Japan // Central Honshu //

The Castle and around

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Matsumoto’s castle is the main attraction, but on the way there from the station be sure to walk down Nakamachi-dōri, which runs parallel to the southern bank of the Metoba River. Along this attractive street of black-and-white-walled inns, antique and craft shops and restaurants, you’ll find the Nakamachi Kura-no-Kaikan (中町蔵の会館; daily 9am–4.30pm; free), a beautifully restored sake brewery with a soaring black-beam interior and traditional cross-hatching plasterwork outside.

Opposite here, at Geiyukan (芸游館), there’s performances every Sunday at 1.30pm and 3pm on the classical Japanese string instrument, the shamisen; the ¥700 admission includes green tea. Cross the river by any of several bridges and return to Daimyō-chō-dōri via the colourful market street Nawate-dōri; the castle grounds are just a couple of hundred metres north of here.

Matsumoto-jō (松本城) remains hidden from view until the very last moment, making a sudden dramatic appearance as you enter the outer grounds and approach the moat. Also known as Karasu-jō (Crow Castle) because of its brooding black facade, the sixteenth-century fortress includes the oldest keep (donjon) in Japan. From the donjon’s sixth storey (it has the traditional hidden floor of most Japanese castles), there’s a fine view of the town and surrounding mountains. Entrance to the castle also includes access to the quirky Japan Folklore Museum which is just before the moat. Inside, the displays include a good model of how Matsumoto looked in feudal times. Around 500m north of the castle is Kyū Kaichi Gakkō (旧開智学校), the oldest Western-style school building in Japan, dating from 1876; the pretty pale-blue and plasterwork facade is worth a look.