Leaving behind the historic city of Kyoto, we took a train north into the Japanese Alps. From Kyoto to Nagoya we got to experience our first bullet train, which was not a disappointment. We switched by to a normal train for the longer journey up into the mountains.
Our arrival into Matsumoto saw a dramatic change in temperature and we were very grateful we had lugged around our winter gear. We stayed at the very recommended Matsumoto Inn, which was right beside the train station. Not wanting to waste our precious time, we dropped our luggage and headed out to the main attraction of the town: Matsumoto Castle. This castle is special in that it is one of only 12 remaining original castles from the feudal age in Japan. It is very reminiscent of Age of Empires.
Our timing was also perfect, without realising we caught the closing ceremony of the blossom festival. Unlike the lowlands the blossoms were in peak bloom and flowers and petals were everywhere.
|Matsumoto castle and blooms
Within the castle grounds there was live museum playing and it seemed like the majority of the town out in order to have lunch have a picnic under the blossoms. Considering the freezing temperatures I thought this was a bit mad, but I am sure the sake bottles helped with this issue. The sun set as we were exploring the grounds and only added to the beauty of the castle. Would definitely recommend coming here. Afterwards we found a lovely local restaurant on a restaurant street (the only one we encountered).
The next day, we headed off earlyish for out day trip to the mountains behind Nagano. Just an hour train from Matsumoto is the city famous for hosting the winter Olympics. We got our timing a little wrong and had to wait a little in town, before hoping on the train up to the Monkey Park. From the train station, you need to take a bus up further into the hills (although only a 15 min ride would be at least 2 hours walk uphill). From the bus stop the park is a further 30 minute walk but completely worth it. As it was spring there was no significant snow around, but it did mean that it was baby season.
|Snow monkey's playing in the remaining snow
As we arrived into the park we were greeted by tens of baby monkeys running around playing in the remaining snow. Their parents were more interested in eating and basking in the sun rays. We spent a good deal of time here just watching their interactions and enjoying the cuteness. We even got to see one go for a dip in their famous hot springs (although the one we saw was artistically made – there are others scattered elsewhere in the park that are more natural – but a decent hike away).
Eventually we headed back down and to Matsumoto. The train ride is actually worth the trip in itself. The views from the train are as remote as is really possible in congested Japan. The contrasts between NZ and Japan were at their most here. It was very unnerving to have a complete lack of any animal. There were no farm animals, rabbits, or expected wildlife that you would normally see in the countryside. Agriculture was the biggest presence in between the villages.
Back in Matsumoto we explored the downtown area which was mainly focused on satisfying the Japanese materialistic culture. There are stores for absolutely everything and yet we had trouble finding some of the simple things we were looking for amongst the chaos of their stores.