We left Nagoya later than initially planed and thus Matsumoto has become a somewhat hurried affair focused on finding an ATM and exploring a samurai castle.
If you know me you will know that I was pretty freaked out by the time we arrived in Matsumoto around 12 PM. The last bus for our overnight destination Hiyaru Onsen was at 17 PM. We were running low on cash and had our backpacks with us.
Prior to our travels I had read that it is difficult to find ATMs in Japan which accept foreign credit cards – outside of 7-Eleven – and that there would only be a few large coin lockers available at the train station in Matsumoto. So I’d been panicking since the night before.
But it seems that I have been reading up on Japan by way of ancient blogs and fora. In Japan anno 2015 there are several places throughout the Matsumoto Train and Bus Stations offering large coin lockers while a 7-Eleven is placed just inside the bus station.
Had I known that last titbit of information before arriving, it would have saved me quite the running trip through the streets surrounding Matsumoto Train Station.
After securing our bags, cashing money and buying our bus tickets we left through the smaller streets of Matsumoto; Takasago and Nakamachi towards Matsumotojo, the 16th century samurai castle which is the crown jewel of this beautiful town.
Both Takasago (doll street) and Nakamachi are known for their shops of traditional crafts, but while we were running late and as many of the shops seemed closed, it became a scarce acquaintance. However, I do not regret that we focused our visit on Masumotojo.
Matsumotojo is the eldest remaining castle in Japan and still maintains much of its original features such as the wooden interior as well as the exterior stonework. Apart from Himeji Castle, it is the best extant castle in Japan. It is also known as Crow Castle due to its black exterior.
The castle is believed to have been completed in 1593-94 by Ishikawa Kazumasa and his son Yasunaga both of the Ishikawa clan. Kazumasa had been a loyal retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu since they as children had been hostages of the Imagawa clan. But in concern for his lords acts against the powerful Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he aligned himself with the latter. As such the building of Matsumotojo is – along with so many other historical buildings – strongly connected to the power struggle of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu and the beginning of the Togugawa Shogunate, which prevailed for the following 250 years, while dramatically changing Japan.
The castle has seven levels each of them smaller than the one below. The stairs are steep and narrow with the staircase running from level five to six having steps that are 40 cm high. This created a bottle neck of school children, families on outings and western couples waiting in line to get from level five to six. It was our first real experience with Japanese culture.
I have worked previously in Copenhagen Airport and I know that the Japanese are extremely civil and well-behaved, but it was quite something to see it here. Furthermore, it confirmed something a colleague of mine had described – how the Japanese are masters at avoiding touch.
Even at these narrow stairs where normal people would have bumped into each other, dangling their shoes in the hands (these we had to take off and carry with us), the Japanese managed to stay clear of each other, which was surprisingly pleasant as it is so ungodly hot and humid. It also became something of a sport for my boyfriend and I to avoid bumping into others, though I still manage to bump into him all the time.
At the top of the castle is a beautiful view of Matsumoto and the surrounding area and even better the top level offers a wonderful breeze in the humid Japanese summer.
It is hard to imagine that fully armed samurai have been running through this castle with its many floors and narrow and steep staircases, getting ready to battle the enemy.
However, I understand that this is the main purpose of the difficult ascend to the top – for the enemy to loose faith in the project before victory. Thank the gods, I was only armed with my newly cleaned camera and hiking boots.
Safely back on the ground, we ran into several actors dressed up as samurai, geisha and ninja. I got a picture with the ninja. Do consider that he has not just made the trip to the top of the castle, making him literally look so much cooler than me.
After a stint at the souvenir shop we headed off back towards the station – this time taking the main street.
And yes we made the bus in time… Next stop Hiyaru Onsen and Kamikochi.