The furthest one can get away from the sea is as remote as it gets in Japan. This is Matsumoto, the lone guiding star in the vast inky wilderness of what was once known as Shinano, now the prefecture of Nagano. The city itself, which has seen a minor drop in population in the last five years, and yet is still so easily navigable by either bike, bus or the old fashioned way- on foot, is quite small by Japanese standards, though it packs a historic punch.
Crow Castle of the Pine Forest PlateauA fuedal stronghold built under Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 15th century, Matsumoto Castle is the oldest extant wooden castle in Japan. I know, I know, you’re saying, “Who cares? Seen one 500 year old wooden castle, seen them all!”, but this one, known as Crow Castle (Kurasu-jo) due to its black exterior, is rare in that rather than atop a protective mountain or between rivers it sits exposed to god and all on a level plain (hirajiro), a key to its survival during a less civilized time in Japan’s struggle for self control. Dangerous in the time of Hideyoshi perhaps, but in the parlance of our times, all that means is that when you take your lady friend on a day trip from Tokyo (it’s only a couple hours from Shinjuku by Asuza Express Limited Express), you don’t have to walk up any steps. Just mosey past the artisan shops on Nawate-dori running along the Sai river (which has seen better days) or, even better, before retiring to one of the many cozy hot-spring inns for the night on your way back from one of the many hip-ass bars, new wave cafes and foodie-friendly eateries Matsumoto is famous for, take a stroll across the fine gravel surrounding the keep, sit and admire the graceful swans gliding or the feisty koi searching for food as the autumn harvest moon reflects peacefully in the midnight moat.
Matsumoto might be what the proverbial “they” would call quaint or rustic, tucked away perhaps, if it weren’t the music capital of central Japan (Nagoya be damned!), home of the best hyaku-wari soba noodles this side of nirvana, and of course, have the oldest original castle of its kind in a city of more than 1000 years located along the old Nakasendo, surrounded by still relatively pristine forests, the obvious undulations of the nearby Japanese Alps and the ultra-verdant Kiso valley, blah blah blah. If you can find the tiny bar called Elbow Room down a narrow alley just off Nawate-dori, maybe you’ll be able to find the castle’s hidden room as well.