For the last in this short series, consider these two cities if you are based in Tokyo. Few non-Japanese will have heard of either.
Classical music lovers will recognize Matsumoto as the centre of the major Saito Kinen summer music festival. Although its orchestra performs for only a few weeks a year, it is a magnet as it comprises the finest Japanese musicians who are members of the world’s greatest orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic.
Japanese, though, flock to Matsumoto to see and visit one of the country’s three oldest surviving castles. Not only is it an historical site, the castle has been designated a National Treasure. For those used to the wedding cake picture postcard castles seen in Osaka and Nagoya, Matsumoto Castle appears much more severe. No white exterior paintwork, little colour and only grey slate roofs.
Photo credit: wikipedia
But as you make your way around its interior, you can almost feel what it must have been like for those living there during samurai and Shogun era Japan. It is now given the nickname, the “crow castle” because its dark exterior gives the impression of a crow spreading its wings. The second floor of the castle has an interesting gun museum with a variety of armaments and weapons used throughout its history. As you ascend, remember to bend down as the height of each floor becomes smaller and smaller. On a clear autumn day the snow-capped mountains of the Japan Alps are easily visible.
At one time there were no less than 16 castles in the Matsumoto hills and plain, an indication of the number of different warring clans inhabiting the area. Construction of the castle was started in 1593, only a decade prior to the rule of the Shogunate, and for a long time, Matsumoto castle was controlled by several of the clans.
Map of the Castle’s Original Defences
By the time of the Meiji Restoration, the governing body of Matsumoto could not make up its mind whether to continue loyalty to the Shogun or side with the new government. Eventually the Meiji government won out. Near the end of the 19th century, the castle developed a lean to one side, the result of a structural defect and poor maintenance.
Photo credit: wikipedia
Since then it has been renovated three times, the most recent following an earthquake in 2011 (although this was not the one which resulted in the tsunami that year).
The best way of getting to Matsumoto is to take the Japan Railways (JR) “Azusa” or “Super Azusa” limited express trains from Shinjuku Station. Journey time is just over two-and-a-half hours. There is also a highway bus service with hourly departures but this will take quite a bit longer.
Matsumoto has a large number of hotels, many of the business hotel variety with smallish rooms. Consequently you can stay relatively inexpensively with lot between US$50 and $100. There are also ryokan, but if you are interested in living Japanese-style, leave the ryokan experience until the more genuine establishments in Takayama.
Matsumoto city itself does not have much else in the way of sightseeing unless you are into trekking and walking in the hills where the air is wonderfully fresh and a perfect antidote to that in Tokyo. We visited in mid-October, just a few days too early to see the tree leaves turn into various shades of red and gold. And that was a pity because for much of our second day we took the bus over the hills (the Japanese like to call them mountains!) which should have been ablaze in colour to the lovely city of Takayama. Well, perhaps not the city itself; much more the old town which is one of the most perfectly preserved in the entire country.
The old town made its wealth from timber and was so important it was put under direct control of the Shogun. Takayama hosts Festivals in both Spring and Autumn, generally regarded as amongst the best in Japan. If you cannot attend either, do go to the Matsuri Museum where you will see many of the artefacts during the Festivals, especially the enormous floats.
copyright: Matsuri no Mori Museum
One unique side trip from Takayama is to the village of Ogimachi, some 50 kms away (buses depart every half hour). Now a World Heritage site, the main attraction of this village are its few dozen well-preserved thatched roof gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some more than 250 years old and many having been in the same families for many generations. The gassho-zukuri are quite unlike any other dwellings in the country, more akin to Swiss chalets but taller and narrower. The location and structure of the houses are designed to withstand the weather which frequently includes harsh winters.
Some owners have opened their gassho-zukuri as home stays and nothing could be more typically Japanese. But few of the villagers speak English and unless you are with a Japanese guide, it is best just to spend some time wandering around the village before returning to Takayama.
Accommodation here is a mix of western-style hotels, including an inexpensive Best Western, and the much more traditional ryokan. Some of these are hundreds of years old with several set on the hillside and including not merely private baths and toilets but also warm hot spring communal baths. Those at some ryokan will be segregated and so there may be a lot of nudity. Others cater to both genders. Ryokan tend to include dinner and accordingly prices are generally higher than western hotels. Note also that prices are per person – not per room. So if two of you are staying, expect to pay upwards of US$200 - $250 per night. Another point to note is that guests must check-out by 10:00 am. And then if you are visiting in the high Spring and Autumn seasons you will find that many of the ryokan are quickly booked out even several months in advance. If you have never stayed at a ryokan, Takayama is the place to lose your virginity – if you can afford it!
Typical Warrior Armour
From Takayama there are various ways to return to Tokyo but most require at least one change. The most convenient and fastest is just to catch the hourly JR “Hilda” limited express train down to Nagoya where you can easily pick up a Hikari shinkansen to Tokyo station. All train tickets on this trip are covered by the Japan Rail passes. There are also several daily buses linking Takayama and Tokyo but the road is twisty and I am told the five-and-a-half ride can be quite uncomfortable. It’s also almost an hour longer than the train via Nagoya.
A final word. Not much English will be spoken in either city. If you are not adventurous, you can either get help from an agency booking trains and hotels. Many Tokyo hotels have travel agencies in the lobby. Or you can just take a short tour organised by one of the tour companies like Japanican or Jalpak-
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