Matsumoto is a city of 250,000 located in the Nagano prefecture and it serves as a gateway to the Japanese Alps. Getting here from Tokyo is pretty easy. From Shinjuku station, take the Azusa Limited Express train. If that sounds complicated, it isn’t. At the station, find the JR ticket office and present your rail pass to the agent. Tell them that you would like to go to Matsumoto, and they will tell you when the next train departs and print off tickets with a seat assignment and the time and place your train will depart. It is that easy. The ride takes 2 1/2 hours to cover the 140 or so miles to Matsumoto.
Many people in Matsumoto are just passing through on their way to the Japanese alps to
hike, camp and ski, but the castle is really worth a stop. If you are not staying the night here or you want to go straight to the castle before going to your lodging, leave your luggage at the train station. The lockers are located in the waiting room and come in various sizes. A locker that is large enough to hold two carry on bags costs 400 yen, but be warned: they only accept 100 yen coins, so make sure you have the proper change.
From the train station, the castle is a 20 minute walk through the city center. The way is well marked, so just follow the signs. Matsumoto Castle has more to offer then just the castle. Built in the 1500s, it is one of only four castles in Japan that are designated National Treasures. When you get to there, take some time to walk around the moat and get some pictures of the castle from the bridge before entering the grounds. The grounds have wonderful gardens that are worth a stroll through, but if you just can’t wait, go to the castle first; the gardens and moat will still be here when you are finished.
At the steps to the castle, you will be asked to remove your shoes and place them in a plastic bag that is provided. You will have to carry them through your tour of the castle, which normally would not be a problem, except that the stairs going to the top two floors are very narrow and steep (nothing like this would be open to the public in the US) and carrying your shoes only adds to the precariousness. Once inside, follow the proscribed route up the six floors and then back down. From the outside, the castle appears to have only five floors, but as a defense, a secret sixth floor is hidden in the middle. Along the way, there are exhibits featuring weapons, armor and artifacts with descriptions in English, and a highlight of the castle is the Moon Viewing Room, built during a period of relative peace.
The castle is open from 8:30 to 5pm and the cost is 600 yen. Plan to spend about 90 minutes here to tour the castle and grounds.
If you are in Matsumoto for any amount of time, this is a must.