AnneMarie and Andrew

Annemarie and Andrew – Trekking Asia

Matsumoto Castle & Utsukushigahara

This was our fourth day in the Japanese Alps. Yesterday, we had driven from Kanazawa to Kurobe Dam and then to Matsumoto. Today, the plan was to visit Matsumoto castle and then to go to the Utsukushigahara highlands for a walk, or if it rained (as it often does) then we would drive on the mountain passes.

First, Andrew had his hair cut. He nearly got a number 1 all over as the clipper blades here are in milometres and not as we are used to, grades of clippers. When the hairdresser started shaving with a 3 blade, Andrew quickly discovered it meant 3mm and not a number 3 blade like we had at home. Luckily the hairdresser has only done the front side of his hair and managed to rectify it.

Matsumoto Castle was only a kilometre from our hotel. We walked there after the haircutting incident. The castle is sat on a flat area of land partly surrounded by a moat, filled with water. Originally there were three moats, one that surrounded the city, another moat around the whole of the castle and one around the keep. The water was handy to try and prevent attackers but also to help put out a fire. All Japanese castles are made of wood and many have been burnt down. Even the castles that exist today generally have a history that involves a fire (and burning down) at some point.

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Matsumoto castle is different to other castles we have visited. Instead of the bright white outer shell of many Japanese castles, this one is black and as a result gained the nickname ‘the crow’s castle’. It is 6 stories high but from the outside appears to be only five, there is a secret floor. Another difference is the fact it is built on the flat rather than on a hill.

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The castle is Japan’s oldest, with construction starting in 1593 and completed in 1614. In 1635, in a time of peace, a turret was added to the original structure. This turret was built for moon viewing and has a vermilion veranda to help accomplish this.

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Inside the castle you can see the huge beams required to construct a castle of this size. As you wander around, small holes appear in the wall. Like British castles these were for shooting arrows at the enemies. Next to them are larger holes for shooting muskets. The castle also houses a gun collection with guns from the late 1500s. We also found the secret floor, which had no windows and was used to house weapons and gunpowder. We wandered through the castle taking the steeps stairs to the top, the steepest staircase went up at 60 degrees and had a height difference of 40cm between each stair. This was a bit of a pain to get up and was made even worse by the fact you have to walk barefooted. The steps have a raised lip at the edge, which is very painful to stand on. I also found it difficult to walk without shoes on a solid wooden floor, normally a carpet cushions my foot and it feels fine to walk. Here, it felt unnatural and uncomfortable. We made it despite the pain and the carrier bags of shoes we have to carry with us. When we reached the top the windows were covered in chicken wire making photos impossible. We made our way down passing through the moon viewing room with the red veranda. This has 3 sides of windows that open and make it clear it was not a defensive part of the castle. We finished by taking a few photos of the front of the impressive looking keep. A very nice looking castle with plenty of original features and a few pieces of information. Shame a guide wasn’t available but a good hour spent at another National Treasure.

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We sat in the garden to eat our lunch. The sun was shining brightly. All looked good for our walk in the ‘heights’ later on.

We headed to Utsukushigahara, which had views over Matsumoto. We were looking for the open air museum but there is very little information available and what existed was in Japanese. We drove up some windy roads and discovered the power mode on the Prius. When you press the button and accelerate, the engine sounds like it may explode. The car, however, drives terribly, like a bathtub filled with water as you go around a corner. Andrew still enjoyed driving up the pass, made easier by the fact he had no gears to change and the road has mirrors at each corner so you could check to see if anything was coming, allowing for higher speeds.

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We reached the top and took some photos. The scenery was very much like the Swiss Alps or Scotland with pastures in the middle of pine trees. Japan is probably the greenest place I have visited, more so than even New Zealand. It was a fantastic sight from up the heights with views of the major 3000m+ peaks in the distance.

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We went for a short walk over the hill but since coming to Japan we have had no energy at all. Climbing a hill is now exhausting and yet we went walking for 39 days in Nepal and climbed up 7000 steps in China. No idea what is wrong with us.

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We found some cows on our journey and then a caterpillar that had some ticks attached. The caterpillar highlights the fragility of life, one moment it was crawling in the middle of the road and then was splattered by a van. Makes you think a bit! I followed up my photo journey with a photo of a nice flower and another caterpillar before we watched the clouds sweeping up from the valley floor onto the mountain.

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It looked like it was going to rain. We decided to take the passes down and so I drove down really windy roads – on the way we found the open air sculpture park but it was now closed (and raining). Half way down the many switch backs Andrew drove and the rain really came down! No wonder it is so green here, it always rains. Despite the rain the trees looked lush in the light being such a vivid green.

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We followed up our day by finding a delicious tonkatsu restaurant, which is breaded pork. Thankfully we had a satnav which uses the phone number of places to get the location. The restaurant was in a old wooden building. It was lovely and the food was extremely good and well priced.

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The restaurant, which was on the edge of town, had a really nice garden to and we had a little look around before getting back in the car to leave.

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We had a really good day driving in the valleys and up passes. We also discovered that to find walks you need to just go to a place in the Alps. If you can read Japanese there will be a walking board with some information on.

Posted from Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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