We hopped on a bus from Tokyo to Matsumoto, ready to discover what the main Japanese island of Honshu has to offer. Three hours later, we arrived in the small city of Matsumoto which promised old style buildings and a castle.
Our walk from the station to the castle took us through some of the city and along a small alley of shops selling souvenirs and crafts, before we crossed the moat to the castle. Matsumoto castle is one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan. Japan used to have around 200 castles but many were destroyed to make a statement about the end of the Samurai’s reign. Now there are around 105 castle of which only 5 are original and built from original materials. We saw a sign for free English guided tours as we walked up to the castle. The tours are totally free, no tips or catches and run by Japanese pensioners. Our tour guides were fantastic and explained the history of Mastumoto and it’s castle with maps, photos and of course a walking tour. We definitely recommend getting a guide to show you around and explain how the castle was built and defended. Mastumoto was actually never attacked, so this is probably the main reason it has survived to the present day. Interestingly, unlike European castles, Japanese castles were never built to be inhabited, they were symbols of power but the main buildings were only used as a final retreat. In the event of a castle’s occupants having to retreat into the keep, the owner would retire to a special room and surrender by killing himself. Thankfully, this never happened in Matsumoto but we found it strange that they would go to so much effort to build a giant castle and then commit suicide. Outside the castle we were lucky enough to catch a chrysanthemum exhibiton. We were amazed by the number of flowers from just one stem and loved the chrysanthemum-bonsai trees.
After the castle we had a wander around but felt that really the castle was the star attraction. Unfortunately, our day went from bad to worse when the Airbnb room we had booked started crawling with bed bugs around 10pm. We left and ended up sleeping in an internet cafe (this time without free ice cream) until our bus to Takayama in the morning. We guess airbnb is totally unregulated and sadly some people don’t maintain a good standard of cleanliness, but we have to say it was easy to apply for a refund.
Running away from Matsumoto in the morning, our next stop was Takayama, which we quickly fell in love with. Nestled between the mountains of the Japanese alps, with a well preserved old town and some beautiful hiking it is perfect for a few days to relax and unwind. Our hostel called J-hoppers was fantastic and gave us loads of information and tips of what to see. Since we arrived just in time to catch the morning market, we headed straight there. We really enjoyed diving straight into all the sights, smells and tastes of the market. The first stall we saw sold local dolls called sarubobo (little monkey baby) which are made by mothers to protect their children and give them something to play with during the snowy winters. We tried some octopus balls, chestnut ice cream and the locally grown apples. The apples in Takayama are huge easily weighing 0.4kg each, and sadly costing anything from 200 yen to 400 yen. We were shocked by the price tag but happy to at least have a taste on some of the stalls. They are really delicious apples and very sweet, maybe even worth the price tag. The market slowly packed up around 11:30am and we wandered off along the river and into the old town.
Takayama has some fantastically preserved districts, which feel like you have walked back in time into a piece of Japanese history. The wooden houses are not just for display, they are homes, shops, museums, restaurants and even a blacksmiths. The windows have traditional lattice shutters and the doors slide just as they always have. We wandered towards one of the famous temples and found a little gem nearby. We stumbled upon a cafe shop run by an old Japanese couple. While we browsed the shop the husband slowly brewed our japanese coffee and latte. Not only was it delicious, but Zoë’s latte was the cutest cup of coffee either of us have seen. The top was decorated with a work of art in the shape of a cat which seemed to climb out of the cup as you drank. Needless to say, we ear-marked the cafe for a return visit, much to the owners delight.
Woken up by our coffee, we took a walk around the hills and temples of Takayama. Takayama is famous for it’s Matsuri (festival) where giant intricately decorated floats are carried through the streets. A selection of these is on display at the festival float museum, but we gave this a miss in favour of a walk in the sunshine. The trail follows the edge of the town, where there a too many temples to count, each with their own small gardens which you can wander through for free. The walk was very peaceful, so we gave ourselves a little challenge at the end. We walked up the hill to find the ruins of the ancient castle which sadly is now just the remains of a rocky wall. Despite the fact that we missed the autumn colours in Takayama there were still a few pretty red and orange glowing trees in the forest. Tired out from our walk we meandered back to our hostel to relax.
We went out for dinner to find some of the local speciality beef. A lot of people know about Kobe beef which is a type of wagyu beef with prominent fat marbled through the meat. This gives the meat a great flavour, a melt in the mouth texture and an astronomical price tag. Thankfully, the local wagyu beef in Takayama is less well known and there are a few (relatively) lower priced options. Maybe it’s just our European thinking, but 100g of steak with three chips on the side is not appealing when the price tag is 3000 yen (£20)! We quite like to leave a restaurant full after dinner, rather than looking for the next meal. Whilst looking for a reasonable option we bumped into an Amercian couple and ended up having a beef ramen dinner together and chatting about all things travel. It was a lovely end to our day.
With the sun shining in the morning we asked about any hiking trails around the city and our hostel receptionist recommended a walk around some hills to the south of the city. The walk to the beginning of the trail was a little boring as it took us along the main road. Once we found the trail we were plunged into an autumn forest and even better we were the only ones walking. The trail unsurprisingly had warnings about bears as it was on the edge of town and maybe not as well walked as some other trails. The forests in Japan are similar to Europe except beneath the trees there is usually bamboo growing and often a kind of sweet smell in the air. Our walk took us past a beautiful emerald pond and to the first hill summit with a view across the city and hills. So far we had gotten used to the Japanese toilet addiction (there are toilets everywhere) but we were still very surprised to find a clean toilet with running water on top ofvthe mountain! Then we descended past a temple and clambered up to a castle ruin before returning to the city. Sadly the clouds hid the real Japanese alps until we were on our way back, but we still got a glimpse of the towering rocky and snow covered summits in the distance.
Our time in the Japanese alps was almost at an end. With just enough time to fit in another trip to the morning market and a little retail therapy we had really enjoyed Takayama. On our way to Kanazawa we made a stop at a small village called Shirakawa-go. The Shirakawa region is known for it’s Gassho (praying hands) houses. These houses have steeply pitched thatched roofs made from susiki grass. Their name comes from their resemblance to clasped praying hands. The villagers of Shirakawago built such steep roofs because the area gets large amount of snow. Actually, Shirakawago is not far from a famous alpine road where the snow reaches depths of up to 4m and the road is carved through the snow. The houses are still inhabited and some are open to the public and include a museum on silk, a festival museum, the largest house and a medical museum. We chose to visit the only house in the village to offer free tea made from mountain herbs and also the only house where you can climb all the way to the eaves. It was really interesting to see how the wooden supports are bound together with ropes and how the roof sits on top of some huge trees. It might have been a miserable misty rainy day, but when the sun shone through the clouds we were treated to some fantastic rainbows. We also wanted to see the silk museum but found it closed and locked up for the winter.
Feeling cultured we hopped on the next bus to Kanazawa.