Matsumoto Itinerary: Exploring Japan’s Coolest Castle
In this Matsumoto itinerary guide, I
This itinerary comes from both my extensive research and travels around Matsumoto. I’ve made a few tweaks to my original plan so you’re able to do and see more in as little time as possible. You won’t have to waste time like I did wondering what to do, how to get there, and where and what to eat.
To make your tour of Matsumoto more meaningful and unforgettable, there’re tons of info on Japanese castles and history. You’ll discover why Japan had over 3,000 castles, why they now have less than 100, and why only ten of the 100 are the original structure. You’ll know EXACTLY what to look for when touring the castles and town and the hidden stories behind Crow Castle.
So, grab your backpack, your camera, and let’s explore Matsumoto!
If you’re following my three weeks in Japan itinerary, Matsumoto is day 12.
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Table of Contents
Click on the link to jump to each section.
Most of the information for my Matsumoto itinerary I got from the excellent book on Japanese castles called Samurai Castles: History / Architecture / Visitor’s Guide. This is one of my favorite books on Japanese history. It’s got excellent photos and interesting stories about the castles of Japan.
BONUS: I've created a FREE PDF version of my Japan itinerary guide. It includes detailed day-to-day itineraries for Tokyo, Kyoto, and 9 other destinations in Japan. You'll also get step-by-step instructions for buying and using your Japan Rail Pass.
How to Get Around Matsumoto
You’re in luck! Matsumoto is super easy to get around, making your Matsumoto itinerary a snap! The major tourist attractions are 15-20 minutes by foot from the train station and from each other. If you don’t like to walk, there’s a great public transportation system that goes to all the attractions. And there are some good hotels near the train station.
Matsumoto City’s Official Tourism Website has lots of information to help you get around the city during your Matsumoto itinerary.
Getting Around by Bus
When you’re in Matsumoto, visit the Matsumoto Tourism Office inside the train station to get bus route maps and find out the latest information about Matsumoto. The office is open from 9:00 am – 5:45 pm.
Matsumoto has an excellent bus system called the Town Sneaker. It includes four routes that go to the key tourist spots around the city.
The four routes are the North Route, the South Route, the West Route, and the East Route.
- Castle ⇒ North Route It runs every 30 minutes. In 2018, the North Route ran from 9:00 am – 6:00 pm (April-November) and 9:30 am – 5:15 pm (Dec-March).
- Nawate Street and Nakamachi Street ⇒ East Route. The East Route runs every 20 minutes. In 2018, the East Route ran from 9:10 am – 6:10 pm (April – Nov) and 10:15 am – 5:40 pm (Dec-March).
A single ride costs ¥200. (US$1.82/£1.43/€1.63).
You can also get a day pass for ¥500 (US$4.54/£3.58/€4). This pass lets you ride the bus however many times you want for one day. You can also use it to get discounts on places around town including the castle.
You can buy the day pass on the bus.
If you follow my Matsumoto itinerary, you’ll probably only need to take the bus twice.
Getting Around by Foot
From the train station:
- Matsumoto Castle ⇒15-20 minutes
- Nawate Street ⇒ 15-20 minutes
- Nakamachi Street ⇒ 15-20 minutes
How I Got Around During my Matsumoto Itinerary
I actually went to the castle by bus because my time was limited and because I was still recovering from a foot injury. I got the day pass because I found that I never seemed to have the exact change whenever I wanted to take the bus. I was also never sure whether you could or couldn’t get change on buses in Japan. If you know, please leave a comment in the comment box at the end of this article.
What to see and do in Matsumoto
Must-See Places on your Matsumoto Itinerary
The three key places that should be included in any itinerary for Matsumoto include:
- Matsumoto Castle,
- Nawate Street, and
- Nakamachi Street
Other tourist sights
If your Matsumoto itinerary can be expanded to include two days, here are additional tourist attractions:
- Matsumoto Scale Museum
- Matsumoto Timepiece Museum
- Ukiyo Museum
- Matsumoto City Museum of Art
- Former Kaichi School
Day Trips to Add to your Matsumoto Itinerary
Matsumoto is also a good base for taking a day trip to the Japan Alps. Here are some day trips that you can take from Matsumoto:
Following this itinerary for Matsumoto requires you to start out early. It also assumes that you arrived the evening before and are leaving in the late afternoon. If you aren’t, just adjust the times and add some more sights to the end of the itinerary.
1. Matsumoto Tourism Office
I always suggest that travelers start their exploration of a city by visiting Japan’s very helpful and welcoming tourism offices. These are usually located at train stations, and Matsumoto is no exception.
When you’re at the tourism office, make sure to ask about public transportation around Matsumoto and information about free tours.
2. Getting to the Castle
After visiting the Matsumoto Tourism Office, either walk or take the North Route town sneaker from the station to Matsumoto Castle. For information on getting around Matsumoto, jump to my How to Get Around Matsumoto section.
3. Matsumoto Castle
COST: ¥610 (US$5.54/£4.35/€5) for castle and museum | ¥550 (US$5/£4/€4.50) with One Day Bus Pass | OPEN: 8:30 am – 5:00 pm | FREE GUIDED TOURS: 10:00 am and 3:00 pm at the castle’s south entrance | WEBSITE: http://www.matsumoto-castle.jp/lang/
You can tour the castle in a number of ways. Here is an overview of my suggested itinerary for visiting the castle. If you start out at 8:30 or 9:00 am, you should be able to finish touring the castle by 12:00 pm.
Suggested Matsumoto Castle itinerary Overview
- Buy your ticket at 8:30 am
- Walk around the outer castle area
- Visit Matsumoto City Museum at 9:00 am
- Take the guided tour of Matsumoto Castle at 10:00 am
- Walk around the inner grounds of the castle
Why were so many castles built?
In order to understand why these castles were built, we need to first understand who really ruled Japan. Was it the emperor or the shogun?
The Emperor of Japan has come from the same imperial family since Japan became Japan.
Who really ruled Japan? – Shogun or Emperor
However, starting in the 1100s, Japan’s emperor became a figurehead. Instead, the real political power in Japan was in the hands of a hereditary military ruler called the Shogun.
From 1333 to 1568, while the Emperor was busy drinking tea, arranging flowers, and writing haikus, Japan was ruled by the Ashikaga family of Shoguns.
The first few Shoguns were capable rulers, but like in any good family of rulers, the Ashikaga started producing more and more screw-up offspring who didn’t have the skills and character to hold the country together.
How Japan fell apart and endured 150 years of war?
The Shogun who started to lose it all was named Ashikaga Yoshimasa. He was more interested in tea ceremonies and writing haikus like the Emperors were than actual soldiering. While he was sipping tea at Gingakuji temple in Kyoto, two powerful military families went to war for 10 years over control of the government, resulting in the burning down of Kyoto. This was called the Onin War, and it lasted from 1467 to 1477.
After ten years of burning down the capital, the families decided to take their squabbles to their estates in the provinces. Upon returning, though, they found that the lesser families and even some of their disloyal relatives had usurped them in power and taken over their territories. Wars broke out all over Japan between these lesser families and more important families with many of the once powerful military families succumbing to their demise.
Fighting between these powerful clans and lasted for 99 years until 1576!
The Japanese call this time period the Warring States Period.
And here’s where we get to the castle part of the story
During these 100 years of war, these powerful families led by a warlord or lord (in Japanese they’re called daimyo) built thousands of castles all over Japan. 5,000 in fact.
They mainly built them in the mountains as the height helped them observe what was going on and protected them from their enemies, but unfortunately made them difficult to supply.
The lord had his home at the foot of the mountain.
Sounds cool, doesn’t it? 5,000 castles built in the mountains all over Japan!
Sorry, but I’m going to burst your bubble a little bit here.
Most of these castles were simple wooden structures (perhaps more like forts), and if you’re familiar with this product, it burns easily and so these “castles” don’t exist anymore.
What about Matsumoto Castle?
Matsumoto also had around 10 castles in the mountains surrounding the city. The area was controlled by a number of different families.
The Matsumoto Castle hadn’t been built yet nor had any of the other famous castles that you are familiar with today like Hijemi, Osaka, and Hiroshima been built. Those came a few years later.
4. Entering Matsumoto Castle Grounds
There are a number of ways to enter the outer grounds of the castle.
If you walk to the castle from the train station, you’ll probably enter through the southern entrance near the Matsumoto City Museum and the Alps Guided Tours.
Entering from the northeast is where you’ll see the famous photo of the red bridge leading to Crow Castle.
I didn’t know about this bridge, so I completely missed it.
Taiko-mon Gate (Drum Gate) Entrance
If you take the Town Sneaker, you’ll probably get off at Matsumotojo bus stop and enter the grounds through the Taiko-mon Gate (Drum Gate).
The Taiko-mon gate consists of two gates. Towards the right of the gate, there used to be a tower called the Drum Tower containing an actual drum and bell. It was used to communicate information like the time of day to the people of Matsumoto.
Notice the large and rare stone called the Genba Stone on the left side of the second entrance. It’s named after the samurai who made his soldiers pull this enormous stone from where they found it in the mountains to its current place. It was common for castles to have one huge stone at entrances in order to show how important the castle was to visitors.
5. Buying your Ticket for Matsumoto Castle
Next, buy your ticket. The ticket counter is before the entrance to the interior castle grounds.
To get to the ticket counter, cross the inner moat.
The ticket covers entrance to the castle along with a visit to the Matsumoto City Museum. Show your bus day pass to get a discount.
Don’t enter the inner castle grounds yet because you’ll first visit the Matsumoto City Museum and register for the free guided tour, which is next to the southern entrance.
6. Matsumoto City Museum
COST: included in the castle ticket OPEN: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
The next step on your Matsumoto itinerary is to visit Matsumoto City Museum. It’s included in the Castle ticket price.
The museum is next to the southern entrance.
The exhibits are mostly about the city of Matsumoto and not the castle per se.
There are three floors: the first floor (ground floor), the basement, and a second floor (first floor).
The exhibits on the first floor (ground floor) have English explanations, but sadly there are none for the exhibits in the basement and on the second floor.
Because of the lack of English explanations, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum. However, I did come away with some interesting pieces of information that helped me understand Matsumoto better.
Here were my favorite exhibits:
- Map of the town during the 1500s and 1600s
- Photos comparing Matsumoto in the 1920s, 1950s, and today
7. Joining the Free Guided Tour of the Castle
The Alps Language Service Association offers free tours of the castle.
The tours start at 10:00 am and 3:00 pm and last between 60 and 90 minutes.
You can find their booth or little building at the southern entrance.
8. Passing Through the Kuro-mon Gate (Black Gate)
To enter the interior castle grounds, you’ll need to cross the moat, pass the ticket booth, and then pass through Kuro-mon Gate (Black Gate).
Once you’re through the gate you’re on the interior castle grounds. A huge lawn opens up with a view of the keep of Crow Castle.
I’m sure you can guess why its nickname is Crow Castle. The black color, of course.
The lord and samurai used the castle during battle. It was high enough so that you could observe what was going on around them and shoot guns or arrows at the invading army. The more magnificent and larger a castle was, the more people would be impressed by the power of the local lord as well.
Why were so many castles built? Part 2
As the war progressed into the 1560s and 1570s, some of these warlords’ ambitions grew, and they decided to overthrow the useless Ashikaga family become shogun themselves.
One warlord stood out from all the rest: Oda Nobunaga. His success was partly due to luck, partly because he was a ruthless bastard, and also because he was a wise and innovative general. Nobunaga had the good fortune of controlling territory near Kyoto, making it easier to attack the Ashikaga family and making it harder for other families to do the same. These other families had to march through his territory or other territories to get to Kyoto.
If these families were to overthrow the shogun, they needed to form alliances with each other. As their alliances grew, they became more powerful, so they started controlling more territory and people. They, thus, needed bigger and better castles in locations that made it easier to administer the lands that they controlled.
However, these new locations also made the castles more vulnerable to attack.
They started moving their castles from the mountains to more open spaces near main roads.
Another change that was happening was the transition from crossbow and swords to firearms. The power of guns made it necessary to construct even stronger and bigger castles.
The warlords started building stonewalls, adding moats, and expanding the height from two or three stories to six or seven.
Before Nobunaga could completely unify Japan, he was defeated in battle and, thus, committed suicide. One of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, took over and unified all of Japan by 1590.
To hold onto his power, he had even more magnificent structures built like ones at Osaka, Hiroshima, Okayama, and Matsumoto.
Hideyoshi was actually a pretty good ruler; however, because he came from a peasant family, he could never become Shogun. Eventually, he died in 1598.
Tokugawa Ieyasu succeeded Hideyoshi but because of his higher birth, he got to become Shogun of all of Japan in 1603.
It took Ieyasu, 12 more years before he could subdue all of the warlords and finally bring peace to Japan. During those 12 years, he built even more magnificent castles across Japan including Himeji, Nagoya, and Edo.
How many castles were built?
Between 1576 and 1615, approximately 100 of these magnificent castles were built around Japan. From what I can tell, there were around 570 castles by 1615.
You can also sometimes tell when and under which ruler a castle was built. The castles built by Hideyoshi are black and the ones by Ieyasu are white.
Ruins of the Palace
If you look closely (look at the men in the above picture), you’ll see an outline of a structure in the grass in front of the castle.
This is the outline of the palace where the lord’s family lived and where he administered his domain. Unlike European castles, the family didn’t actually live in the castle, but instead in a palace on the castle grounds.
9. Entering the Main Tower of Crow Castle
Entering the castle will probably be the highlight of your Matsumoto itinerary.
First, though, you’ll need to take your shoes off and carry them around with you in a plastic bag while you tour the castle.
When I was there, there were no long lines to get into the castle. But the castle website warns that during Golden Week and Obon, waiting times to get inside the castle can be as long as two hours.
Another castle named Fukashi originally sat near where Matsumoto Castle sits today and was controlled by the Ogasawara family. Fukashi was renamed Matsumoto in 1582.
Then I assume the Ogasawara clan backed the wrong side, and in 1590 Toyotomi Hideyoshi gave the castle to the Ishikawa Kazumasa, whose son eventually rebuilt the castle to what it is today. However, he lost it when he backed the wrong side against Ieyasu Tokugawa, and the castle and his domain were given to another family.
After that, until the Japanese government took over ownership of the castle, Matsumoto Castle was controlled by six different families. Probably a family had their samurai status and territory confiscated for doing something wrong.
The first floor
The first floor was used for storage of food, weapons, and ammunition.
The second floor
The second floor has large windows that you can look out onto the castle grounds. This was where the samurai would assemble.
You can also find a gun museum and some samurai armor on the second floor.
In order to control the country more tightly, Hideyoshi issued the “Sword Hunt” decree in 1588 stipulating who could and couldn’t own and carry swords. Only the samurai were permitted swords, while everyone else was required to turn in all weapons and armor and thus were not allowed to own or carry any swords.
The third floor
If you look at the castle from outside, it appears that it has five floors. Actually, it has six. The third floor can’t be seen from the outside as there are few windows. The samurai stayed here during battle.
If the lord of the castle backed the losing side, the lord lost his domain, and as a result, his samurai also lost everything.
What samurai were supposed to do when their master lost was to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) in which they thrust a sword through their belly.
If they didn’t kill themselves, they were to become ronin, wandering, masterless samurai. They often ended up serving allegiance to another lord. There were around 60,000 masterless samurai wandering around Japan in 1614 after Ieyasu had confiscated their masters’ lands.
The fourth floor
On the fourth floor, the ceiling is much higher and there are more windows, so it is fairly bright. There are also curtains which can divide the space into 3 areas. This was the warlord’s chamber.
The fifth floor
The fifth floor was used for meetings in times of war.
The sixth floor
The sixth floor is the watchtower. This was where the warlord hung out if the castle was being attacked.
In the ceiling, there is a rope and white paper that represents the god of 26 nights, which protects the castle. There is a legend that says that one of the vassals of the castle saw a woman wearing beautiful clothes. She gave him a brocaded bag and said that if the lord of the castle enshrines her with 500 kilograms of rice on the twenty-sixth night of every month, she will protect the castle from its enemies.
Moon Viewing Room
On your way down, you’ll come across the Moon Viewing Room, a lovely room that is open on three sides.
This room was built during the Edo period when Japan was unified and peaceful. It was built by Matsudaira, who was a grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu. It had no military purposes and instead was used for the viewing of the moon.
There is a vermillion balcony going around the room on the three open sides. You can’t step out onto the balcony, though.
In 1615, Japan ended its 150 years of constant war and experienced 250 years of peace. The country stopped building castles. Ieyasu issued a decree limiting each province to just one castle; thus, leading to the destruction of over 400 castles. This left just 170 castles in Japan.
If a castle fell into disrepair or burnt down, it was either torn down or never rebuilt. Since the only kind of fighting that took place was perhaps to put down a peasant rebellion, the towers of the castles became obsolete.
Most of the time these castles were used for administrative purposes.
Once you’ve completed your tour of the castle, you can walk around the castle grounds. You’ll notice people dressed up in traditional costumes. I’m not sure what the purpose was. But sometimes they would take photos with tourists.
In the 1850s, Japan was forced open to the outside world by American commander Perry. In 1868, the Tokugawa shoguns were overturned and power was once again restored to the hands of the Emperor. The castles were seen as a reminder of Japan’s feudal past that had kept it from keeping up with the European countries. The Japanese government ordered all of the castles to be destroyed. 19 castles survived.
What happened to Matsumoto Castle?
Luckily, in 1911 local citizens in Matsumoto raised enough money to buy and restore the castle. Thus, saving Crow Castle from the fate of 80 castles throughout Japan. Matsumoto Castle was designated as a National Treasure.
The Americans further destroyed seven more of the castles including Hiroshima, Okayama, and Gifu and many of the towers at Osaka castle. Himeji castle was damaged but managed to survive.
Matsumoto Castle luckily also survived.
In 1686 a peasant named Kasuke put a curse on the castle right before he was to be executed for leading an uprising against the lord of the castle over a tax increase. From that day forward, the castle started to lean. The lean supposedly got so bad that a rope was used to pull it straight. See if you can find the marks of the rope on the main pillar on the fourth floor. The rope must have worked because it no longer leans.
CHECK OUT THESE POSTS ON SOME HIDDEN GEMS IN JAPAN:
If you’re still following this Matsumoto itinerary, it should be around noon. Time for lunch!
What food is Matsumoto famous for?
- soba (buckwheat) noodles
- sanzokuyaki – a type of fried chicken
- basashi – horse sashimi meat
- sansai – mountain vegetables- try them as tempura
- oyaki – bun/dumpling
- Nozawana-zuke – pickled vegetables
Where to eat lunch
I had lunch at a soba noodles restaurant right outside the southern gate (next to the City Museum). The restaurant had no English name, but there was an English menu. The place is perfect for solo travelers as you can sit at a counter or if you want, on tatami mats around a table.
I ordered the soba noodles with shrimp tempura on the side for ¥1490 (US$13.53/£10.49/€12). When you get the cold soba noodles, the noodles come on a bamboo plate. You briefly dip the noodles into a cup filled with soy sauce and green onions. It’s actually quite delicious. After you are finished, the waitress will pour hot water into the soy sauce cup for you to drink. It was really delicious. I highly recommend this place.
11. Nawate Street
Continue your Matsumoto itinerary by walking down Daimyocho Street until you get to Nawate Street. Don’t cross the little river. Turn left onto Nawate Street.
Nawate Street is a narrow pedestrian-only street of preserved old wooden buildings that have been converted into souvenir shops, snack shops, cafés, and restaurants. You can find some beautiful souvenirs here.
I stopped at a café called Uno Café and Bar to try a snack that I saw all over Japan called Taiyaki ice cream. It includes two fish rice wafers with milk ice cream and red bean paste in between. It was delicious, and it cost only ¥250 (US$2.27/£1.78/€2).
12. Nakamachi Street
COST: free OPEN: many shops are closed on Wednesdays WEBSITE: Nakamachi Street
Cross the Metoba River where you’ll come to another charming and picturesque street called Nakamachi Street. This is the last stop on your Matsumoto itinerary.
Nakamachi Street is part of the old merchant area. While Nawate’s buildings looked the same as those found in other cities of Japan, the buildings on Nakamachi Street are unique.
The buildings here are white except for the bottom front façade, which is made up of a gray background and white diagonal criss-cross designs over it. These buildings are called kura or dozo.
How this style came about was that in 1888, Nakamachi street experienced a terrible fire that resulted in the destruction of many buildings.
However, Matsumoto didn’t give up and rebuilt but this time they built these houses to resists fire. The walls were super thick, 20-30 centimeters thick and the inside was covered in layers upon layers of mud. The outside, though, was covered in a beautiful white criss-cross pattern over a dark grey background. This patterned design is called namako-kabe.
During Edo times (1603-1867), most of the buildings on the street were used by wholesalers of sake and kimonos to sell their goods or used as storehouses (kura). Some of the white buildings were residences.
Nowadays, these kura buildings have been turned into restaurants and shops.
Just be aware that many of them are closed on Wednesdays.
There are perhaps two places to stop and visit: the Kurassic-kan Buildings, which used to be a storeroom for sake, but now holds cultural exhibits and possesses a teashop and café.
The other attraction on this street is the Matsumoto Scale Museum. It costs 200 yen to go inside. Even if you’re not interested in looking at a bunch of scales, the building has been well preserved, making it a great place to get a look at what these kura-style buildings are like inside.
Where to stay during your Matsumoto Itinerary
I stayed at a capsule hotel near the train station called Hotel M Matsumoto. Safe and comfortable for the price. It’s a great place to stay for a capsule experience!
Further down the street, this building design disappears but there are interesting looking lamps over the street. They are these large white glass coverings over the light bulbs.
Are you planning on visiting Japan soon? Thinking of visiting Matsumoto? Have you been to Matsumoto? Did I miss anything in my Matsumoto itinerary?
Let me know!
Leave your questions or comments in the comment section. I’d be more than happy to answer them!
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