Getting to Matsumoto from Nikko was a bit of an adventure: a three-hop train trip involving a shinkansen back to Omiya, another shinkansen to Nagano, and then a “limited express” train to Matusmoto. Japan Rail continues to live up to its nigh-unbelieveable reputation for punctuality: each train left pretty much instantly on schedule, and arrived within 60 seconds of its posted time. As a lifelong user of American commuter train systems, I can only say: it’s fucking eerie.
The conductors sing out “Maaaaaatsumotooooo” when the train pulls in to the platform. It’s adorable.
Our accommodations in Matsumoto were the local branch of a chain of business hotels called the Toyoko Inn, and while the tour guides tended to rubbish such places as soulless, I can’t fault it for value: we had an immaculate room that while certainly small by American standards nonetheless had a double bed, a desk, and an en-suite bathroom (and also a safe, free internet, and a trouser press!), and enough room for us to move around without falling over each other. There was a coin laundry on the first floor, and an included breakfast of rice balls, Japanese pickles, miso soup and tea or coffee: for $85/night, if they set a branch of this place up in New York City, people would call it the best deal running.
One thing to note about Japanese hotels in general: while American places are generally able to handle it if you show up early, when Japanese hotels say “3pm check-in” time, they mean it: they’re not going to show you to your room any time before then. They are, however, usually quite happy to hold your luggage at the front desk for you, and since it was only 1:30pm when we got there, we did just that, and trouped off to Matsumoto’s primary attraction, the castle.
We got to the castle’s threshold when we realized that it was nearly 2pm and we’d last had a proper meal in Nikko around 8:30am. Restaurant pickings at the castle park entrance were slim, so we ended up getting a plate of cold soba noodles (a local specialty) from a little place (a sobateria? if that’s not the word it should be) a few steps away from the ticket office. Restaurants near major tourist attractions can be pretty dicey, but this place was apparently a local institution: the walls were lined with autographed photos of olympic athletes and sumo wrestlers. It was pretty dead when we walked in (it was a weekday, and the lunch hour was long past), and I personally find soba to be somewhat bland, but the appetizer we got was fantastic: a mixed tempura plate in which about half the pieces were fresh battered eel. Mmmmm…eel.
Fed, we took the remaining few steps to the castle. And what a castle it is. Built of stone and hand-hewn fir and cypress logs, the castle’s primary tower is seven stories high, providing a commanding view of the parkland around it. A self-guided tour takes you through most of the castle, from the “warrior’s walkways” on the lower floors (extra-wide hallways to accommodate samurai in full armor running single-file toward the nearest point of defense) to the daiymo’s room at the top of the main tower.
Most exterior walls are lined with tiny portal windows for pointing rifles out of, and in fact on the 5th floor there was a small museum of 16th-through-18th century Japanese riflery, with many gorgeous (and intimidating) hand-forged guns ranging from flintlock rifles to blunderbusses to early revolvers. Wall hangings near the museum area were of samurai toting and cleaning their rifles, or of pitched battles between armies. I found this all fascinating: probably due primarily to James Clavell’s baleful influence, the samurai era is usually thought of in the states as a swords-and-shields epic, but in reality feudal japan had the rifle from the mid 1500s on (courtesy originally of the Portuguese, I assume), and seeing the tasteful watercolor scrolls of samurai shooting the hell out of each other gave a little more historical context into how Japan went from an isolated island kingdom to kicking the Russians’ asses in a very short amount of time.
In a lower section of the castle was the “moon-viewing room”, which was actually a much later (early 1700s, I think) addition to the castle: the feudal war period was largely over by this point, and so this room unlike all the others had wide, open windows from which the castle’s operators (you can’t really say “residents”: the castle was a battle fortification, not a house) could sit back and watch the moon with a cup of sake in hand.
The tour ended on a path through the castle’s mammoth stone wall and over a red lacquered bridge over the carp-filled moat. We sat in the shade for a while, and I lurked and hovered until finally, after about 10 minutes, there was a shot of the castle and bridge containing… no other tourists!
From the castle, we walked over to Matsumoto’s other noted attraction: Nakamachi street, a Meiji-period warehouse district whose white-walled buildings were converted over primarily to jewelry, ceramic and art shops, as well as the occasional ryokan, sake store and restaurant. We found a few little things to bring back, and then walked back to the hotel along the riverside, itself a charming pedestrian-only arcade where most of the shops and little decorations had a distinctly froggy aspect to them. This turned out to be due to a somewhat elaborate pun in Japanese: the words for “shop” and “return safely” are both homophones to the word for “frog” (“Kaeru”), so the shopping district to which they hoped you would return was, essentially, Frog Street.
Also along the riverside was a small shrine with a huge straw circle at the entranceway. There was no English in the signage, later googling suggested that the temple is dedicated to the four Shinto gods Amenominakanushinokami, Takamimusubi, Kamimusubi, and Amaterasu Oomikami.
We’d seen in the Lonely Planet book that Matsumoto had a “Timepiece Museum”, and walking back toward our hotel we spotted a building that, just at a guess, might have been it:
Sadly, the museum was closing up by the time we got there.
After chilling out in our hotel room for a few hours (doing laundry, catching up on email, etc), we headed out into the night to try to find dinner. This ended up being a bit more difficult than we’d expected, and here I’d like to indulge in my constitutional right to whine like a four-year-old for a bit: Lonely Planet is a great resource, but their maps? Their maps suck rocks.. Their one-third-page map of Matsumoto might as well have been a Rorschach blot for all the relation to the actual streets it bore. We tried supplementing it with a local tourist map, but while certainly much larger, the tourist maps we’ve found so far in Japan aren’t much better: they tend to omit lots streets that they consider unimportant for some reason, and since Japanese cities are organized by block numbers rather than street numbers, this is basically fatal to any westerner trying to navigate.
(Obvious question: google maps? Aggravating answer: Google Maps Japan appears to only use Japanese characters for both input and display. Try to search for “1-1-23 Shibuya-ku, Tokyo” on gmaps, and you’ll end up being directed to Japantown in Los Angeles. I have suspicions as to why this is, but refuse to put the effort into verifying them while on vacation.)
The obvious point of all this whining: our first destination, a restaurant called “Kura” that according to both maps was mere minutes from our hotel, may as well have been in another city for all of our ability to find it. After stumbling around getting hungrier and crankier by the minute, we decided to just chuck our carefully laid plans and just try the first place that looked promising. And lo and behold, a few seconds later we smelled something good cooking, and found ourselves on the doorstep of an izakaya.
An izakaya is a brilliant invention that doesn’t really have a direct analogue in the states, and I wish we had them. Basically, an izakaya is a grill restaurant and bar: they have a large selection of beers and sakes, and an equally large selection of “stuff that can be cooked on a brazier or in a deep fryer”, i.e. meat skewers, vegetable skewers, salted fish, random regional finger foods and the like. It’s sort of like a combination of a tapas bar, a sushi bar, and a korean barbecue joint: you order your drinks and the first round of plates, then more drinks and more plates as the urge strikes you, until you are too full or drunk to move. Each plate costs somewhere between $1 and $5 dollars, and even more miraculously in Japan, the drinks are reasonably priced: Miranda and I each ordered a “small” ¥350 sake from the sake menu (picking one at random, as the sake menu was not translated), and the small sake turned out to be roughly a half-pint. This izakaya even had an English menu… sort of.
Yes, that really says “the hormone burning.” No, we were not brave enough to order it. Most of the English translations made a certain sort of cockeyed sense, but the most benign explanation for “hormone” that we could think of was thymus gland (sweetbreads), and the other possibilities just got more and more horrible from there, so we stuck with things that we were pretty sure we understood the intent of. We had an order of tempura, grilled asparagus, grilled minced pork “meatballs”, some sashimi, two different kinds of broiled fish and some stewed baby potatoes, and it all came out to about ¥4800 including our drinks: by Japanese standards this was an insane bargain. Stuffed and not a little sozzled (it was really much more sake than we’d been expecting), we walked somewhat carefully back to the hotel and to bed.