Updated: Jul 14
As Japan’s travel restrictions slowly eases, the nation will surely come up on many people's bucket lists. Tourist hotspots like Tokyo and Osaka needs little introduction. But look a bit beyond the big names, and there's a world of under-appreciated and over-looked destinations that escape the average tourist's radar. In the "Invasian's Guide to Japan" series, we'll try to give you an authentic, local understanding of Japan's overlooked gems.
The first installment in this series will cover the picturesque Matsumoto city, located 2 and a half hours away from Tokyo in the rugged Nagano prefecture. An easy and scenic train ride away, Matsumoto city provides a glimpse of the slower, Inaka (countryside) lifestyle.
A scenic landscape combined with a bustling skate, fashion and art (and beer!) culture, it deserves a spot on anyone's itinerary.
Matsumoto city is best known for the Matsumoto Castle, one of the best preserved castles in all of Japan.
But even if you're not a history buff, Matsumoto Castle is still definitely worth a visit. The general park area has free access with plenty of serene resting areas. You can also pay a small fee to go inside the castle (Please don't throw up your tag inside of the castle...). For springtime visitors, the the castle also boasts one of the best sakura blossom spots in the nation!
If you're interested in more historical information about the castle, there's plenty of more well-informed articles on the internet to read from. I just know it looks really cool. (Why are you looking for Japanese history facts on a graffiti blog anyways?).
Frog Street (Nawate Dori)
Just a few blocks before Matsumoto Castle, Frog Street offers a shopping street experience straight from the edo-period. Just look at it!
Matsumoto City Museum of Art (MCMA)
If you have any interest in contemporary art, the name Yayoi Kusama must surely ring a bell. The renowned Japanese artist (and her polka dots) was born and raised in Matsumoto city. Kusama has a number of permanent works exclusively displayed at the MCMA. Along with that of Kusama, the MCMA boast a many other installations and works from local artists. The museum has been a hugely influential in the local art scene.
Canola Skateshop is the premier skateshop of Nagano prefecture. It's skater-first philosophy means it only stocks skate or skater-owned brands and labels. It's close ties with Nike SB means grants early access to uber-limited Dunks ahead of general release dates (peep their Instagram for a glimpse!). To top it off, the owner of the store, Shunta "Hakase" Kobayashi is a local legend sponsored by Diaspora Skateboards. What's not to love?
Stay Gold Skateshop
Stay Gold Skateshop is another key player in the Matsumoto skate scene. Within walking distance from Matsumoto Castle, Stay Gold stocks many independent brands with a heavy graffiti influence around the shop. Be sure to check out their stack of authentic raw denim, a skater must-have in my opinion (rugged, long-lasting, gets better with age. It's a must have!).
Panagorias Thrift Shop
Matsumoto's has a surprisingly good thrifting scene for such a small city. My personal favourite is "Panagorias," located between Matsumoto station and Matsumoto Castle. It's solid curation in vintage selvedge Levi's, 70's letterman Jackets and rare graphic tees has made it a must-visit every time I'm in Matsumoto.
(Photo courtesy of Itsna Az Zahra)
It wouldn’t be a good trip without some good grub. Lucky for you, Matsumoto City has no shortage of good food. Here are a few of our recommendations.
Nagano prefecture is best known for “soba,” thin buckwheat noodles. There will be no shortage of quality soba restaurants in Matsumoto. Unlike the sub-par soba found in big cities, soba restaurants in Matsumoto is noticeably fresher. Order any "Zarusoba (Cold Dipping Soba)" for an authentic, Nagano cuisine experience!
Sanzoku-yaki is the soul food of Matsumoto. Generous pieces of fragrant fried chicken that isn’t too heavy, Sanzoku-yaki often served with cabbage and rice.
Burgers isn’t exactly a traditional Japanese delicacy, but Matsumoto has a surprisingly good selection of hearty, gourmet burgers. My personal favorite is "Hulala," a Hawaiian style diner serving burgers, pancakes, waffles and great cocktails! It's right next to Frog Street and within walking distance of all other sites on this blog.
Back when I first moved to Nagano prefecture and my Japanese wasn’t too good yet, I ordered “Inago” at a restaurant because it was the only thing I could read and pronounce. To my surprise, the waiter returned in a few minutes with this!
Inago are available at most Washoku (Japanese Style) restaurants. While the taste actually isn’t bad, it’s definitely suited towards our more adventurous readers. Itadakimasu!
How to get there?
From Tokyo, the easiest way to get to Matsumoto would be to take the JR Chuo main line from Shinjuku station. It takes just under three hours and a return trip will set you back about a hundred bucks, although your JR Pass may include this route, allowing you to take the train without paying anything.