Matsumoto is a simple train trip from Hakuba and one that I really recommend. It takes about two hours, and requires one transfer at Shinano Omachi (both times we arrived there though, our next train was right there ready for us to board – making it probably the easiest transfer ever). Although it is supposed to be the second biggest city in the Nagano Prefecture, to me it felt like an overgrown village, with endearing streets, cafes, river and its magnificent castle. It is a very scenic spot, surrounded by mountains in basically every direction.
Upon arriving, we left the rather large train station and followed the signs to the castle. It was only a 10-15 minute walk, and a rather enjoyable one through the city. The castle is Japan’s oldest wooden castle and is set in the middle of a large pond. We chose to walk around it first; the sun was out which created some extremely scenic spots for photos. It was also a nice way to appreciate its beauty before going inside.
It costs ¥410 to go inside the castle, and if you want free access to the Matsumoto City Museum of Art you should keep your ticket. Before entering, we were made to take our shoes off. The wooden floors were insanely cold, so I definitely recommend socks! There are six floors to climb, each level progressively more steep than the last, and there is memorable + informative plaques at each level. At the top there are views for days, although the windows you are looking through are quite small, rather they should be described as peep-holes.
From the castle we strolled back to Nawate-dori, a small street in the former merchant district of Nakamachi. The shops here were all really quaint – lots of antiques, souvenir shops and food stalls. Hard to go past was the tai-yaki stall (which caught our attention by the queue of people it had), which sells filled waffles in the shape of carp (a common Japanese fish) at ¥130 a piece. We ordered two, and I have to make the rare concession that the custard filled waffle was better than the chocolate one.
It was a crisp, blue-skied winter’s day, meaning that although the whole riverside area was indeed incredibly beautiful, we found it hard to stand/sit still for too long. Otherwise, we would have opted to eat our waffles riverside, or if the weather was even warmer, a picnic on the castle grounds would have been super cute.
The chill meant we basically ate on the go, as we made our way to the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. We were greeted by a rather eccentric, over-sized flower garden, which was certainly indicative of the style of artwork we would soon see inside. It costs ¥410 to enter (but free with your castle ticket) and although we only spent an hour or so there you could definitely spend longer.
We headed back to the train station not long after, having thoroughly enjoyed our time in Matsumoto. I expect it would be super beautiful year round. Because of our JR passes (pre-bought) we ended up only spending about $15 during our time there, which we thought was quite astonishing!