In early February, Y and I decided to do some ryokan hopping and sightseeing to Nagano after having confirmed our booking for Noma’s pop up in Tokyo in late October last year (Yippee yeah yeah!). So the planner in me went ahead in full steam to plan all the exciting food, sights and stays for our 3 days 2 nights in Nagano as well as the rest of Tokyo trip with buddy CT (Y’s good friend since her boarding school days in Perth) who was more than happy to let me do all the research.
After studying the map of Nagano and what interests us, we decided to stay a night in Matsumoto on our first day, then drive up north towards Hakuba on our 2nd day, partly for Y’s work and then end the 2nd night in a different ryokan near the iconic Jigokudani Monkey Park.
After we arrived in Tokyo Haneda airport, we took the train from Haneda airport to Shinjuku station, a refreshing change from always conveniently raising my floppy bear arms for a taxi. After an hour train ride, we purchased our ticket in Shinjuku station for the Azusa train on Chuo Line heading for Matsumoto station. The train ride was around 2 and a half hours and was a good opportunity for us to catch a quick wink on the train before our driving journey began! (Click here for train timetable if you are planning your trip to Matsumoto.)
A spanking squeaky clean station greeted us as we got off from the train at Matsumoto station, that’s always what I like about Japan, their stations are amazingly clean. My ever reliable Nissan Rent a Car was just a convenient 2 min walk from the station, and the station was flanked by many food shops including an adorable Takoyaki snow mascot we had to stop to take a picture of. Yup that was how cold Matsumoto was, but I relished it entirely, since I have been waiting for this cold weather since my trip to Zermatt.
Once we picked up our Nissan Cube, CT by default became the driver, oops yes there’s a funny story to this, you see Y forgot to bring her international driving license even after reminding CT to bring hers, so the other task of navigation was relegated to Y and I.
Helping to be the additional pair of eyes to navigate our way around.
Thanks to the crisp, clean water and air, Nagano is well-known for its delicious soba noodles, and not surprisingly Matsumoto has some pretty good ones. Our tummies were rumbling by now, so we headed off first for lunch at Kobayashi-Soba (4-8-6 Ote, Matsumoto 390-0874 , Nagano Prefecture, Tel: +81 263-32-1298). Located along a quaint little street of old shops called Nawate-Dori, we walked up and down after we parked our car in the vicinity, before we figured this was the one, as unfortunately this is where GPS nor Google Maps could not really pin point the exact location. So take note of the facade below. Founded since the late Meiji period, this shop has been operating for more than a century, famous for their handmade buckwheat soba noodles.
Although the Zaru soba comes highly recommended (basically cold noodles topped with finely cut dried seaweed and served with dipping sauce and condiments, Y and I opted for a soup based one which was topped with quail egg, edible wild plants, grated radish and finely shredded dried seaweed. CT had the Tenzaru which was like a Zaru Soba but with an additional assorted Tempura on the side. It came with fresh wasabi root on the side, which CT took a while to grate. I wished there were nicer soup options – I personally didn’t really enjoy our choice, maybe somehow the wild plants and quail egg wasn’t quite what we expected to be, but the noodles were finely made and had a good bounce and texture to them. What amazed us were that everyone around us could eat through at least one to two boxes of the Zaru Soba, and we already struggled to finish what was in our 1 portioned size. I would recommend to go for the cold soba if you come here, don’t bother about the soup based ones.
After lunch, we had a quick walk of the shops around Nawate-Dori, located above the Metoba River, mainly selling some tourist souvenirs and some takeaway food counters including I couldn’t resist the red bean fish shaped pancake.
We were watching the time, and didn’t want to be too late to visit Matsumoto Castle, which is one of four castles in the country, designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and the oldest castle donjon remaining in Japan (4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture 390-0873, Japan, Tel: 0263 32 2902). I think it would be interesting to see how the castle was built and how their defence mechanisms were given the memories of Chillon Castle in Lake Geneva was still fresh in my memory. The architecture of the castle is quite unique due to its distinct black and white facade, hence it’s also known as the “Crow Castle”, sounds ominous although I didn’t feel any creepy tingly feel when I was walking around. The time to walk into the actual castle from the main park entrance didn’t take that long, but we took our time to pose and take the best angles of the castle.
We figured we should explore the interiors of the castle, which I have to say maybe wasn’t such a wise idea, as it comprised of very steep stairs which only gets steeper as we climb to the higher floors, and doesn’t get easier as the ceilings are very low plus Y and CT had to carry their chunky shoes since no shoes were allowed inside. I think Y and CT were almost crawling on all fours at one stage and I had huge problems crawling given my rather short and stout height compared to the adults.
Once we got to the top, of course, we had to soak in the views of Matsumoto city, and the narrow windows, once used by archers and gunmen (quite similar in a way to Chillon Castle) provides a perfect framed view of the Japanese Alps, and Matsumoto City, especially now when the grounds had touches of snow.
After what seemed like a really long 30 minutes walk up and down the castle, with rather sore upper thighs and bums that probably needed that workout, we made our way out and onto our home for tonight – Kai Matsumoto. Part of the Hoshino Resorts group, this modern day Japanese inn had a selection of 26 rooms for us to choose from. To be honest, I don’t think the interiors or the room is the best or the nicest compared to some others I have been to such as Takefue Ryokan in Kyushu or Hakone Ginyu in Hakone, but for 29,000 yen per person (including breakfast and dinner, tax and service charge included), the price was pretty reasonable.
In true Japanese hospitality, there was someone waiting for us outside as we arrived, and after we had our car parked, they helped us with our luggage into the foyer, where we were greeted by a dramatic double volume lobby and lounge. Every night, they have musicians who would play the piano and perform just after dinner, quite an interesting touch for a modern ryokan by far, although we more keen to check out their hot springs after dinner.
Dramatic double volume foyer of Kai Matsumoto.
One of the Japanese ladies then showed us around the place and brought us to our room – titled Sweet Fish, love the name :). I think the room architecture was cleverly designed to wow us with a very dramatic walkway once we got in, but the actual room for sleeping cum lounge area design was quite pared down. I appreciated though the humidifier provided, as the air can get really dry at night in this winter season PLUS the double toilets, given the many ryokans I have stayed in, this is by far the first with 2 toilet bowls!
Our room for the night! Love the name – Sweet fish, sweet like me!
Double toilets, so no arguing or fighting.
Our room came attached with a small hot spring bath, which was really small, it could probably just fit one of us and wasn’t that happening, there was hardly any view while soaking in there, so my recommendation is it’s suffice to book the room without the attached hot spring bath.
One of my gripes about staying here is the meals are not served in the room which I feel is very much part and parcel of the ryokan experience, but I realised when researching on many ryokans in Matsumoto and even the rest of Nagano prefecture, this seemed quite prevalent, and I would rather eat in the dining room then stay in some ryokan which looked sad and depressing so that I could have that ‘authentic ryokan experience’, save it, I have been there! Anyhow, every guest had their own private dining room in the restaurant for breakfast and dinner, which was good enough for me.
Once settled in, we were presented an English menu, wow, I think this was probably our first time seeing an English menu in any Japanese inn. We had requested for an additional upgrade to the red wine Shabu dinner, which hmm honestly, we all thought tasted rather strange. One of my favourites from the meal would have to be the deep fried scallop tempura though, and I loved their artistic representation on paper which accompanied the sashimi platter. It’s always these fine details that makes me respect the Japanese who are really perfectionists.
All settled in waiting to dig in to our kaiseki dinner.
Red wine shabu dinner.
Dessert – a duo of jellies.
One of the benefits of hot springs is boosting one’s metabolic rate, so naturally, we headed to the public baths straight after a very filling dinner. The alkaline water in Kai Matsumoto’s eight baths are channeled from Asama hot spring which once fed the private bathhouse of the Lord of Matsumoto Castle. Firstly, I have to say kudos to their photographer, I think the lighting made the indoor baths look much nicer (see their website, you will know what I mean) than it actually is although I would cut them some slack for the wide variety of indoor and outdoor baths they had including even a bed bath that one could lie in and a sauna bed. We started with the sauna bed before adjourning to the outdoor baths.
Where we scrub down first – very important Japanese etiquette.
Indoor hot spring bath.
Sauna bed, which was warm and not too hot.
I had a nice well rested sleep after all the hot soaking, well deserved especially after the long hike up and down the treacherous stairs in Matsumoto Castle. We had to wake up early the next day given the amount of places we had planned to visit. After filling our tummies up for breakfast which comprised of simmered tofu, grilled salmon with Japanese rice and pickles, onsen egg, fresh fruit to name a few, we said goodbye to Matsumoto as we drove on to northwards to Hakuba.
My personal verdict of Kai Matsumoto is I wouldn’t come back here again as a destination stay as its interiors and food isn’t the best I have had in a Japanese inn, but given its location within Matsumoto, and its decent variety of hot spring baths, I would come back here for a night stay just to get a good decent soak, and given the price, it maybe more well valued than staying in a conventional hotel in the same area. Look out for my next post on my 2nd day in Nagano!