10 Best Things to Do in Matsumoto of Nagano

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Misty Fujii is a Canadian who moved to Osaka, Japan, in 2019 and married her Japanese sweetheart. In 2022, they had a baby and moved to Fukui for the clean country air. She is a DJ who teaches English part-time and writes to share Japan with the world. She gets excited about collecting vintage vinyl records, food from all countries, travelling, and renovating her traditional Japanese house.

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Beneath the towering North Japan Alps, the city of Matsumoto beckons with more than just its famed castle. Once a thriving merchant town, Matsumoto wears its heritage proudly, showcasing preserved historic districts like Nawate-Dori and Nakamachi. It is now home to shops offering the renowned ‘mingei’ folkcraft and unique furniture. Thanks to local efforts, Matsumoto has become a vibrant hub boasting boutique shops, cozy cafes, museums, galleries, and enticing restaurants. 

As Nagano prefecture’s second biggest city, discover the 10 best things to do in Matsumoto of Nagano!

1. Matsumoto Castle

The highlight at the heart of Matsumoto, Japan, is a striking and ancient masterpiece, the renowned Matsumoto Castle. This black, moated fortress, a certified National Treasure, is a must-see for anyone wandering through Nagano. Its iconic wooden keep, the oldest in Japan, boasts a photogenic allure, surrounded by a wide moat, vermilion bridges, and original stonework against the backdrop of the Northern Alps. Standing tall for over 400 years, the castle has become a symbol of resilience and craftsmanship. 

Beyond its chic black-and-white exterior lies a cleverly designed structure with hidden floors and steep stairs meant to outsmart potential invaders. Explore the castle’s unique features, like the two adjoining towers from different eras—one built for defense during conflict, the other for peaceful moon-viewing. As you ascend to the sixth floor, catch your breath and soak in panoramic views of the city and mountains. Matsumoto Castle is a living testament to history. It continues to shape the charming cityscape, offering glimpses into its castle town past through narrow streets adorned with old wooden shops and earthenware storehouses.


2. Matsumoto City Museum of Art

Garrett Ziegler, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Did you know that Matsumoto is the hometown of iconic contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama? Not only that, but the Matsumoto City Museum of Art showcases one of the world’s most extensive collections of her vibrant and polka-dotted masterpieces. The museum is a psychedelic tribute to Kusama’s brilliance, with a whimsical facade adorned in polka dots and a mesmerizing outdoor installation of giant twisting tulips. Inside, the museum boasts a captivating array of Kusama’s vivid paintings and sculptures, providing visitors with an immersive experience of her extraordinary world. As you explore the museum’s enchanting halls, you’ll encounter not just Kusama’s works but also rotating exhibits featuring art from other talented artists.

3. Nawate Street

Beyond the must-visit Matsumoto Castle, let Nawate Street be a quirky pit stop that transforms your walk into an adventure. South of the castle, this 200-meter brick road by the Metoba River dates back to the 1500s and is a whimsical place adorned with frogs of all sizes. Three stone frogs in samurai gear battle at the entrance, setting the tone for a narrow, frog-filled path flanked by enticing shops. Once a bustling hub echoing with the noise of humans, firecrackers, and frogs, Nawate Street, while quieter now, retains a charming buzz. 

The street, named for its rope-like shape between Matsumoto Castle’s south moat and the Metoba River, surprises with stores offering everything from figurines and battery-powered cars to ceramic ornaments. As you stroll, the aroma of freshly baked taiyaki and inviting soba noodle shops will surely tempt you! 

4. Yohashira Shrine

Howard Stanbury, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Walking along Nawate Street in Matsumoto, you’ll encounter a grand stone torii gate, inviting you to explore the Yohashira Shrine, built during the Meiji Period. This shrine, dedicated to four Shinto deities, is a rarity in Japan, known for its special wish-granting properties due to the unique gathering of multiple deities. Positioned along Nawate Street and the Metoba River, the shrine boasts a distinctive grey gate and a lively atmosphere during fall foliage and New Year celebrations. As an integral part of local traditions, Yohashira Shrine hosts various festivals, including Children’s Day and an annual Butai festival showcasing the city’s traditional wooden floats. Don’t miss this vibrant shrine, perfect for cherry blossom viewing, enjoying autumn hues, and marking your New Year’s Day shrine visit, all conveniently located near Matsumoto Castle!

5. Tenjin Fukashi Shrine

Right beside the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, Fukashi Shrine pays homage to two Shinto deities: Suwamiyojin, overseeing wind, water, and agriculture, and Tenjin, the deity of scholarship. Fukashi Shrine is a serene spot, and during summer, it comes alive with the lively Tenjin Festival, featuring 18 traditional wooden floats converging at the shrine from surrounding neighborhoods. Tenjin Fukashi Shrine is a beautiful place to dive into Matsumoto’s cultural richness and festivities!

6. Nakamachi Street

Nakamachi Street, Matsumoto’s historic heart, flaunts its Edo-era roots as a busy castle town center. The name says it all, “Naka” for the center and “machi” for the town. Once a thriving business hub, it hosted wholesale dealers peddling sake and kimono. Today, this quaint street is a treasure trove of preserved kura (storehouses), some over a century old, lending a distinct charm with their black-and-white criss-cross patterns. Beyond the visual feast, Nakamachi offers a delightful shopping experience for Japanese handicrafts, pottery, lacquerware, and more. Cafes, restaurants, and soba shops line the street, inviting you to savor local flavors. Don’t miss the Kurassic-kan, a former sake warehouse turned landmark, and keep an eye out for natural springs and wells. 

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7. Matsumoto Timepiece Museum

It’s time to step into a world of ticking wonders at the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum, a three-story treasure trove dedicated to showcasing timepieces from across the globe. Wander through exhibits on the first two floors, unveiling the evolution of watches tied to professions and ornate clocks from different eras and corners of the world. You’ll see quirky designs and even sundials, each piece telling its own tale. Make sure to see the third floor hosting themed temporary exhibitions! As a bonus, many of these displayed timepieces are not just relics; they’re still ticking away! And, as a bold statement on its exterior, the museum proudly boasts the biggest pendulum clock in all of Japan. 

663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons

8. Agatanomori Park

Discover Agatanomori Park, a refuge for families, couples, or anyone seeking serenity amidst nature. This forested oasis near Matsumoto City Art Museum and Fukashi Shrine is adorned with ponds, waterfalls, and trees, creating a perfect retreat. Whether you’re strolling through cherry blossoms in spring, crunching leaves in autumn, or building snowmen in winter, Agatanomori is beautiful in all seasons. Uncover a slice of city history with a tour of the Taisho-era Historical High School building, a rare Western-style building in Japan, now registered as an important cultural property. 

9. Alps Azumino National Government Park

Sei F, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons

Discover Azumino National Park, your ticket to nature’s splendor without the mud-smeared shoes! Nestled at the base of Mount Jonen, this expansive park gives you a breathtaking view of the Azumino Valley. Unleash your adventurous side or enjoy a more serene experience with woodland trails and hammock relaxation zones. The park’s springtime charm blossoms with cherry trees, perfect for delightful hanami parties, and winter is the time to witness the park’s illumination event, leaving visitors spellbound every year. 

10. Daio Wasabi Farm

As one of Japan’s largest wasabi farms, Daiso Wasabi Farm offers a picturesque landscape of meticulously tended fields nourished by crystal-clear water from the Northern Alps. The farm’s charm extends beyond wasabi, with walking trails leading to the Daio Shrine, dedicated to the local hero Hachimen Daio. You can even stroll along the idyllic riverbank, where wooden water wheels add a touch of nostalgia. And for the foodies, the shops and restaurants boast an array of wasabi-infused delights like fresh wasabi, pickles, noodles, curry, sausages, and even wasabi beer and chocolate! 

Many people come to Matsumoto for the castle but stay for everything else! From the list here, what are you most excited to check out? 

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