Our journey from Obuse to Matsumoto should have been the simplest journey of our entire trip…alas we jinxed it. For the first time since arriving in Japan we had a late train, in fact we ended up getting on a different train altogether, and this one had no seats and was absolutely rammed. The two hours that followed involved a lot of back ache, ‘My Dad Wrote A Porno’ related giggling fits and a couple of very angry Japanese men.
By the time we arrived in Matsumoto it was safe to say we needed a sit down and luckily our hostel, Backpackers Matsumoto, was literally 5 minutes from the station. This hostel was beautiful, from the outside it was an unassuming little house overlooking the river but inside it was a traditional Japanese house, with tatami mat floors, futon beds and sliding doors around every bend.
After dropping off our bags we headed out into Matsumoto proper. A short walk along the river brought us to the stylish downtown area full of traditional buildings sandwiched between modern architectural masterpieces. The centre of this wonderful city is Matsumoto Castle, a world heritage site and a national treasure.
This was our first castle of the trip and boy was it a good way to start. Famed for its black wooden exterior and pristine condition, Matsumoto Castle is truly a sight to behold and we were both taken aback when we first saw it. Unlike the castles of the west, which are often beautiful and forbidding, this castle was majestic, magnificent but also appeared oddly delicate.
Once inside the castle the wooden interiors with their steep staircases and defensive windows reminded us of the true purpose of the building as a military monument. Although there were once a series of keeps and barracks throughout the castle the only building that now remains is the central Tenshu (keep). This magnificent fortress now sits amongst beautiful gardens and well maintained lawns, an homage to Japan’s military past and a promise of peace in its future.
As dusk fell across the city we wandered back to the river where there are a number of traditional cobbled streets all packed with vendors hawking their wares. One local speciality is a fish waffle. Now the waffle itself is not made of fish, it is simply mounded to look like a fish, however each waffle is stuffed with a variety of fillings. The were sweet or savoury options, and I opted for a traditional curry filling…which was incredible and I would highly recommend it.
It was down one of these streets that we found Itoya, a traditional Japanese sake bar serving warm sake and small dishes of local food. This place was out of this world and has been one of the highlights of the trip so far. Along with a delightful bottle of warm sake we sampled a variety of dishes including the local speciality, horse meat…and boy was it good. Along with the horse meat we tried Genghis Khan, a lamb dish inspired by, you guessed it, Genghis Khan. Honestly the selection in this place was amazing and the owners are only too happy to explain the origins of each dish.
Back at the hostel, full to bursting and a little tipsy, we met the other guests including the charismatic Matthieu from Quebec who was staying in our room. After a few more cups of sake and a questionable cocktail made by Yianna we decided to head back out into the city and go to Karaoke. Having already done it once Yianna and myself considered ourselves professionals at this point and so went straight in with an incredible rendition of ‘Jolene’.
The rest of the night is a little bit of a blur but the next morning we woke up bright and early, slightly hungover and headed south into the Kiso Valley. This mountainous region of central Honshu is home to the Nakasendo Way, the medieval highway that linked Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo). We were going to hike the stretch known as the Torii Pass, a mountain pass as high as Ben Nevis that connects the postal towns of Yabuhara and Naraijuku.
We arrived in Yabuhara just after 7:30am and the whole valley was shrouded in fog. Undeterred we began to climb the steep path into the Torii Pass. This included passing very frequent signs warning of bears and bear attacks, each sign was accompanied with a large bell…supposedly to scare the bears away. Although we didn’t see a bear, I almost thought I kind of saw one at least 136 times and we did actually find a fresh paw print near the halfway point of the hike.
In between panicked searches for any sign of potential bears we took the time to appreciate the silence of the forest and the panoramic views of the wilderness. By the time we began our descent into Naraijuku the sun was shining and animals could be heard all around us, including a troop of Japanese Macaques. This boisterous bunch were led by a huge female we christened as ‘Big Bessie’ and despite all of our attempts to sneak up on them to get a good picture they always evaded us.
As we walked into Naraijuku we came across a beautiful Shinto shrine and observed the locals making small offerings followed by a short prayer in order to gain the good favour of the mountain spirits. Having carefully studied the technique we made an offering of our own and said a short prayer as well. Naraijuku itself is a beautifully maintained Samurai postal town, complete with traditional streets and craft sellers.
Returning to Matsumoto we were just in time to see an open air exhibition of Samurai warfare at the castle, this included a group of men dressed in full Samurai garb practicing with a series of rifles, highlighting the impact western gunpowder and weapon art had on warfare in Japan.
By the time the sun finally set we were exhausted and took this rare opportunity to have an early night. Matsumoto had very quickly secured a place in our hearts but we were excited for what our trip still held for us. Our next stop was Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan and the centre of Japanese culture as far as many people are concerned.
See you soon,