The town of Matsumoto on the island of Honshu is mainly known for its original castle which is said to be one of the best in Japan. Unfortunately however, many people choose to miss it off the itinerary, even though it is nestled close to the spectacular Japanese Alps, and as such offers you some of the best city scenery in all of Japan.
One of the main reasons to come to Matsumoto is that it is located in a lush valley surrounded by hills and peaks, some of which measure 3,000 meters in height, and this makes it a refreshing semi-rural option if you have already visited urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka.
Another reason to come here is that the town is covered in winding alleyways which are covered in shops selling curios and delightful cafes, and you can spend many an hour exploring on foot and by bicycle and soaking in the atmosphere.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Matsumoto…
1. Tour Matsumoto Castle
The big draw in Matsumoto is Matsumoto Castle which is was built in 1614 and is known as one of the top three most beautiful castles in Japan.
Unlike many castles in Japan, this is the original building which escaped being bombed in the Second World War and you can climb all the way to the top of the structure and look out over the rest of the city.
There is also a great gallery here which has a collection of weaponry and you can also visit the Matsumoto City Museum which sits in the castle grounds and offers you an overview of the history of the city.
To get to the castle you need to pass an iconic bridge which is one of the best sights to photograph in Japan.
2. Go for a hike
You may not think of Matsumoto as a place to go hiking, but actually if you get outside the city center then there is a range of lush countryside to enjoy.
The outskirts of Matsumoto are known for their pretty onsen hot springs and traditional bath houses, and you can trek out of the city and soothe your tired muscles in the warm waters.
There are also a range of well known campsites outside the city so you can camp out under the stars and this more rural side of Japan.
To find out the best hiking routes it is best to pick up a map which can be found at the local Information Center just south of Matsumoto Castle.
You can choose from a number of itineraries depending on your schedule and levels of fitness from short jaunts to surrounding rice paddies, or longer treks that take you to the splendid Japanese Alps.
3. Tour Matsumoto Timepiece Museum
For a quirky afternoon out in Matsumoto consider a visit to the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum.
The museum has the claim to fame of housing the largest pendulum clock in the country which makes it worth the trip alone, but also has a wealth of other treasures.
You can view the clock outside the museum but if you venture inside then you will also find over 300 different clocks and watches, some of which even date from the medieval period.
The museum is also an ode to Japanese craftsmanship and the art of collecting and preserving these amazing historical relics.
4. Try the local food
Matsumoto is known for having a few local delicacies.
One of these is soba noodles which are found all over the country but which are served a little differently in this part of Japan.
The noodles here are usually presented with wasabi paste which is unusual but is also an ode to the local wasabi production for which Matsumoto is famous, as the plants used to make this kind of horseradish are grown in the surrounding area.
Another famous dish that you have to try here is called basashi which is the Japanese for raw horse meat.
5. Experience Asama Onsen Taimatsu Matsuri
If you are in Matsumoto at the beginning of October then make sure not to miss this celebration which is one of the main events that this town experiences during the year.
The festival and parade is a celebration of Asama Onsen and you will see people walking through the streets shouting local mantras.
One of the most spectacular parts of the festival is that bales of hay are also set alight and rolled through to streets, culminating in a bonfire at Misha-jinja.
6. Visit Matsumoto Open Air Architectural Museum
Matsumoto Open Air Architectural Museum is located next to the well-known Japan Ukiyo-e Museum and most people miss it in favor of its more famous neighbor.
The museum lies amidst gorgeous rice paddies in the shadow of the encircling mountains and here you will find some beautiful architectural pieces from the Edo and Showa periods.
You can stroll around the fields here and take in these pretty structures, and the whole atmosphere with the looming mountains is simply breathtaking.
7. Go shopping at Nawate-dori
Nawate-dori is known as the place to come in Matsumoto if you want to shop up a storm.
This is one of the most traditional shopping streets in the city and also runs along the scenic river bank, making it the perfect place to go for a walk.
The stores along the road sell a range of goods such as antiques, traditional snacks and memorabilia such as secondhand books.
Make sure to check out the frog sculpture here which is said to be the official mascot of the street.
8. Visit the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum
The Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum is not one of the largest museums in the city but it is still a great place to come to learn all about the arts and crafts in this part of Japan.
The pieces on show here belong to the private collection of Taro Maruyama who collected folk pieces throughout his life and it will give you a window into some of the less well known folk handicrafts that would have been made in the days of old.
There are also tour guides here who will take you around the museum and explain some of the pieces on show.
9. Take a bus tour
If you want to get around Matsumoto in style and don’t have a huge amount of time to spend in the town then you may want to opt for a scenic bus tour.
There is a service known as the Town Sneaker Bus which leaves every half an hour from the Matsumoto Station and takes you around the city, stopping at all the various tourists attractions.
You need to pay to get off the bus and check out the attractions but it is still well worth it, or you can stay on and view them from afar for a whistle-stop tour of Matsumoto.
10. Explore the Utsukushi-ga-hara Open Air Museum
The Utsukushi-ga-hara Open Air Museum is located at the top of the Utsukushi-ga-hara-kogen Plateau and once here you will find a delightful sculpture garden which has over 350 different sculptures which were crafted by Japanese artisans.
One of the main draws of the museum is that it is nestled in the surrounding countryside and you can also go for a walk here and check out the green side of the city.
11. Take part in Matsumoto Bonbon
One of the main events held annually in Matsumoto is the charmingly named Matsumoto Bonbon which happens in at the beginning of August.
Some 25,000 revelers dance though the streets of the city and perform what is known as the bonbon dance, and this is truly a sight to be seen as many of the roads here are narrow and winding.
One thing to note here is that audience participation is encouraged so make sure to put on your dancing shoes.
12. Cycle through the city
If you are feeling active then one of the best ways to check out Matsumoto is to hire a bicycle and cycle around the town and surrounding countryside.
One of the great things about this part of Japan is that you can rent bicycles all over town including at the Matsumoto City Museum, and this then gives you the flexibility to uncover the delights of the city at your leisure.
13. Tour the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
One of the most famous museums in Matsumoto is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum which is dedicated to the traditional Japanese art of wood block printing.
This museum has the claim to fame of being the largest ukiyo-e museum in the world and to that end you will find some 10,000 pieces on display here.
The collection was started by Yoshiaki Sakai who painstakingly collected pieces over 200 years ago and locals will tell you that you can find wood block examples here that are not found anywhere else in Japan.
For that reason, this is a must-visit attraction for art lovers.
14. Try the tofu
You may not immediately think of tofu when you think of Matsumoto but actually this humble foodstuff has been produced and eaten here for centuries.
The best place to try the local vegetarian and vegan food is at Tofu Ryori Marui which has the claim to fame of having served up tofu for more than 80 years, so they know what they are talking about.
Their signature dish is the agedashi teishoku which is delicious silken tofu, and many of their dishes also come with meat if you prefer something a little heartier.
15. Check out the Former Kaichi School
The Former Kaichi School may not sound like somewhere you can visit but this is actually one of the most famous museums in Matsumoto.
The school would have opened in 1873 and is therefore the oldest school of its kind in Japan and it was turned into a museum in the 1960s.
The school museum is dedicated to showcasing how students would have learned in Japan in the days of old and the building itself is a gorgeous ode to design features from the Meiji Period.
It is also close to the main castle so you can visit both at the same time.