Japan Low Res (2)By Kris Madden

ALTHOUGH known to many Australians as a top ski destination, beyond the Olympic ski jumps at Happo-One and the towering peaks at Hakuba, many of the lesser-known towns and cities in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture are a must to explore for their rich history and a glimpse inside rural Japan.

One of the most renowned is the castle town of Matsumoto. Nestled at the foothill of the Japanese Alps just a few hours from Tokyo, the local Matsumoto Tourism Bureau bills it as the home of “Music, Mountains and Education”. While the ‘education’ bit might not sound like much fun, the blend of ancient history versus the quirky ultra-modern makes it a fascinating place to visit.

At the heart of the town, and the first stop on my visit, is the 400 year-old Matsumoto Castle, which gives the city its name. With its peaked gables and shimmering black tiles, the castle seems to hover over the flat plains of the town, like some fantastically inspired wedding cake. It’s Japan’s oldest castle and one of four nominated as National Treasures of Japan.

Across a small bridge on the way to the castle, Nawate-dori is a charming narrow stone-paved street full of restaurants, antique shops and tiny stores selling everything from kimonos to books. The beautifully restored buildings and houses on Nakamachi Street have earned it the title ‘Old House Street’; although with more than 40 restaurants, it’s also known locally as ‘Gourmet Street’.

For an insight into the origins of Japanese art, the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum houses the largest private collection of woodblock prints, paintings, and old books in the world, with more than 100,000 pieces collected over several generations by the Sakai family. Here you can buy limited edition prints by some of Japan’s greatest masters. The town’s music theme comes from the fact that Matsumoto is also home of the famous Suzuki method of teaching music.

Oodles of noodles
Nagano is the centre of soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles), but it’s said that Matsumoto’s soba reigns supreme. At Takagi restaurant I learn the art of soba making from the practiced hands and seriously sharp knife of master, Ken Takagi, whose family has run the restaurant for five generations.

Tagaki’s wife also runs workshops in the traditional craft of temari ball making, another of the symbols of the city which are said to bring good fortune. You can also buy lovely high quality ones at the souvenir shop below the restaurant.

The chance to dine with a real Sumo wrestler is an opportunity too good to miss. Sumo-tei is run by a former Sumo champion, Tochi Sagami, who will fill you up with a Sumo-sized ‘Chanko Nabe’, a secret stew of meat and vegetables eaten in vast quantity by sumo wrestlers.

For a sublime dining experience, the Matsumoto-kan restaurant is the pinnacle. Originally opened in 1890, the restaurant is a designated ‘National Cultural Property’ which showcases Japanese tradition and the transition of the seasons through its cuisine. The ceilings are hand-painted and carved with birds and flowers – it’s like a Japanese version of the Sistine Chapel, and its sophisticated and delicate dishes are as flawless as the artwork.

Beyond the city
Venture a little south of the city and you’ll find the postcard-perfect Kiso Valley, dotted with small towns that were originally part of a historical road connecting Kyoto and Tokyo.

The town of Narai-juku provides a taste of what Japan was like when samurai travelled these roads. The buildings that line the kilometre-long main street remain much the same as they were back in the Edo period (1603-1868), although today there are many gift shops lining the main street along with small restaurants.

Also within an hours’ travel from Matsumoto is the remarkable Daio Wasabi Farm, Japan’s largest. Its restaurants offer not only the popular soba noodles with freshly picked wasabi, but also wasabi-flavoured ice cream, wasabi chocolate, beer and pretty much any wasabi-themed product you can imagine.

Monkey business
One of Japan’s most popular images is that of the Japanese macaques that bathe in the natural hot springs at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, which is only about two hours by train from Matsumoto. Called ‘Hell Valley’ because the hot water bursting from the earth’s surface was thought to resemble the place, it’s also monkey heaven and from late October to early April you can see them bathing in their steaming onsen. Don’t even think about getting in the hot pools with the monkeys. For a start, the water’s about 50 degrees, and those floaty things aren’t pine cones.

So to the city of ‘music, mountains and education’, add Matsumoto’s wonderful wildlife, samurai history, sumo-sized experiences, superior soba, and a journey into the heart and soul of Japan to the list.

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