Cherry blossom & castle


April 2023

This morning I woke early again (but at least it was 5am and not 2am 🥴).  It didn’t help that my roommate decided to turn on a light and read in the middle of the night, my sleep so far has not been great!!  I wanted to go up to the roof terrace for sunrise but for some random reason it is closed till 6.30am.  Now of course I could have run down to see it at the temple but that would have involved getting dressed which I was not quite ready to do 😂

By 8am we were out the door of the hotel and on the walk passed the local temple (for the last time) to Asakusa station to catch the subway and then a train before boarding our Japan Rail train to Matsumoto – easy to find with the markings on the floor!  For many Japan Rail trains, you need to reserve a seat in advance, so we soon settled into our seats and I set up to do some Japanese research … by watching the “Age of Samurai” on Netflix.👍🏻 (FYI it was actually really interesting and gave me some good background to things we were to see in the coming days.)

As the train travelled out of central Tokyo we travelled though small suburban areas, then small farming areas, passed tree covered hills and snowcapped mountains in the distance.    We managed to catch a glimpse of Fuji, popping up from behind the other mountains 🎉so happy to see it.  (Luckily, I did not make the effort to go out of town yesterday to see it as it had been covered in cloud 🥴).   The little rural towns were lovely with cherry blossom everywhere and oddly there were no farm animals to be seen.  There were however fields of solar panels lol.

It took just over 3 hours to reach our destination for the day, the small city of Matsumoto and from the train station it was a short walk to our hotel.  I was suitably impressed when I went to use the toilet in the hotel lobby and the toilet lid opened automatically – toilets here really are next level!  

To be honest, Tokyo overwhelmed me, and I was glad to be somewhere smaller (Matsumoto has a population of around 240,000 compared to Tokyo’s almost 14,000,000).  That said, writing this after the trip, I would have liked to have had a couple of days back in Tokyo at the end of the trip when I was more comfortable and confident with Japan and all its quirks.

Matsumoto is famous for its iconic castle – Matsumoto Castle or “Crow Castle” because of its black colour.  It is one of five castles in Japan designed as “National Treasures” and is the oldest original castles left in the country (most temples and castles that we see are reconstructions).

The walk to the castle took us through part of the very walkable city, past a couple of sites I planned to head back to, and I enjoyed noting the nice little local touches such as the Samurai lamps on the street and the beautiful manhole covers with local handicrafts on them.  (Manhole covers became a bit of a theme of the trip with each city/region having their own local design.  I will need to make a collage to show them all!)

When we arrived in the castle grounds, Rinrin (our guide) gave us some time to have lunch – as she directed us to the nearest convenience store!  I decided not to waste so much time eating and set off to walk around the outside of castle.   The gardens were beautiful and filled with cherry blossom, in fact some of the blossom here has not even peaked yet!  With the blossom and the snow capped mountains in the distance and the fact that there was nowhere near as many people as in Tokyo, I loved it.

Along the outer castle moat, the cherry blossom was particularly pretty, with the castle turret in the background.   In fact, the castle complex use to be vast, but in 1872, the Meiji government ordered the destruction of all feudal fortifications!  Most of the castle structures were destroyed but thankfully the locals rallied together to save the castle.  Today the foundations of these other buildings in the complex are only visible by them being marked out on the grounds around the castle.   

Having completed my walk around the entire complex, I meet up with the others as they finished their lunch.  I still had time to have something to eat before joining everyone to go across the moat and inside the castle walls to have the obligatory group photo with ‘fake’ samurai and ninja before entering the castle itself.  (I should note you can enjoy the castle garden.) for free and only have to pay to go into the castle itself)

The beautiful five storey medieval castle was built in the late 16th century when one of the main ‘characters’ from my Netflix series, Oda Nobunaga ruled the area.  Although from the outside, the castle looks like it is five stories, on the inside it is actually six stories with a hidden or secret floor inside. Apparently, it’s black colour represents loyalty to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another samurai who stared in the Age of Samurai (that programme really was great research lol) and who is credited with unifying Japan.

Whilst we waited to go inside the castle (sometimes the queues can be hours long, for us it was only 15-20 minutes), we were warned that inside there were “steps as tall as a small child” – it was true.  😂.  We walked through the one way system, up through the 5 (or is it 6) levels, each with small exhibits of items found on or near the castle grounds such as early guns and other weapons, armour and coins.  Always looking through the small windows used for soldiers to aim their arquebus guns or bow/arrows out of, or larger ones for throwing rocks out of.  

As I touched some of the old worn timber beams, I could not help but think of the samurai who touched the same beams before me.  Being immersed in history like this makes it so real, and I love it!

From the beautiful castle we split up and I walked with my crew to Nawate Dori, often known as Kaeru Machi or “Frog Street’ as it is dedicated to all things frog!  Apparently, this is because there used to be a lot of frogs along the banks of the Metoba River that runs alongside the street. They left for higher ground after a flood in 1959 and have never returned so have been replaced with stone frogs including the three very large stone frogs are positioned at the main entrance to the narrow brick street which has been a shopping hub since the 1500s. 

Frog Street is lined with small food and gift shops, many of which are frog themed.  Unfortunately, by the time we got there, many of the shops were starting to close (we are soon to learn that shops and even restaurants do not stay open late in Japan) but I did get a chance to buy a small frog trinket (which would be the start of another odd collection of quirky Japanese things) from a lovely old man who was keen to share the history of the street with me.

From Nawate Dori we crossed the river and walked a little down Nakamachi Dori.  Another narrow street lined with preserved buildings, this time white warehouse type buildings which once housed many of the city’s merchants.  We clearly missed the hype as most of the shops were closed and most of the restaurants were not yet open! 

Back on the main street, we decided, for the sake of research to visit what appeared to be a British pub (the “Old Rock”) advising beer from the local Matsumoto Brewery.  The local brew was pretty good, and we asked a local guy sitting on his own, to join us.  Tomo, a doctor from Tokyo did not seem to mind that his quiet dinner for one, turned in to a loud drink for 5 lol.  One of the things I love about travel – a Pol, an Irish, an American and a Kiwi sitting in a random bar with a Japanese guy … 

Whilst enjoying our drink, time got away from us, and we had to rush back to the hotel to check in and meet the group for dinner – which ended up being cancelled as the place the guide was going to take us was closed!  To be honest this was fine with me as I wanted to prioritise exploring over eating, as we were visiting on the last night of the 10 day long Corridor of Light. So we headed back to the castle to see the lights around the cherry blossom.  There were actually more people than there had been during the day, but it was beautiful and worth the second visit. Reflections are something I love and these were perfect.

But, by this time it was 8.40pm and almost everywhere we are trying for dinner was closing at 9pm and would not serve us!  I decided to give up head back to the hotel whilst the others continued to keep trying.  All in all, it was a lovely day.

Day 4 started off well.  I managed to sleep until 6am and then had an amazing breakfast spread, offering English and Japanese options. I had the weird combination of pineapple, French toast, dumplings, soba noodles, which apparently this place is famous for, fried chicken.   All very random, but all very nice.

Awake, packed and breakfasted more than one hour before we left, I decided to go out for exploration.  I found another shrine on the map and headed to it – Fukashi- jinja Shrine.  It was a beautiful more, cold at around 4C but the there was blue sky, and it was sunny, and the shrine was so peaceful, and I was ready for the day ahead.