Matsumoto, April 2023

Haven’t visited Japan in a while, this time other than Tokyo, we wanted to spend a couple days at an onsen ryokan to soak away these three years of covid woes.  We decided to visit the Asama Onsen area in Matsumoto (松本).  Matsumoto is a beautiful historical city located on the Northern Japan Alps in the Nagano Prefecture to the northwest of Tokyo.  It was once the castle town of the Ogasawara samurai clan back in the 14th and 15th centuries and continued to prosper during the Edo period.  The area is famous for the wooden Matsumoto Castle which is one of the Top Three Japan Premier Castles as well as the hot springs of Asama Onsen.  The mineral rich Asama hot springs have been bubbling for more than 1,300 years and were made popular in the 17th century when a lord of Matsumoto Castle built the first onsen bathhouse in the village.
We are excited to check out the new Matsumoto Jujo in the historical Asama onsen village about 20 minutes outside Matsumoto.  Matsumoto Jujo(松本十帖) literally means “10 stories” of Matsumoto and involved the revitalization of Koyanagi ryokan dating back to 1684.  The new complex includes two hotels (Matsumoto Honbako and Koyanagi), a bookstore, cafe, bakery, and a hard cider brewery.  We stayed in the adult-only book hotel Matsumoto Honbako with sleek industrial design rooms.  Since all the rooms have their own private outdoor baths fed from the hot springs, the original public bath was converted into a library retaining the old tiles and faucets.  The main restaurant “Restaurant 367” is set around an open wood-burning fireplace where the chef cooks a western-style tasting menu using local ingredients from the region.
Check-in to the Matsumotojujo hotel is at Cafe “Oyaki and Coffee” at the bottom of the hill.
We were offered hand-dripped coffee and handmade oyaki at check-in.  Oyaki is a chewy rustic comfort food of Nagano prefecture.  It is a Japanese dumpling stuffed with seasoned vegetables, red bean paste, and sometimes fruits.  These ones we had were the standard “Nozawana” ones stuffed with seasoned vegetables.
“Oyaki and Coffee” after dark.
A short stroll uphill from the reception cum cafe is the hotel.
“Reception” of Matsumoto Honbako hotel.

Unlike traditional onsen ryokans, the rooms here are modern with an industrial design theme.  Each room has its own outdoor bath fed by the Asama hot springs.

Between the two hotels is a small outdoor public bathhouse that you can access with your room card.

Restaurant 367

Since all the rooms have their own private outdoor baths fed from the hot springs, the original public bath was converted into a library retaining the old tiles and faucets.  Note: the person in the photo is not me, just a random hotel guest 😛

The highlight of Matsumoto is no doubt the contrasting black and white Matsumotojo or Matsumoto Castle, the oldest five tiered wooden castle in Japan.  It is one of the four castles designated National Treasuries with the others being Hikone, Himeji, and Inuyama.  It is also one of the Top Three Japan Premier Castles, along with Himeji and Kumamoto.  Completed around 1595 during the Warring States period of Japan, it is also known as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior and was the seat of Matsumoto Domain under the Edo period Tokugawa shogunate.  It is unique for having both a secondary donjon or castle keep and a turret adjoined to the main keep for moon viewing.  Matsumoto Castle is a “hirajiro” built on a plain rather than on a hill like most other Japanese castles. This means that the complete defences would have included an extensive system of interconnecting walls, moats, and gatehouses.  We need to take off our shoes to enter the castle itself where you can climb the steep wooden stairs all the way to the top.  There are exhibits on each floor about the castle’s history.  Matsumoto Castle is especially beautiful during each April’s cherry blossom season when the 300 sakura trees on the grounds are in full bloom.  For the locals, sakura represents the fleeting beauty and fragility of life itself.  During eight days of the cherry blossom season, the castle area and the castle itself are illuminated at night for night-time cherry blossom viewing.  It was a pity that the cherry blossom season began early this year and we missed it by a week.

The ruling clans of Matsumoto Castle From 1509 to 1869.

Between Matsumoto Station and the castle are two historic shopping streets, Nawate-dori and Nakamachi-dori.  Nawate Street is also known as Frog Street (Kaeru machi) because locals believe in Kaeru to protect and return them home safely.  You can see a big frog statue by the bridge.  The wooden buildings on this narrow street have been converted into cafes, snack shops, and shops selling local handicrafts and souvenirs.  Across the Metoba River from Nawate Street is Nakamichi Street which was a former merchant area with many traditional storehouses called “kura”.  These buildings were all decorated with black and white criss cross patterns on the bottom half. This street is known for shops selling pottery, lacquerware, and wooden crafts.
Nawate Street is also known as Frog Street (Kaeru machi) because locals believe in Kaeru to protect and return them home safely.

Shinto Shrine next to Nawate-dori.

Nagano is the largest producer of miso and Ishii Miso Brewery is one of the few remaining breweries that still make miso in the traditional way using wooden barrels and without using modern methods to quicken the fermentation process.

Matsumoto is known for the hand ball called temari which you see all over town, on lampposts, manhole covers, and on buses.  Temaris are traditionally given to young children on New Year’s Day to represent the parents’ wish for their child’s happiness.  Termaris are also given as gifts to symbolize friendship and loyalty.

Other attractions in Matsumoto include the Ukiyo-e Museum, famous for its collection of woodblock prints, and the Matsumoto City Museum of Art showcasing local artists such as Kusama Yayoi, known for her colorful pumpkins.
Next post will be on our short excursion out to Narai-juku, one of the best preserved post towns of the Nakasendo Way.  Stay tuned!

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