With easy access from Tokyo and Nagoya, Matsumoto offers a great chance to get out of the big cities filled with tourists, and enjoy a historic town of culture and beauty which also happens to be far less crowded.
Located in the center of Nagano Prefecture, Matsumoto is one of our favorite cities in Japan. It’s beautiful, compact, and super tourist friendly. Due to its central location, it’s a great town to use as a base or starting point to explore scenic destinations such as Kamikochi and Hakuba in the Northern Alps or the historic and picturesque Kiso Valley in the Central Alps.
The story of Matsumoto is inextricably linked with Matsumoto Castle. Originally the castle was a fortress named after a nearby hamlet called Fukashi (the town center directly in front of the station, is still known by that name). The fort was called Fukashi Castle until the current incarnation was constructed on the same site in the 1590’s, making it the oldest original castle tower still standing in Japan. In the Edo Period, the castle was extremely defensible, with a network of three moats. Samurai retainers of the domain lived between the two outer moats and those parts of town still have names related to the castle. Marunouchi literally means “inside the citadel,” and Ninomaru means “the second citadel.” Daimyocho, which means “feudal lord town,” is named after the main road used by the lords of the castle, and Ote which means “front” is a reference to the main gate used by them when coming and going.
While the castle was the administrative center of samurai ruled Matsumoto Domain, it’s outside of the castle walls where the story of the city really began. On the south bank of the Metoba River, a thriving town emerged populated by commoners of all walks of life. The center of town was the merchant district called Nakamachi, literally “the center of town,” which still retains some of its Edo Period charm through preserved warehouses called kura that have been converted into shops and restaurants, as well as a few residences built in traditional styles. On the north bank of the river is Nawate Dori, another alley with old buildings housing tiny stores, cafes, and great antique shops. In the Edo Period, this street was the official border between the samurai residences surrounding the castle and the commoner district on the other side of the river. The street is nicknamed Frog Street and decorated accordingly because of all the frogs that live along the Metoba River.
As mentioned earlier, Matsumoto is compact – at least the central part of the city is. If you’ve got the energy and a comfortable pair of walking shoes, it’s fun to explore the area on foot and check out the side streets and cool shops and restaurants. If you feel the need to cover a lot of area at a quicker pace, the city has bicycles that you can rent for free. While free is a great price, remember that you get what you pay for, so the condition of some of the bikes is questionable. A more elegant solution is renting electric-assist bikes at Orix Matsumoto in front of the station. They’re not costly, and the ease with which you can cruise around the city is well worth it. There’s also a city-loop bus, the Town Sneaker, with an all day pass for ¥500 that will get you to most of the sightseeing spots in the center of town.