Matsumoto is at the foothills of the Japanese Alps, famous for hiking in summer, skiing in winter and its well preserved Edo era castle.  The third largest city in Nagano Prefecture, Matsumoto has as good a range of restaurants and bars as you`d expect to find but also has some traditional streets of one storey wooden buildings and several impressive temples.

Traditional houses in Matsumoto

Traditional houses by the river in Matsumoto

Transport Getting there from Tokyo is easy but not cheap and certainly not quick. It takes 4 hours by express train for nearly 7,000 yen, or if youve got plenty of time but less cash you can try the 6 hour local train for about 5,ooo.  There is also a bus that takes about 3 hours, you can get a return ticket for around 6,000 yen. Alpico and Keio run the service, going from Shinjuku Bus terminal to Matsumoto Station every hour.

I would recommend taking the bus, it is comfortable and fairly quick with a 20 minute rest stop about halfway. Set off early if you want a full day in Matsumoto.

 

When The mountain hiking season is from April to September or October. If  the weather turns cold early then several of the mountains may have snow on and be unsafe to hike. The mountain huts (basic accomodation for hikers and climbers to stay in overnight near the peaks) will only be open between spring and early Autumn, and some campsites may close during the off season too. June is the rainy season in Japan when it can rain heavily for several days. The summer months are hot and humid which can mean sweaty climbs in the beginning, although once you are fairly high up the temperature drops 2 or 3 degrees and there could be a nice breeze too.

 

Where to stay  There are several hostels and hotels in Matsumoto. Cheap comfortable rooms are between 3,000 to 4,000 yen per person per night. Some offer free onsen baths, breakfast or bike hire. The breakfasts are usually Japanese style, miso soup, rice and fish, its tasty but dont expect bacon and eggs. The bikes are mostly mamacharis, bikes without gears, so although they are good for exploring the city (or going up small hills if you`re willing to stand up and pedal) they arent suitable for cycling in the mountains.

I seriously recommend NOT exploring mountains on a mamachari, unless pushing a heavy bike for hours up steep and twisting mountain roads is your idea of fun (I found out it isnt mine, although the terrifyingly fast ride back down the mountain was amazing)

 

Things to do in Matsumoto

Matsumoto has several large and well cared for temples. The most famous is Zenkoji Temple with an onsen on site, although there are many that are less well known but equally impressive in the area. The least efficient but most rewarding way to find temples is to look for a curving roof, listen out for the copper bells or follow the smell of incense to find one.

Matsumoto Castle is huge and beautifully designed. Explore the castle grounds or the dark and atmospheric interior, with collections of samurai armour, swords and fantastic views across the city to the mountains. To find out more about the architecture and history of the castle here are several boards with information and a small leaflet is available in English too.

Matsumoto Castle

It is open until 5pm and costs 600 yen for an adult, or if you can gather a mere 300 people you get a group rate of 420yen per person.

Onsen There are plently of hot springs in the area too. On the east side of the station are the Asama and Utsukushigahara hot springs, and there are some large ones further from the city centre on the west side of town. Smaller hot springs can be found in the city centre too. On maps the symbol for onsen looks like a circle with 3 curving lines coming from the top half (to represent a pool of hot water with steam rising from it).  Like the majority of hot springs, these are single sex and feature different baths (hot, cold, and super hot). Larger onsen often have saunas and a peaceful (and private) outside area to lie in baths looking at the stars or distant mountains.

Towels are sometimes provided free, or you can hire them at most onsen. I would suggest bringing a large towel to dry yourself with, and a small one to put around your waist while in the bathhouse. It is considered bad manners to go into the changing rooms while dripping wet, so the small towel can be used to dry yourself with a bit too. A well written description of how to take an onsen is at  japan-guide.com (link below)

 

Things to do near Matsumoto

Kamikochi  Roughly translated as “the place where gods descend”, you dont have to walk far to realise why Kamikochi got its name. The views in this high valley are simply stunning, overlooking wide rivers or still lakes, surrounded by sharply peaked mountains. A path winds around most of the valley by the lakes and through forest. As if the amazing scenery isnt already enough reason to go, there are also groups of wild monkeys in the trees or by the rivers. If youre really lucky you might see one come onto the path, or watch baby monkeys playing in the trees, they seem quite tame although there are a lot of signs telling you not to feed them.

Kamikochi view

The route  takes an oval shape with famous suspension bridges and bus stops at both ends. It is mostly flat and only takes a few hours. The most crowded spots are near the bridges and bus stations, but despite Kamikochi`s popularity there are several places along the route where you might not pass another person for a few miles. There are some restaurants, gift shops and toilets along the way. If you cant drag yourself away, there is a campsite and cabins near the northern end of Kamikochi, although it is very busy in summer months and you should probably reserve in advance if you want to spend a night there.

To go there you have to use public transport, cars are not allowed near Kamikochi and there is no parking for private vehicles. Get a train from Matsumoto to Sawando, then a bus from there. It takes about 30 minutes on the bus and costs 2000yen for a round trip. They depart quite frequently from a stop next to Sawando Train Station.

Bring your own food, the restaurants are pretty expensive

Other peaks Go east of Matsumoto and you hit the Japanese Alps, they are easy enough to find. You cant miss the mountains, although the roads and footpaths are small, winding and usually arent signposted so get a map. Mt Jonen and Mt Hachibuse are towering impressive mountains with well marked paths, although I couldnt find public transport there and it seemed impossible to cycle. Utsukushigahara Plateau is an easy walk once youre at the top, with amazing views over the valley and a couple of places to eat. You can get a bus there from Matsumoto Bus Station straight to the art gallery on the plateau, or get off at Sanjiro to hike it. For other mountain hikes near Matsumoto check out an excellent guide (link below)

Graveyard near small shrine on the path up Ougihara

Mt Ougihana is near Utsushigahara Plateau. At just over 2000 metres tall, the views are great from the top and there is a small car park and a traditional-looking restaurant which serves the best soba noodles I have ever eaten about an hours walk from the peak.

I seriously recommend leaving your bike near the bottom of the mountain and hiking up, it took 6 hours to cycle/ push the bike from the west side of Matsumoto and 1 hour to hike up from the soba restaurant, although cycling back down took only 20 minutes

 

Matsumoto Alpine Park is hidden at the top of a steep hill quite near Matsumoto, about 1 hour by mamachari if you pedal hard, or maybe 20 minutes by car. It has good views over the plain to Matsumoto and nearby mountains, a small zoo and an awesome adventure playground with ziplines and rope courses.

alpine park

Links

General information on Matsumoto http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/

Mountain hiking near Matsumoto http://welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/contents12+index.htm

 

Hostels http://hostelworld.com

Onsen etiquette http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2292_how.html

 

 

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