moment, making a sudden dramatic appearance as you enter the outer grounds and approach the moat. Also known as Karasu-jō (Crow Castle) because of its brooding black facade, the sixteenth-century fortress includes the oldest keep (donjon) in Japan. From the donjon’s sixth storey (it has the traditional hidden floor of most Japanese castles), there’s a fine view of the town and surrounding mountains. Entrance to the castle also includes access to the quirky Japan Folklore Museum which is just before the moat. Inside, the displays include a good model of how Matsumoto looked in feudal times. Around 500m north of the castle is Kyū Kaichi Gakkō (旧開智学校), the oldest Western-style school building in Japan, dating from 1876; the pretty pale-blue and plasterwork facade is worth a look.