Matsumoto’s ‘Black Crow’ Castle is indisputably its crowning glory. One of only a dozen original castles still standing in Japan, the majesty and unique setting of Matsumoto-jo is undeniable. Built, somewhat unusually, on a plain rather than a hill, and surrounded by a moat of still, reflective waters, the fort is a magnet for photographers looking to capture an image of the striking edifice. Wander a little further from the iconic keep though and you will discover a charming city with a lot to offer visitors.
Amble along the pleasant Nawate-dori (better known as Frog Street) to try some regional snacks, and spend your change on adorable mementos and trinkets, possibly featuring the namesake amphibians who have become synonymous with the area. Across the river you will find Nakamachi-dori, a street of old merchant warehouses that now showcase delightful craft shops, quaint galleries and modest eateries. This pedestrianised road is perfect for an evening stroll, a welcome break from the hubbub of larger cities.
Matsumoto also serves as a gateway town to the idyllic Kiso Valley, which runs along the side of the mountains in the Central Alps. During the Edo Period (lasting 265 years from 1603 onwards) this was one of the prominent routes between Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. As with all great highways, the need for lodging and provisions led to the creation of ‘post towns’ every few miles for the weary traveller. Some of these have been lovingly restored, with most signs of modernity hidden or removed, allowing the 21st century sightseer to imagine they have stepped back in time.
The Nakasendo – or ‘mountain way’ – can still be hiked as it was in centuries past, but most would baulk at the concept of walking the full 330 miles. A far more manageable – and popular – section can be accomplished in a few hours though, between the gorgeous towns of Tsumago and Magome.