Matsumoto is the perfect city for a weekend away from Tokyo—or even a packed day trip! With stunning sights, amazing art, free rental bikes and onsen to relax afterwards, it’s fast becoming the perfect getaway! We’ve picked some of the must-sees if you’re planning a day trip, and added the bonus ones if you want a weekend—as well as the best places for lunch and dinner.
If ever a city was built for cycling—its Matsumoto. Entirely flat and with most attractions central, it’s a lovely way to see the city and means you can set your own schedule as well as fitting more in. There are numerous free rental spots around the city (marked with bikes on the guide maps) including the community center by the Karakuri Clock, (closest to the station) as well as the tourist centers and even the gelato cafe by the castle. For rental all you need is your name, address and phone number and a rough idea of when you’ll be back—simple as!
One of Japan’s premier historic castles along with Himeji and Kumamoto, Matsumoto Castle is a sight to behold. Nicknamed Crow Castle due to its black exterior and wing-like adjoining structures, it features extensive defenses including moats, walls and gatehouses due to being on a flat surface (and not perched safely on top of a hill). Especially beautiful in spring, it has large surrounding gardens you can enter for free which include popular hanami spots and picturesque castle views. There are free illuminations during blossom season which are a beautiful way to see the castle and flowers in their most dramatic form.
Having undergone extensive renovations, the castle provides an authentic experience when you venture inside, as it is outfitted with traditional wooden interiors rather than cheaper concrete as in many castles. There is an excellent observation deck on the 6th floor, great weaponry displays and sights for the macabre including stone-dropping openings.
If you’re around at lunch time why not have a picnic with a view? The castle gardens are a great spot as there is a well-stocked convenience store right outside and a lovely gelato shop across the road with lots of treats. There is also a seasonal food across the road with local miso-pizza and the Matsumoto Brewery!
Hours: 8.30am – 5pm (6pm in Obon and Golden Week)
Closed: December 29th – Januray 3rd
Location: 15-minute walk from Matsumoto Station.
Admission: 610 yen
Yayoi Kusama at the Matsumoto City Museum of Art
You may be familiar with the work of Yayoi Kusama, even without realizing: she is the renowned Japanese artist behind the Pumpkin at Naoshima as well as numerous worldwide installations and exhibitions. Plagued by visual and auditory hallucinations when growing up in Matsumoto, she transformed her experiences into art—creating intense visual spaces and experiences as well as entrancing paintings.
The immersive exhibition takes you through rooms of mirrors, with numerous tricks and effects, making each door an invitation into another aspect of her mind. One room you can only enter alone and for 30 seconds—and it truly is an un-earthly experience. Brilliant for children and adults alike, this is a must-do item on the Matsumoto list! (other exhibitions are also available).
Hours: 9am – 5pm
Closed: Mondays (open if national holiday and closed the following day)
Location: 12 minute walk from Matsumoto station, 15 from the Castle
Admission: 410yen adults, 200yen for students, free for senior citizens and children
Nawate Street: Curio shops and cotton candy
Lined with over 50 small antique shops, restaurants and sweets shops, this is perfect for a relaxed stroll, with Yohashira Shrine making a beautiful pit stop. The street is filled with frogs in every form, including the large statue at its start, lending it a nice touch of the unusual. This stems from a pun on the word ‘kaeru’ which means both ‘return home’ and ‘frog’. Since there are many frogs in the river, locals would give charms to those crossing the treacherous mountains and the street soon took on the little green mascots.
Running alongside the river, this is the best spot for getting that old-castle-town feel, as well as being great for souvenirs and gifts. There are lots of unusual treats, including the 100-yen cotton candy machines (there can be no better result to putting 100 yen in a mystery-hooded cylinder ‘just to see what happens’ then an old man appearing to make you cotton candy) as well as the numerous frog statues and mini shrines.
Location: 10-minute walk from Matsumoto Station
English pamphlets available
If you decide to stay a second day, there is plenty to see in Matsumoto, try some shrine and temple hopping, relax in an onsen and enjoy some historical sightseeing!
One of the first schools in Japan, the Kaichi school is an impressive building which opened in in 1873 following the major educational reforms. The building offers and interesting insight into the education system but has little information in English.
Hours: 9am – 5pm
Location: 5-minute walk from Matsumoto Castle (2-4-12 Kaichi, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture 390-0876)
Admission: 300yen adults, 150yen for children
Shrine and temple treasure trail
If you’ve rented a bike, you can use it to explore the area, starting from the Yoshashira Shrine in front of the castle. If you the cycle towards the river, cross it and head left, you will come across Daishoji Temple and Zenshoji before continuing up along the river (lovely in spring) before crossing it back towards the castle. You head to Okamiya Shrine before coming back down via the beautiful Taiangakuji, and the nearby Choshoji and Rinshoji. It’s an east ride and you can see plenty of beautiful architecture and peaceful spots of the city.
Matsumoto Timepiece Museum
Hours: 9am – 5pm
Location: 5 minute walk from Matsumoto Station (1 Chome-21-15 Chuo, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture 390-0811)
Admission: 300 yen adults, 150 yen for children
With a history dating back 1300 years, the Asama onsen area was popular with famous artists, poets and novelists after the Edovperiod and it’s easy to see why. Nestled in the mountains with stunning scenery, this is the perfect place to soak away the aches of traveling. There is a bus available from the station for 300 yen, but do check departure times and return times before you head out to be sure. It’s also possible to cycle there, but be careful if doing this in the evening. There are a couple of tattoo-friendly onsen here, so be sure to ask at the local tourist office in Matsumoto which you can visit if you’re of the inky persuasion.
The city’s finest food
Matsumoto is filled with cute cafes and great restaurants so you’ll have no trouble finding somewhere, but here are two excellent spots with great food that’s really reasonable!
Mensho Sakura Ramen
Mensho Sakura offer two house specialties; miso ramen and black miso, and both are incredibly delicious. With such a reputation that you’re more likely to meet people who’ve eaten there twice than once, it’s an ordinary-looking ramen shop producing extraordinary food. (We definitely went back twice).
Hours: 11.30am – 3pm 5.30pm – 10pm
Closed: Open every day bar some holidays
Location: 5 minutes from Matsumoto station (〒390-0811 Nagano Prefecture, Matsumoto, Chuo, 1−20−26)
Purveyor of some of the freshest and highest-quality buckwheat soba in Matsumoto for over 100 years, Kobayashi soba is tucked away on a backstreet and has a rustic but warm welcome when you step through the sliding doors.
With patrons including the imperial family, you would think the prices would be as high as the standards, but luckily not! You can enjoy a set for well under 2,000 yen with handmade noodles and fresh tempura, local vegetable or even duck toppings, and can try traditional cold Zaru soba in the red boxes. You will be given fresh wasabi to grate on your dish and when you’ve finished, a red pot of soba-yu. This is the water the noodles are cooked in and is mixed with dipping sauce to make a healthy and delicious drink to finish your meal.
Hours: 11am – 2.30pm 5pm-8pm
Closed: Open every day bar some holidays
Phone: 0263-36-1555 Website: http://www.kobayashi-soba.co.jp/
Location: Main restaurant: about two minutes to the southwest corner of the castle (長野県松本市大手4-8-6)
The cheapest way to get to Matsumoto is by highway bus and takes about three-and-a-half hours from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo—so you can decide if you would rather stretch it out for a night bus arriving approximately 6am (keep in mind there is not much to see at that time), or catch an early morning bus (for example leaving at 6am and arriving at 9:30am). Buses can be booked on Willer and paid for by card or at a convenience store (if more than 2 days in advance). Alternatively, you can book in person at the bus station and some discounts are available. It costs roughly 3,500 each way per person online and 3,000 in person (if available).