Most one to two week travel itineraries in Japan cover the highlights: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. In fact, we did that very trip when we spent a week exploring Japan by train in the Autumn. When we started planning a trip to Japan for a week in the Spring, of course, we started in Tokyo. But this time we decided to get a little bit off the beaten track and spend three days in Matsumoto Japan. Why visit Matsumoto? Picture beautiful cherry blossoms surrounding a historic castle. In addition, Matsumoto is in Nagano Prefecture which is known for its natural hot springs and we thought it would be a great place to stay to see what a traditional ryokan and onsen bath would be like. Read on to learn about things to do in Matsumoto Japan for 3 days in the Spring.
Getting from Tokyo to Matsumoto JapanHow far is Matsumoto from Tokyo? Tokyo to Matsumoto is about a 200 km distance and takes about 2.5 hours on the direct JR Limited Express train. Don't forget, you need to buy your Japan Rail Pass before you travel to Japan. We bought our train ticket on Japan-Rail-Pass.com (our rail pass cost $268 USD for 7 days of travel at the time of our trip). If your train arrives in Matsumoto in the morning, you'll find lockers to stow your bags so you can explore Matsumoto city until your ryokan is ready for check-in.
Getting Around Matsumoto
Matsumoto has an easy to navigate (assuming you have internet access and Google Maps) public transportation system. Our ryokan, Hotel Tamanoyu (more on that later!), was located about 15 minutes outside of the center of Matsumoto by bus. We also learned that our hotel sold bus tickets at a discounted price. We got 360 JPY worth of credit for about 200 JPY. 360 yen was a little more than $3 USD at the time of writing.
There is a big board of numbers on the front of each bus. Use the little ticket machine to print a slip of paper with a number on it when you board the bus. This is the zone where you entered the bus. Compare the number on your slip of paper with the associated number on the board up front. Note the zone that is lit up when you are ready to get off the bus. The number associated with that zone minus the starting zone is the fare you pay. Show the driver your printed ticket and then either add coins to the payment slot next to the driver or drop in the paper tickets that you bought at the hotel.
If you think taking the bus is too daunting (or you have a lot of luggage), there are taxis available at Matsumoto Station.
Where to Stay in Matsumoto Japan? A Matsumoto RyokanWhen investigating Matsumoto hotels, we decided to focus on getting a more local experience. We reserved a traditional Japanese style room at Hotel Tamanoyu. I like to think of Hotel Tamanoyu as a ryokan for people who have never stayed in a ryokan. The first thing you do upon arrival is change into your samue (a traditional outfit consisting of soft, loose trouser bottoms and a top that ties closed like a robe). I quickly discovered that the samue were colored coded by size and the samues are very much sized to a more petite and less curvy Japanese body type. Upon check in, there was a set of large samue for my husband and medium for me. I called down to the front desk and traded up to an XL which was much more comfortable. If you are very tall or significantly overweight, you may have trouble with the samue. The samue seemed to be unisex and the XL was the largest. I am about a size 14-16 (U.S. based sizes) to give you some idea of how the sizes run.
Make sure to strictly follow onsen etiquette whether you use the public or private bath. Some tips for bathing in an onsen include:
- shower thoroughly first
- if you have long hair, pin it up.
- don't put your hair or your face into the waters of the onsen.
- don't bring anything into the onsen area except the tiny towel provided.
- dip the little towel into a basin of cold water and place it on your head if you feel too hot.
- use the little towel to dry off a bit (kind of difficult when the towel is wet) to tide you over until you get back to the changing room.
Hotel Tamanoya also features a musical performance every evening. A Japanese folk musician was playing when we went and I actually think that we were the only non-Japanese people at the show. It's actually possible that we were the only foreigners staying at the hotel that night. The finale involved the manager coming in to sing Hotel Tamanoyu's theme song: "An Invitation from the Wind". Lyric sheets were handed out so people could sing along. Of course, they were in Japanese which made it more difficult for us but we faked our way along.
Our stay at Hotel Tamanoyu was my first experience trying to sleep on a Japanese futon (note that Hotel Tamanoyu also has Western style rooms). I wondered after that first night: is there a trick to this? How do people sleep comfortably on Japanese style beds? I felt like I had been beaten up when I woke up in the morning. Always the problem solver, I found an extra futon in the closet of the room. Before going to sleep the second night, I doubled up my futon and that seemed to help. I was much more comfortable the second night but not as comfortable as I was when we moved on to a Western style room next.
Check the Time Using the Matsumoto Flower Clock
Matsumoto's flower clock is the perfect place to check the time upon your arrival in Matsumoto. Nestled into a small park less than a 10 minute walk from the Matsumoto train station, the flower clock is a good first point of interest to check out when you arrive. The Matsumoto Flower Clock is what it says on the tin: a big clock surrounded by colorful blooms.
Visit Historic Genchi WellContinue for another five minutes on foot and you'll arrive at Genchi Well, a source of fresh spring water within the Matsumoto city limits. Look for beautiful cherry trees heavy with sakura and take a moment of quiet reflection at the small shrine close to the Genchi Well.
Shop Matsumoto in Historic and Modern Storefronts Nakamachi DoriThe most popular shopping street in Matsumoto is Nakamachi Dori. Stroll along this quiet street and duck into the whitewashed historic storefronts to shop for local crafts. In contrast, Ise-machi Dori shopping street in Matsumoto offers a more modern experience. Window shop while listening to a decorative spring burbling past and soothing music piped onto the street. Of course, keep an eye out for unique foods to try. We stumbled upon a sweets shop selling candied nuts. Bonus! They offered some samples. We picked up a few packages of nuts which make great snacks on the train ride between different places in Japan.
Seek out the Matsumoto Frog
Explore Matsumoto's Back AlleysMake sure to take an off the beaten path walk along some of the back lanes of Matsumoto. We unexpectedly stumbled upon a small Shinto shrine on a tiny street in a mainly residential area. The bright red accents against the gray stone make these shrines a photographer's dream.
Tour Matsumoto Castle at Peak SakuraThe main point of interest for tourists in Matsumoto is the historic Matsumoto Castle. If you manage to time it right, there is nothing better than the views from Matsumoto Castle when the cherry blossoms are at peak bloom. Discover stunning views of Matsumoto City and the surrounding mountains if you take time to climb Matsumoto Castle's six story tower (¥610, about $5 USD at the time of writing). If you don't like heights, you may want to give the Matsumoto Castle tour and tower climb a miss. The steps are really steep in places (you're actually climbing a ladder in some instances) and you'll be climbing barefoot. There are no shoes allowed inside Matsumoto Castle per Japanese tradition.
Slurp Soba Nomugi for LunchEnjoy a plate of local specialty noodles for lunch at Soba Nomugi, a tiny restaurant on a quiet street near the end of Nakamachi Dori. Soba Nomugi has just a few tables so be prepared to wait, but don't worry, the meal is served quickly so you shouldn't have to wait too long. There is a very specific approach to eating soba. Soba Nomugi offers a laminated card in English with succinct instructions that make the soba-eating experience less confusing. Soba Nomugi serves soba the traditional way including soba-yu. Pour some soy sauce into the small bowl provided. Use your chopsticks to dip the cold noodles into the sauce and then slurp away. When you are done with your noodles, it's time for soba-yu. Soba-yu is the hot water used to boil the buckwheat soba noodles. Pour the hot soba-yu into the residue that you used to dip your soba and then drink it as a soup. Voila!
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for advice on what to eat on your trip to Japan? Check out 30 weird and wonderful Japanese food finds with this helpful blog post.
Check-out the Historic Architecture in Kurassic-sanAfter lunch, take time to explore Kurassic-san, a shop housed in an old sake making complex. Borrow sandals that are laid out just in front of the gleaming wooden floor and take a walk through the historic rooms. Look out onto a beautiful and Zen Japanese garden. Climb the stairs to look onto the shop below over the criss-crossing wooden beams.
Visit Matsumoto City Museum of ArtThe Matsumoto City Museum of Art is rumoured to be worth visiting. Public service announcement: Matsumoto City Museum is closed on Mondays, as are a number of other cafes and shops in Matsumoto. We were only spending 3 days in Matsumoto and didn't have time before our train to come back on a Tuesday. Silver linings: at least we got to see the cool and colorful giant flower sculptures outside. Thankfully, the courtyard is open even when the museum itself is closed.
Try Japanese Craft Beer at Matsumoto Brewery TaproomBecause the Matsumoto City Museum was closed when we visited on a Monday, we had some time to spare. It was a hot and sunny day so we decided to try and escape the heat and duck inside for a sneaky pint at Matsumoto Brewery Taproom. We tried two of Matsumoto Brewery's craft beers: Matsumoto Awesome! Pale Ale and Matsumoto Castle Stout. I definitely recommend the pale ale as a refreshing treat on a hot Spring day. Matsumoto Brewery Taproom has a few tables upstairs where you can sit and talk or read the newspaper. Definitely worth a visit!
Seek out Cherry Blossoms at Mt. KoboMt Kobo (more formally known as Koboyama) is an excellent spot to see sakura in Matsumoto in the Spring. The easiest and most flexible way to get to Koboyama is by taxi. We took the public bus to the train station and then took a metered taxi to Mt. Kobo to immerse ourselves in the cherry blossoms. The taxi will drop you off near a small cemetery. Look for pink lanterns marking the trail and climb the hill until you emerge at the top for sweeping views of Matsumoto and hundreds of cherry trees in a ring below you.
Visit a 100 Yen storeWe noticed a huge 100 Yen bargain store (kind of like a 'dollar store' in the U.S.) as the taxi was bringing us to Koboyama. As we were looking at the cherry blossoms, we saw the store again. It didn't look too far away, actually. We quickly consulted Google Maps and realized that we could walk there in about 20 minutes. We definitely had fun browsing the 100 yen store that we spotted from Mt. Kobo. I bought myself a super-absorbent umbrella cover (genius!). Unfortunately, we missed the bus back to Matsumoto City and had to walk a fair distance before we crossed paths with the Town Sneaker bus to whisk us back to the Matsumoto Train Station.
Okonomiyaki DinnerEating okonomiyaki is one of my favorite memories from our trip to Osaka Japan. Okonomiyaki is a little bit like a pancake or omelette with a lot of vegetables and seafood thrown in; a little bit of everything, really. We were excited to find a small 'mom and pop' Okonomiyaki restaurant in Matsumoto. While grandma was making our meal at the grill embedded in our table, we got to wave and play peek-a-boo with her grandson.
Matsumoto Castle After DarkMatsumoto Castle is open after dark for a cherry blossom festival: Matsumoto-jo Sakura Matsuri. The sakura festival takes place for one week after the cherry blossoms open. In a stroke of luck, our visit to Matsumoto was perfectly timed for the night festival. We were amazed by Matsumoto Castle and surrounding cherry blossoms bathed in light. The only issue we had with visiting Matsumoto Castle at night is that our ryokan is about a 15 minute bus ride from Matsumoto Castle and the bus that runs from the castle to near our hotel doesn't run that late. Fortunately, we were able to communicate with a local who knew a little bit of English. He directed us to an alternative bus stop. Fortunately, the 130 bus in Matsumoto runs a bit later. It's just difficult to figure out the exact routes, stops, and times when you don't speak Japanese and your teeth are chattering. It was very cold in Matsumoto once the sun went down and we'd only brought a light jacket with us. Public service announcement: bring layers if you visit Matsumoto in the Spring.
Summary of Things to Do in Matsumoto Japan
As you can see, there are a wide range of things to do in Matsumoto in the Spring. Here's a quick recap to help with your travel plans.
- Check the time using the Matsumoto flower clock
- Visit historic Genchi well
- Shop Matsumoto in historic and modern storefronts
- Seek out the Matsumoto frogs
- Explore Matsumoto's back alleys
- Tour Matsumoto Castle at Peak Sakura
- Slurp Soba for lunch
- Check-out the historic architecture in Kurassic-san
- Visit Matsumoto City Museum of Art (Note: Closed on Mondays)
- Try Japanese Craft Beer at Matsumoto Brewery Taproom
- Seek out Cherry Blossoms at Mt. Kobo
- Visit a 100 yen store
- Eat okonomiyaki at a local 'Mom and Pop' place
- Go to the nighttime Matsumoto sakura festival