16.3.15

Japan: Day 18 + 19 - Matsumoto and my return to Tokyo


With only 1 night booked in Matsumoto before heading back to Tokyo tomorrow, I wanted to get there as soon as possible to make the most of the day. There was only 1 bus departing from Takayama for Matsumoto before 11am and that was leaving at 7.50am, so it was an early start to make sure I got to the station in time for the bus. The breakfast at the guest house was mainly a Japanese buffet so my meal was a little basic, but would keep me going for the journey - salad and meatballs just isn't what I fancy at 6am, but this hotel was one of the very few that had cereal. 

 

After quickly packing up my stuff I made the short walk to the Takayama Nohi Bus Centre and I arrived just in time to see my bus pull in. I double checked with the driver that it was going to Matsumoto (as you never know ... I don't want to end up going 2 hours in the wrong direction) and again chose the seat at the front to make the most of any views on the 2 hour and 20 minute journey. There was only 1 other old gentleman waiting for the same bus who sat at the front as well, but was actually asleep before we left the station! After waiting 10 minutes for our bus to make a move we set off ...



It wasn't long before we were heading back up into the mountains with yet again some pretty outstanding views. This bus had a total of 5 stops on route to Matsumoto and picked up quite a few people along the way; a lot of them being hikers who were either about to begin or just ending their hike - you could tell the difference between the 2 groups as the teams ending their session looked frozen to the core! 



The roads started to get really icy, pretty steep with some rather sharp corners as we carved our way up through the mountains. I started to find myself pretending to brake and grip the handle as these crazy conditions didn't seem to phase the driver. 



These conditions didn't get better ... they actually got worse, but if anything I think the driver actually sped up! By now you couldn't see the road through the thick snow and as he took these corners overlooking pretty long drops down into the forests and snowy hillsides below, the back end of the bus kept on sliding. I was looking around the bus to see if anyone else was concerned, but half of them were asleep so I assumed that this was normal. I'd have my eyes on the road constantly except for every now and again I'd be like "oh god, look at that view, get a picture Joe quick quick ... argh bollocks you missed it!" But those moments did take my mind off of Mr. Tokyo Drift behind the wheel! To be fair I'm sat here writing this and I'm sure this guy does the same journey 5 times a week ... but at the time it felt like every corner could have been my last!


And as quickly as the snow appeared before I knew it we were out the other side and into the sunshine, but more importantly the road was bone dry! And for your reference, if you're ever in the area and get on a bus with this guy ... be warned.


Tonight's hotel (The Dormy Inn) was only a 5 minute walk down the main road from Matsumoto station where the bus had dropped us off - yet again InsideJapan had provided me with accomodation in a great, central location.

 

I dropped off my bags, grabbed a map from the lobby and set off to the first (and main) place on my list for Matsumoto - Matsumoto Castle. Matsumoto is pretty small and everything is within walking distance, so I decided not to use any public transport and to rely on my Pocket WiFi from Japan Experience to help me if I got a little lost. Thankfully the castle was only a 15 minute walk north of central Matsumoto so I made it in one piece.

Matsumoto is situated at the southern end of a long valley that runs through the Japanese Alps. The peaks of the nearby mountains soar 3,000 meters into the sky to the west of the city. To the east is the Utsukushigahara Plateau, as well as several hot springs nestled in the foothills. The city flourished as a castle town between the 16th and 19th centuries. The streets, laid out in grids, and the houses built in the dozo style, (outside walls covered in a thick plaster and clay), are reminders of days past. Down certain streets you could imagine what it would feel like in this mountain town back in the 18th century.

I had been told that Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan's premier historic and most beautiful castles. The building is known by the locals as the Crow Castle due to its black exterior and silhouettes of the castle are found on things throughout the city, on the streets, on signs, in shop windows, on flags - you can tell that it's something the whole community is proud of.
The castle, which was completed in the late sixteenth century, maintains its original wooden interiors, external stonework and is listed as a National Treasure of Japan. It's also a flatland castle because it isn't built on a hilltop or amid rivers like most, but on a plain. Its complete defences would have included an extensive system of inter-connecting walls, moats, and gatehouses. So what was my verdict? ... I know I've said it before, BUT this castle has been the most impressive I've seen on my journey across Japan. Some of the best views of the castle are actually before you enter the inner grounds from the outside of the moat.


As you enter the grounds of the castle there is a opportunity to get the castles stamp. I've not mentioned this on my trip yet, but the majority (if not all) sites of interest have their own logo or stamp set that you can use to stamp either your ticket or a piece of paper as a memento. The Japanese do love collecting things so they normally don't miss this chance. I've not collected them religiously, but if I've had a spare hand and there hasn't been a queue I've stamped a few along the way ...



The grounds within the inner wall are beautiful, with the main focal point obviously being the castle, but there's also a little shop (selling red bean paste sponge filled treats in the shape of the castle of course), a restaurant and toilets included within the complex. Plus a samurai and geisha ... as anyone would expect.


The castle itself is actually now a museum. The rooms are a lot smaller than you expect, with some very tall and narrow stairs from floor to floor, making it a bit of a challenge for some to get to the top floor (5th). As you walk around the museum across 3 of the 5 floors you realise that a lot of it focuses on the era when guns and cannons were introduced and started to be produced and used in Japan during battles, with some amazing engraving incorporated onto most - but the gun loses some of the beauty and grace that the sword had I feel. 


The views from the 5th floor of the mountains surrounding Matsumoto are great. It also shows how the city isn't littered with dozens of high rise buildings compared to a lot of cities in Japan and is actually quite flat.  


Once I was fully satisfied that I'd explored the grounds enough I ventured back into the centre of Matsumoto, but had decided to come back to the castle just before sunset to take a few more shots. 

From here there were two main streets that I wanted to check out, which run parallel to one another with only the river to divide them. The streets are Nawate Street and Makamachi Street.

Nawate street was developed as the Sando leading to Yohashira Shrine and because it is located next to Metoba River, frogs are the theme and is often called frog street - there is also Frog Shrine plus a weirdly impressive giant statue of what seems to be 2 samurai frogs attacking a toad! Most of the shops sell something frog related (but no frog legs!) ;)  


After exploring the street but buying nothing frog related I hopped over the river and checked out Nakamachi-dori, which is a street lined by several nicely preserved old buildings, including a number of warehouse-type buildings (kura) with massive white painted walls, a characteristic of former merchant districts. Some of them house small shops, restaurants and a few ryokans.  To be fair I didn't find anything that interesting down here, I wasn't tempted into any of the shops and I didn't find that much to photograph - there is much more to explore down Nawate Street. I did however keep on spotting these very cool looking Coca-Cola benches - my first being down akamachi-dori. They must have been given to the city years ago because they are dotted throughout Matsumoto, and I personally think that they make for a great photograph:


By this time my stomach was rumbling as breakfast was a long time ago, so I started to keep my eye out for food. As I approached the end of Nakamachi-dori I saw a queue for a restaurant that was coming out of the door. I assumed it was going to be a noodle-house or some local delicacy, but to my surprise it was a burger joint! Burger shacks seem few and far between in Japan, but when you stumble across one it's normally a very successful venture. I looked at the menu outside and they had a lot of options to choose from - at that I joined the queue. 
The place was called Hulala and is a Hawaiian themed restaurant. I've been told out here that Hawaii is a very popular holiday destination for the Japanese so they really like Hawaiian based activities and themed venues. 
After waiting only 20 minutes I was seated and quickly ordered as I'd scoped out the menu in the queue and had already decided what I wanted. I went for the Chicken Teriyaki burger with cheese and avocado, with fries, onion rings and a coke. It was very tasty and really hit the spot, but wasn't a scratch on Centre4 hamburgers the night before (hardly any burgers the whole trip and then 2 in 17 hours!)


Fully charged I headed back out into the streets and went exploring, and with the sunshine beating down on this mountain town it made for a really nice few hours. Matsumoto has some real character, with a hint of being a little run down; some buildings that you feel may have been successful businesses in the 80's which have since closed and been left to decay.

 

There were a few buildings I particularly fell in love with. My final project on my photography degree at University was focused on abandoned spaces, so certain old shops really caught my eye. I passed these two places a few times and every time I stopped to take a different angled shot.


Matsumoto is famous for growing wasabi on the outskirts of the city across a series of farms. Wasabi can only be grown in extremely clean water, so the city is very proud of it's wasabi growing succes as it shows how clean the water and therfore the area is.

Within the city there are 100 fountains, streams and wells which are for the public to use as watering holes to quench their thirst throughout the day. I tried one and I must say that the water tasted pretty clean and pure - very refreshing.


As the sun started to disappear I popped back to take a few more shots of the impressive Matsumoto Castle. 


The following day was my journey back to where it all began; Tokyo. I can't believe that I'm already heading back to Tokyo. It feels like it was only yesterday that I was landing in this vast city, excited for what the next 25 days had in store. It's flown by but I've seen and experienced so much - way much more than I could have even imagined. But it's not over, with a week left, to go and find the real Tokyo - so I won't recap on my trip just yet.

There were a number of trains that I could take back to Tokyo throughout the day, so instead of rushing like I have been most days I decided to spend the morning in Matsumoto, check out of the hotel but leave my stuff in the lobby, update my blog, do a spot of shopping and then head to Tokyo after my 3pm check in time.

The breakfast at the hotel was pretty good so I stoked up on all the food groups:


The hotel were kind enough to let me use their seating area after check out, which I took full advantage of, making myself rather comfy and using their power so I could update my blog, check my expenses so far etc.


With the sun shining down I decided to pop out and do a spot of shopping as I noticed a few cool looking vintage stores amongst the usual Familymarts, 7Elevens etc. I've stayed clear of the shops so far on this trip because I literally have no room in my rucksack for anymore stuff and have been holding out for Tokyo where I'll probably end up buying an extra suitcase to bring home! Seeing as my next stop was Tokyo I thought what the hell, if I find anything I don't have to carry it too far! I ended up buying a new necklace and a t-shirt from a really cool little store called Gold. The t-shirt was a must because of the grammar - you notice out here that when they do use English on signs or on clothing, a lot of the time it doesn't make sense. They just love specific words so whack it on clothing wherever possible. This t-shirt has 'fuck on the moon' written all over it instead of 'fuck the moon', 'Info' instead of 'into' and 'atiny' instead of ' a tiny' - you get the picture. And I really liked this key necklace so I bought that as well. The yen is currently really weak making it pretty cheap for Brits to buy certain goods out here. 

From here I grabbed a burger, a couple of donuts, walked around a bit more and then headed back to the hotel to grab my stuff and make my way to the station. 


The station was only a 5 minute walk so I took my time and headed for the 13:47 Limited Express Azusa 20 service which took me direct to Shinjuku, which is the part of Tokyo where I'll be staying for the next 6 nights. The train ride was nearly 3 hours, so I set up shop (I now have a pretty good set up for my train journeys which let's me make the most of the down time, edit pictures, write blogs and research the next location using the Pocket WiFi).


The views on the route to Tokyo weren't anything to write home about, but I think I'd just acclimatised to my surroundings as I'd been pretty spoilt with the fantastic views through the mountains over the last 4-5 days. 

The journey felt a lot quicker than I 'd expected and before I knew it we were pulling into Shinjuku. 
Shinuku station is the busiest station in the world with over 3 million people using it every day, and it felt like it as I tried to carve my way through the crowds on my way out of the station. 

The hotel is only a 5 minute walk from the station, making it a perfect location for the next 7 days, so yet again, thank you InsideJapan for the hook up. Because of it being such a great location I was half expecting the hotel to be a little old, cheap and possibly run down - I couldn't have been more wrong! This hotel is one of (if not the) nicest hotels I've stayed in throughout my journey, so it was a great feeling knowing that this was my base for the next week. 


I took a good hour or two to fully unpack seeing that I was here for a week (I've tried to unpack at most places because I hate the feeling of living out of a rucksask). By the time I'd finished it was dark and started to rain heavily, but I grabbed my umbrella and thought I'd check out the local area and grab a bite to eat. 


I really am in the heart of it all, here in Shinjuku, and I must say, it feels really good to be back. My 1 day teaser in Tokyo just wasn't enough so I'm excited what the next 7 days has in store for me. I've got so much planned and so much I want to do and see. 

This will be my last blog until after my trip. I will still be instagramming and tweeting over the coming days, but I won't have time to write everything that I'm doing until I head home. So for now I hope this has been an interesting and fun little insight into the wonders of Japan. There will be a few more blogs to follow, so keep your eyes peeled and thank you for reading so far, it's been great to share my experiences so far ...

 
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