Black castle of the crows in the Japan Alps

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
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Trip End Apr 08, 2007


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Monday, May 3, 2004

It's Golden Week in Japan, and the weather is warm and beautiful. Yoko's down from Tokyo for the week, which we're spending together before she's off to Uzbekistan for her graduate's research. In light of that fact, we decided not to do anything too grueling activity-wise. So, rather than heading abroad (as I might otherwise prefer), we've been sticking around Nagoya and doing the occasional daytrip. A couple days ago we went up to Magome and Tsumago, two old post towns along the former mountain road between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). In keeping with the attractions of the Japan Alps, today we spent the day in Matsumoto, the second largest city in Nagano prefecture.

Matsumoto sits smack in the middle of Nagano, in a wide valley between the mountains. Apparently it can get quite steamy in the summer, but in mid-spring it's very pleasant. I imagine winter's considerably snowier than Nagoya though. With a population of 200,000+ it isn't exactly tiny, yet living there would probably bore me stiff. It's as modern and concrete as just about any other place in Japan, but distant enough from any major metropolis to take on a lazy, provincial air. Still, the central core is pleasant enough and there's a fair bit of history left here and there.

But the real reason to swing through Matsumoto is to pay a visit to its historic castle. One of the twelve remaining original castles in the country, Matsumoto-jo is really magnificent. Shorter and squatter than the reconstructed castle in Nagoya, it's also much different in appearance. Instead of the brighter, predominantly white exterior found on Nagoya-jo and Inuyama-jo, Matsumoto-jo looms in stark, black wood. The donjon is still surrounded by a carp-filled moat, spanned by a picturesque vermilion bridge (a photo favorite for visiting tourists). It's easily the finest castle I've yet seen in Japan.

This being Golden Week, however, we didn't exactly have the whole castle to ourselves. Quite the contrary, in fact: when we got round to the entrance, there was already a formidable queue awaiting us. When we got to the ticket gate after only ten minutes or so, it seemed like it was going to go pretty quickly. In actuality though, it was only the beginning. Winding and snaking throughout the cramped interior was a bunched-up line of daytrippers, edging along at about six steps a minute. Given the modest size of the old feudal fortress, it was incredible how many people were packed into it. After about an hour and a half of shuffling tediously through the low ceilings and precarious staircases, we finally made ourselves to the top. Then suddenly the crowds vanished. It was almost as if once everyone had reached the pinnacle, they all simultaneously decided they'd hit the goal and didn't need to stay on any longer. Either that, or everyone was desperate to get lunch since it was by then about 1pm. Regardless, for all the claustrophobia on the lower floors, it was at least somewhat rewarding to enjoy the top-floor viewing area in relative peace.

Upon our descent, I made the seemingly astute decision to postpone lunch. After all, in a country where time dictates behavior to an extraordinary degree, the nearby restaurants were sure to be packed. Since the done thing in Matsumoto is to have the local speciality - soba (buckwheat noodles) - we were set on that, but not if it meant having to sit in line for an hour or more. So instead, we explored the area north of Matsumoto and took in some of the city's few remnants of Meiji-era Western architecture. Surely by the time we finished that, the lunch hour rush would be over? Well, indeed it was. The one thing we didn't consider though, was just how big that rush would be. Literally every soba shop we passed in the center had been cleaned out of noodle stock and was now closed for the day. After stopping by about ten to fifteen different shops displaying the same sign, I was quickly starting to lose my temper. How could a whole city run out of their trademark dish??

Fortunately, after about half an hour searching for a restaurant that was still open, we found one along the river north of the center. A few other starving tourists were also lingering out front of the place, hoping - I'm sure - that there'd be enough soba left by the time they got in and sat down. This meant that we still had to queue, despite it being almost three in the afternoon. But at long last, we did get our lunch, even if it impressed on me one important point......

Don't travel around Japan during Golden Week!
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