It’s the history that keeps a growing city from ruin

by Skye Hohmann

We first stepped off the train at Matsumoto Station several years ago. It was August and the ripening rice paddies tinted the surrounding farmland chartreuse. Conifers darkened the distant hills. We were greeted by the eerie, long announcement that makes the station famous. “Matsumotoooo, Matsumotoooo,” came the chanting call over the speakers as we dragged our bags up the station stairs, suitcases bumping heavily against each step.

My boyfriend and I had come to Japan to teach English, and Matsumoto was our first home here together. In the weeks that followed, we settled into our apartment (an ordinary, blocky building tucked amid fields), and adjusted ourselves to our teaching schedules (afternoons and evenings at a tiny conversation school). We spent lazy mornings exploring the city, meeting streets, sights, and supermarkets with equal enthusiasm.

After work, released from stilted classroom conversations, we’d wander the dark streets at night, joining friends at the cozy little bars and izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) that pepper the city. Crowded, hot and confessional, with menus written up on the walls and a staff of one, we’d find ourselves ordering “just one more round” for hours, and then, finally, stumbling out into what was left of the night, or sometimes into the pale light of early morning.

Weekends were for exploring and we learned something of the area’s history as we went. Civilization is very old in that part of Nagano Prefecture, and farmers, breaking new soil, still sometimes turn up pieces of prehistoric Jomon pottery with their plows. We drove over the pass to the Togariishi Jomon Archaeological Museum in nearby Chino and marveled at the voluptuous and ancient Venus figure that dates back more than 4,000 years.

In the spring, when the highlands finally shook off the winter chill, we picnicked amid cherry trees on the cherry-blossom-cloaked Mt. Kobo. An unassuming hill to the casual observer, Koboyama, as it is known in Japanese, is actually a 3rd-century kofun burial mound. Looking out after dark at the lights of the modern city from such a quietly macabre viewpoint was strangely uplifting. History goes on, I realized, and we are part of it.

At the center of modern Matsumoto is the city’s castle, built during the Edo Period (1603-1866). This is no coincidence, despite the bubble-era concrete buildings and wide straight roads that radiate from the station in a futile attempt to order the organic growth of the town. Though the city itself is much older than the castle, few if any of its older venerable structures remain, and the town as we know it grew up this way, with the castle at its heart.

The castle, an impressive monument to the feudal age, stands in nearly its original form. Many of Japan’s once numerous castles were torn down when the ruling samurai class was abolished during the Meiji Restoration in 1867; more moldered with neglect in the years that followed. During the Allied bombings of World War II, dozens of these derelict fortresses (most famously Hiroshima Castle) were damaged or destroyed.

Matsumoto Castle, however, survived both the passing of the feudal era and the ravages of the war. Unlike its peers, it was never truly abandoned, and restoring the main tower has been a labor of love for the townspeople. Unable to bear seeing the impressive wooden structure crumble before their eyes, it was not long after the Meiji Restoration that citizens raised funds — first to purchase and then to restore the castle. The black, tiered keep now ranks as one of the oldest and most impressive original castles in Japan.

One frosty November afternoon, when the larches on the hillsides were golden, we visited the castle with guests who had come to see the country and take advantage of our extra futons. Climbing the steep smooth stairs that lead up above the plain, the dark and tiny windows — meant for shooting arrows from, rather than taking in the views out across to the Alps — made it clear that the castle was built more as a fortress than as a palace.

Back on ground level, we wandered the improbably frog-themed Nawate Street and browsed the lacquer and ceramic shops that fill the traditional storefronts in the Nakamachi district until, chilled by the cold upland autumn air, we retreated for hot chai tea and cake at a trendy upstairs cafe. Warmed again, we visited the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, much of which is dedicated to the polka-dot works of one of the city’s most famous celebrities, the artist Yayoi Kusama.

One day, toward the end of our year in Matsumoto, we took our clunky three-speed bicycles out across the plain and into the hills, following the Susuki River along its course. The wide alluvial plain — a wet marsh back in the feudal days — has since been drained. It is now fertile farmland, a flat checkerboard of paddy fields dotted with houses and the dense vertical interruption of the city shrine’s deep, tangled woods, which unexpectedly catch and lift the eye. The river runs straight and clear, swiftly moving over smooth rocks.

Where the plain ends, it does so suddenly. Abruptly, we found ourselves among the hills, the river rushing away down below us. It was a long, hot slog up the narrow road, and the afternoon light was lengthening by the time we reached the hot springs at Tobira Onsen. Soaking silently in the comfortably cool outdoor bath and listening to the sound of the river coming up from forested ravine, I closed my eyes and thought how much I’d miss Matsumoto. We were only moving over the Shiojiri pass, but coming back to visit wouldn’t be the same.

I t isn’t. Now, coming for the weekend, the Chuo Line train from Tokyo runs slowly along the familiar plain, through rural towns, apple orchards and rice paddies. Hills mark the horizon on all sides; the Japan Alps jut against the sky to the west. At the top of the new escalators in the station, they’ve installed a windowed walkway and the familiar mountains greet us before we even begin our visit. The suburbs have overgrown the fields around our old apartment and new houses form orderly grids along the river. The city continues to grow. Like any living town, Matsumoto has its own history, and takes its own shape.

Matusmoto City is just 2 1/2 hours from Shinjuku on the Chuo Line’s Azusa Express (¥6,910, one way). Highway buses also run from Shinjuku, taking just over 3 hours (¥2,900, one way; call (03) 5376-2222, Japanese only).