Have you heard of the famous “Black Crow” castle of Matsumoto? If not, you will want to put it on your Japan itinerary as soon as possible. No visit to Matsumoto would be complete without it.
On a clear, sunny day, we decided to leave our comfy living room couch to take a day trip a few hours north to see Matsumoto. We’d heard tons about this small city, especially about its famous castle. We quickly learned that you can easily spend a full day, or even a weekend, in Matsumoto.
We’ve been wanting to take advantage of the warmer weather, and this town is considered a city of the arts, mainly because it is the birthplace of Yayoi Kusama. We were so ready to visit Matsumoto and her castle and art museums, a must-do while in Japan, even though we were going to have to go back for the world famous Ice Sculpture Festival in the winter.
Things to Do in Matsumoto
Matsumoto is small city in the mountains of central Japan near Nagano city. It is known for the unique samurai castle and for its thriving art community. While a day trip to the castle can be a great outing, there’s more than enough to do here to fill a weekend on an overnight trip from Tokyo or on a longer road trip.
Matsumoto Sightseeing Map
We couldn’t wait to visit the “Black Crow” castle, Matsumoto’s stronghold. It’s distinct black wooden exterior gave the castle its nickname, and it definitely lives up to its name as it perches high. above the Matsumoto lake in the center of the city.
We crossed the moat and entered the interior grounds of Matsumoto Castle where we bought our tickets. As we entered the main garden, we were impressed with the sheer height of the castle. The exterior is white stucco and black lacquered window shutters, a stark contrast. The grounds were well manicured and pleasant to walk around and take in the views of the castle from different angles.
To enter the castle, you must remove your shoes and put on slippers. Almost immediately you are faced with a staircase. Climbing to the top was quite a haul. There are six floors and the steps to climb are narrow and varying heights. On top of that the staircase can allow two small persons on at a time, but often the keepers would hold you back while someone or a group is going up or down.
Power Tip: You must take off your shoes when you climb the castle tower, so make sure to bring very thick socks or a second pair if you are going during the winter. It is very cold on the feet. If you are going in summer, you will not want to go through barefoot, so it’s also prudent to bring a pair of socks for this as well.
Matsumoto City Museum
On the castle grounds, you will also find the Matsumoto City Museum. Displays tell the city’s history from pre-history, through the Middle Ages, and up until today. It showcases the building of the castle and many festivals held there as well. It doesn’t take long to wander the exhibits, and they are well worth a quick stop.
Address: Marunouchi 4-1, Matsumoto City
Hours: 8:30 – 5:00, last entry at 4:30, closed New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
Cost: 610 yen for adults, 300 yen for children
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Nakamichi Shopping Street
This quaint street, lining the canal, is known for its frog statues. Children will love looking to see who can find the most frogs. The shops and cafes sell everything from souvenirs to coffee, so the problem is staying focused with counting the frogs.
We stopped here after visiting the castle, so it was getting later in the evening. We meandered and window-shopped for awhile, then after the sun set, decided to have a relaxing cup of coffee. There are a few small coffee shops along the street but by far the best option is Coffee and Tea Itenki near the end of the shopping street. The owner and sole employee here is passionate about coffee and tea, making each single origin, hand drip cup of coffee individually with loving care.
Nakamichi Shopping street really put a fun spin on our trip. You won’t want to miss it.
Matsumoto City Museum of Art
One of the main reasons we were excited about visiting Matsumoto is that the famous artist Yayoi Kusuma was born there. Her pop art is amazingly bright and full of color and polka dots. We love it. As a daughter of the city, her art has a pretty good sized permanent exhibit in the Matusmoto City Museum of Art. The other exhibits are full of more traditional art, but the paintings are well done and we really enjoyed the calligraphy exhibit. It was necessary for us to get the English translations of course, but we tried to get a feel for the art before we read the meaning of the kanji.
Address: 4-2-22, Chuo, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano-ken
Hours: 9:00-5:00 daily (last admission 4:30), Closed Mondays all year except in August
Cost: 410 yen for adults
Right in the middle of town, this shrine is surrounded by a small peaceful park, a serene respite from the busy main road. Yohashira, is unusual in that it is dedicated to four different Shinto gods, the temple is purported to be one of the best to make wishes that will come true. Hey, it’s worth a try, right?
Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Our art endeavors continued as we headed a little out of the town to the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. This museum is dedicated to Japanese wood block prints and houses over 1800 pieces in revolving exhibits, so no matter how many times you go, you’ll probably see something new.
As you walk in, you notice that there is a TV and chairs, but there was no movie playing. You have to ask at the front desk for them to play it, and they have an English version. The movie was all about the tools a wood print artist needs, taking you through the whole process. It’s really done well, and we sat and watched the entire movie. We highly recommend you do the same, because it really gives you an appreciation on how much work is involved in these wood prints.
The room with the prints have English placards, explaining the scenes. The best part of the museum was their souvenir stamp table. As the wood prints are done in stages, so was their stamps. You could make two, Mt. Fuji and the Wave.
Address: 2206-1 Shinkiri, Shimadachi
Hours: 10:00 – 5:00 daily (admission closes at 4:30), closed Mondays
Cost: 1000 yen for adults, 500 yen for students
Matsumotoshi Timepiece Museum
If you like clocks and watches, this small museum right in the middle of downtown is a quick stop. A private collection originally, the city boasts over 1000 watches, many in working order.
Address: 390-0811 Central Matsumoto City 1-21-15
Hours: 9:00- 5:00 daily, closed Mondays and public holidays
Cost: 300 yen for adults
Where to Eat in Matsumoto
With only a few days to wander this quaint little city, we sure did eat at a bunch of places. There’s nothing better than wandering in a cafe when your feet get a bit weary from gawking at art all day long.
Pancakes – Fluffy pancakes are what people are looking for, and we found a great one called Gram. The interior lived up to its name and was definitely gram-worthy, as were the variety of pancakes.
Coffee Shop – Our favorite little coffee shop, we found right on Nakamichi Shopping Street. The proprietor is a coffee connoisseur, and she has a beautiful collection of tea and coffee cups and saucers she served in. She also made a chocolate sweet that she gave to us, free of charge, because it goes so well with the coffees we ordered. Coffee and Tea Inaki is the place for a cup of coffee or tea.
Pizza – For dinner we had seen this little pizza parlor with a wood oven on Nakamichi Street, Pizzeria Aletta. We decided we had to go and enjoy the show. We are so glad we did. It turns out the chef-owner is the Japanese national champion pizza dough spinner. Who knew this even existed as a competition? Anyway, his show was super amazing and not to be missed. Oh yeah, the wood fired pizza was really good too.
Where to Stay in Matsumoto
Matsumoto is a good size city, so hotel options are plentiful. We always suggest trying to find something right in the center of town, within walking distance of all the good restaurants and in this case, the beautiful castle grounds. Of course, you really can’t go wrong with booking a stay at a Dormy Inn.
How to Get to Matsumoto
Probably the easiest way to get here is to take the train from Tokyo. It’s a straight shot, and only takes 2.5 hours. The cost is about $80 round trip, but it is also covered by the JR Pass. We always drive, and it takes about the same amount of time as the train. If you are going to visit some other places in the vicinity, taking a car is a great option. However, if you just want to get out, see a good castle and some great art then a car is not necessary.
Places to go Near Matsumoto
If you were interested in making a trip north for a couple of days or more, there is plenty to see and do in the region. All are accessible by either train or bus.
Nagano – a little over an hour
Snow Monkeys – an hour and half
Takayama – two hours
Odawara – 3 hours
Shirakawago – 3 hours
Lake Suwa – 1 hour
Have you been to Matsumoto? Crow Castle? What was your favorite thing to do?
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.