Matsumoto is having quite a moment among the foreign residents in Japan. In addition to its proximity to Tokyo and a lively mid-size town vibe, the city in Nagano Prefecture has two big-deal attractions that make it punch above its weight.
Matsumoto is home to the oldest one of the only 12 remaining original castles in Japan, built during the Edo Period or earlier. On top of it, it is also the birthplace of one of Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, if not the most — Yayoi Kusama, whose work is the main draw of the Matsumoto City Museum of Art and dramatically elevates its profile.
On a Thursday evening, I hopped on the JR Azusa Limited Express train from Shinjuku, which took me to Matsumoto in just 2.5 hours. During a three-night visit to Matsumoto, I explored the city, took a half-day trip to Narai, one of the historical Nakasendo Route towns and visited nearby Kamikochi for a nature outing.
Day 1: Cafes, Art and The Crow Castle
I took things slowly on my first day—visiting only the castle and museum and leaving plenty of time for cafe hopping. Matsumoto is known for having a vibrant cafe and restaurant scene.
I started the day at Sioribi Cafe, across the street from the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. By morning, the cafe—famous for its library aesthetic and comfortable sofa seating—was already full. It was a perfect morning for the delicious coffee served with buttered toast and the relaxing atmosphere, complimented by high ceilings and minimalistic design. The cafe is a testament to Matsumoto’s vibe, combining the feel of a small historical Japanese town with a youthful and urban energy.
Matsumoto City Museum of Art
After coffee, I went to the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. Yayoi Kusama’s work is known to attract a crowd. Luckily, that was not the case in Matsumoto. I was one of the few people visiting the museum early in the morning and was lucky to experience Kusama’s work as if it were a private viewing.
A collection of Kusama’s work on permanent display in the museum, titled The Place for My Soul, features a series of canvas paintings, polka dot walls, the famous pumpkin and infinity rooms Kusama is most well-known for. Admittedly, I only appreciated Kusama’s art enough once I experienced the immersive allure in person and without crowds.
While Kusama’s work is the biggest draw for the museum, there are also other permanent (including calligraphy works from Matsumoto-born artists) and rotating exhibitions. The museum shop and cafe opens to a spacious garden. One can easily spend a half day in the museum alone.
My next stop was Matsumoto Castle. Also referred to as “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior, the castle’s main keep, which is still in its original form, was built in the late 16th century. Despite the perfect reproduction efforts that often go into the reconstructed castles of Japan, an authentic castle allows for a substantially more immersive visual experience.
While the black exterior of the castle was supposed to intimidate the enemies in the olden days, the castle, surrounded by a picturesque pond and spacious castle gardens, today offers an idyllic and postcard-like scenery.
Stroll Along the Nakamachi-Dori
Just a few minutes away from the castle grounds lies Nakamachi-dori Street. The street, once home to merchants during the Edo Period, is today occupied by shops, restaurants and ryokans, some housed in well-preserved old warehouse-style (kura) buildings.
Day 2: The Most Scenic Nature Retreat
Matsumoto is one of the best getaways to Japan’s most scenic nature retreats—Kamikochi. It is almost impossible not to be moved by the scene encompassing the wooden Kappa Bridge with the backdrop of Hotaka Peaks and the crystal blue waters of the Azusa River.
Just a couple of hours from Matsumoto proper by car, bus or train, Kamikochi, part of Chubu Sangaku National Park, is home to multiple trails that would make both beginner and advanced hikers happy. While Kamikochi is home to trailheads to some of Japan’s highest peaks and most exciting hikes, such as Daikiretto, even the more accessible trails offer magnificent scenery.
With an early morning arrival, I had enough time to explore the nature trail leading to Tokusawa Lodge by following the Azusa River. The hike takes around four hours (round-trip), allowing plenty of time for detours, such as the picturesque Myojin Pond featuring a red shrine.
A tourism office is next to the Kamikochi Bus Terminal, where you can pick up free hiking maps. There are also several eateries in this area. On the alternative (and assuming you may have arrived early in the morning), the Tokusawa Lodge, the endpoint of the nature hike, also serves lunch.
Day 3: The Old Town
On my last day, I visited Narai. The town, accessible from Matsumoto with a direct train in less than 1.5 hours, is one of the historical Nakasendo Route postal towns that connected Tokyo to Kyoto during the Edo Period. There are 69 towns along the route. Narai, Tsumago and Magome are among the most well-preserved Nakasendo towns.
With a 1-kilometer-long street where traditional houses line with the backdrop of dramatic Nagano mountain scenery, I found Narai to be the most picturesque among these three well-known Nakasendo towns. This charming town, often called “Narai of Thousand Houses” due to its historical abundance of homes, offers a unique opportunity for visitors to step back in time. The Nakamura Residence, once inhabited by an Edo Period comb wholesaler, welcomes guests with open arms, providing a glimpse into the daily life of Narai during that era.
The call of a kissaten
Although my original plan was to trek the 6-kilometer trail from Narai to the next postal town, Yabuhara, to conquer the Nakasendo Route’s highest point, Torii Pass, standing tall at 1,197 meters, the lingering humidity of summer, even in September, led me to a different, more alluring choice. I was irresistibly drawn to the charming coffee houses lining the street—a harmonious blend of traditional kissaten (traditional coffee house) style with a modern twist. Here, I spent my time immersed in a book, leisurely observing the world passing by, a far more appealing prospect given the circumstances.
After a half-day in Narai, I returned to Matsumoto, where I continued my café and restaurant explorations (and even visited the museum I couldn’t get enough of).
As my perfect three-day weekend ended, I couldn’t help but contemplate my imminent return to Matsumoto for an extended stay, with the hopeful prospect of revisiting Narai and completing the hike I had reluctantly set aside during this trip.
Have you ever been to Matsumoto? What was it like? Let us know in the comments!