THE CROW CASTLE: JAPAN’S OLDEST PREMIER CASTLE
The first castles in Japan were built by the independent states which fought against one another during the chaotic Warring States Period (1467-1603). With the bulk of these castles destroyed during the Meiji Restoration and World War II, only a dozen of them are left standing today – and Matsumoto Castle is the oldest amongst these remaining castles. The castle’s donjon (main keep) is characterized by an intricate defensive system consisting of a large moat, hidden floors and various openings for launching attacks on invaders. The wooden interiors and external stonework kept in their original states add to the authenticity of this historic complex. Matsumoto Castle is a popular photography spot for newlyweds, especially during spring where cherry blossoms abound in the castle grounds. The castle also hosts the Taiko Drum Festival in summer and the Moon Viewing Party in autumn.
NAWATE DORI: THE BLESSED FROG STREET
En route to Matsumoto Castle, take a stroll through Nawate Dori, a stone-paved pedestrian street next to the Metoba River. After the Yohashira Shrine was built in 1879, the street became an important path leading to the place of worship and businesses prospered over time. Today, an eclectic mix of antique shops, handicraft stalls and snack shops can still be seen on the affectionately named Frog Street. The word for frog in Japanese, “kaeru”, also means to buy and to go home safely, and the frog statue at the end of the street is believed to bless customers with a safe passage home.
KAMIKOCHI: WHERE GODS DESCEND
Japan takes its environmental conservation very seriously, and this is why visitors often head to the country for its pristine natural landscapes. Just an hour’s bus ride away from Matsumoto City lies Kamikochi, a charming basin along the Azusa River that is part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park. The 15-km long plateau nestled in the Hida Mountains, better known as the Northern Japan Alps, is a hikers’ paradise with its breathtaking scenery and untamed wilderness. The word “kamikochi” can be written as “ascent to heaven” or “where gods descend” in the Japanese language. Both names symbolize the spirituality and out-of-this-world beauty that is characteristic of this place.
HIDA MOUNTAINS: PUTTING JAPAN ON THE MOUNTAINEERING MAP
Historically, the Hida Mountains were considered sacred and all were prohibited from scaling them except monks and priests. That changed in 1877, when the Meiji government invited an English goldsmith, William Gowland, to climb Yarigatake with a group of Western engineers. Gowland wrote about his mountaineering experience in a magazine article and first coined the phrase, “Japanese Alps”. His article introduced the English community to the beauty of the mountain ranges, and thereafter, Reverend
Walter Weston too wrote about his experience of Yarigatake and Kamikochi in his book, “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps”, sparking an interest in recreational mountaineering in the region.
THE MULTIPLE FACETS OF KAMIKOCHI’S BEAUTY
Because of Kamikochi’s relatively flat topography, marshes and ponds are a common feature of the basin. In 1915, an eruption of the adjacent active volcano, Yakedake, created a natural dam in the Azusa River to form one of Kamikochi’s most scenic spots, Taisho Pond. The best way to enjoy the sights of Kamikochi is to take an easy hike along the river from
Taisho Pond to Myojin Bridge, where you will pass by several panoramic points, such as Tashiro Pond, Kappa Bridge, Takezawa Marsh and Myojin Pond. For seasoned hikers and campers, a hike up to Karasawa Valley will be slightly more challenging, but the vibrant autumnal foliage will be well worth the extra effort. Be sure to look out for exotic species of flora and fauna during the trek, such as the
Japanese bush warbler and the snow monkey.
WASABI: THE INDISPENSABLE SPICE OF JAPANESE CUISINE
Sushi is a beloved dish all round the world, and its accompanying condiment – the wasabi, is our favourite root vegetable that makes us choke and wheeze. But did you know that it is not wasabi that they have been putting on your salmon sashimi sushi all this while? Because real wasabi costs an arm and a leg, most Japanese restaurants have switched to using horseradish in its place, with the paste dyed green to look like wasabi. Now, before you throw up your hands in despair and give up on Japanese cuisine for good, here is the good news – in the countryside of Azumino, you will find the largest wasabi farm in the world, the Daio Wasabi Farm. Here, not only can you purchase fresh wasabi roots to bring home (they last in freshness up to a week), you can find out more about the cultivation of wasabi by taking a tour of its grounds. Even if you are not a fan of the root, the rustic farm is bound to charm with its quaint waterwheels and crystal clear waters. For the gastronomically adventurous, you will be spoilt for choice at the wasabi restaurant on the premises - from wasabi curry rice, wasabi soba, wasabi ice cream, to wasabi croquettes, wasabi tempura, wasabi beer... The versatility of the vegetable will amaze you. This is one place you will walk away from feeling warm and happy inside.
LEFT Nicknamed the ‘Crow Castle’ for its black exterior and wing-like roofs, the 420-year-old structure is a National Treasure and the pride of Matsumoto City
ABOVE Be sure to walk along Kappa Bashi, a suspension bridge near the centre of Kamikochi, where the yearly opening and closing ceremonies are held
BOTTOM LEFT Appreciate the aesthetics of the tea gardens as you partake in a traditional tea ceremony
BOTTOM FROM TOP Daio Wasabi Farm was the setting for one of the iconic scenes in Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” Dig into the restaurant’s very own rendition of wasabi curry rice. The taste is reminiscent of Thai green curry with an occasional hint of wasabi