Sunday 15 February 2015

Stepping back in time - Narai

Day 3 of my trip started, again, with my alarm shattering the silence of the morning.  There was no going back to sleep this morning though as checkout was waiting for me.  Dragging myself out of bed and through the shower, I then made my way downstairs for a Japanese breakfast of fish, salad and eggs with plenty of coffee.

After breakfast I checked out and made my way to the station to wait for my train.  The plan for today was to catch the train to a town about 20 minutes south from Matsumoto called Shiojiri.  Google images had shown me photos of a beautiful old town that I had decided was well worth a visit before heading back to Tokyo.  There are a number of old towns in this area called the Kiso Valley.  A lot of them lie along an old road called Nakasendo that joined Edo (the original name for Tokyo) to the old capital of Kyoto.  They were all small towns where travellers could rest and feed up before continuing on their way.  I hope to return to the area in summer and walk along a stretch of the Nakasendo.

My train pulled into the station and I got on for the short trip to Shiojiri.  I got off at Shiojiri and made my way out of the station

and into the tourist office.  I brought up the images of Shiojiri that had prompted me to want to visit and asked the staff where this old part of town was.  The tourist officer looked at the pictures I was showing him with a puzzled look on his face and finally said in Japanese "This is not Shiojiri......"!  I showed him that I had indeed searched google images for Shiojiri Japan.  He said "Nope, this isn't Shiojiri, it is Narai".  "How do I get to Narai?" I asked.  "By train." he responded.  "Okay, when is the next train?" I asked.  He checked his timetable and said "In 2 hours"......  There wasn't much I could do about that, so I went back outside wondering how I was going to kill 2 hours in the middle of Nagano.  I remembered I had seen a waiting area inside the train station so I decided to go inside and nap in one of the seats to pass the time.  The waiting area was a combination of seats, a small shop and a small soba restaurant.  

It was about lunch time so there was a steady stream of people coming in to the waiting area for a steaming hot bowl of soba. I passed as my stomach was still full of breakfast.  A couple of naps later, it was time to head down to my train.  Before too long I had arrived at Narai.  Just outside the station was an information sign about the historical old town.

The preserved area of town is a one kilometre stretch of old houses that are now a combination of residences, shops, restaurants and ryokan (traditional Japanese style Inns).

Allow me to take you for a slow leisurely walk along the street.

I guess even 300 years ago they needed hair salons!

A few shops were open for the few tourists that had braved the cold.

All of the buildings along the street were oozing old world charm.

All along the street there were these little water springs that, I guess, were there for anyone to drink from and for thirsty tourists to fill their water bottles from.  It was too cold for me to be feeling too thirsty, so I passed.

A nice little shrine.

Absolutely stunning.  People who read this blog often will know that I love old towns here in Japan.  I have been lucky enough to visit quite a few over the last couple of years including Kyoto, Shibamata, Shirakawago, Hida Takayama and Kawagoe.  If you are enjoying this post, feel free to check out those other ones too!

About halfway along the street I noticed a little alleyway off to the right hand side of the street.  

I love exploring alleyways and seeing where they end up, so I walked along this one and found a set of stairs at the end.

I carefully navigated my way up and at the top of the stairs was a little shrine looking out over the town set amongst towering pine trees.

By this time, breakfast had well and truly settled and I realised that I hadn't eaten in about 8 hours so I walked back to the street and found a restaurant that was open and walked inside.  The owner looked a little surprised that 1 he had a customer and 2 the customer wasn't Japanese.  He was very friendly and welcomed me in and set about cooking my order.

All of this food for about 1,000 yen.  Wow, things were cheap out here!

The restaurant owner changed the television channel to the Australian Open tennis and Japan's Kei Nishikori was playing so both of us sat there watching the tennis, with me also enjoying a great late lunch.

I finally finished eating and decided that it was time to head back to the station to catch my train back to Matsumoto so that I could return to Tokyo.  Regrettably I turned my back on Narai but vowed that I would return another day.

Narai was another of those towns where you can escape the modern world and at times when I found myself on the streets with no other people around, it gave me a surreal feeling, one that made me feel that I had been transported back in time to the glory days of this little old town.

Thanks again for reading, I hope you enjoyed Matsumoto and Narai.  Feel free to leave a comment below and I'll see you next time.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

In pursuit of castles - Matsumoto castle (松本城)

My second day in Matsumoto began far too early as my alarm pierced the tranquillity of Sunday morning.  "No!" I thought, "I'm on holiday!".  So sacrificing breakfast I switched off the alarm rolled over and went back to sleep.

A couple of hours later I woke up as my alarm again made sure not only me, but the people in the rooms either side of me were awake.  After getting ready I set off for the castle, stopping at a nearby convenience store to grab a sandwich to take the place of my missed breakfast.  

Matsumoto castle is one of the more famous castles in Japan and is listed as a National Treasure of Japan.  It started it's existence in 1504 as a fort called Fukashi Castle.  It was a much smaller structure at that time.  Rule in the area changed hands in 1550 and Matsumoto Castle was built on the site.  It's construction was finished in 1594 and ownership was kept in the hands of the Feudal Lords from that point on.  At the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, the feudal system was terminated and the castle was put up for auction.  Local residents began a campaign to save the castle and eventually the castle was acquired by the local government and has been maintained by them ever since.

Here's a little more info on the castle in a few different languages.  This sign is just outside the main gate of the castle.

I started around the other side of the castle from where I had stood the day before which provided me with a nice different view of the castle.

Being winter, and not a traditional holiday season, there were not too many people around, but there were a whole lot of pigeons

along with a couple of swans and some carp in the moat.

I continued walking around to the other side of the castle where the entrance to the castle is and suddenly had the distinct feeling that I was being followed so I turned around to take a look.....

Nope, no-one there.

Just before heading into the castle I took one last look around.  The view from this side was great, with the red bridge in the background and my 2 friends in the foreground.

Just through this gate I bought my ticket (610 yen, pretty reasonable!)

and finally, into the grounds.

What a winter wonderland it was inside, a blanket of white!

My path to the castle, however, was being blocked by a samurai.

I had not anticipated this and had come completely unprepared.  I had no idea that I would have to get past a samurai to reach the castle.  I waited until he was distracted and then made my move.....


Up close, the castle was simply incredible and I lingered outside for a while just taking in it's beauty.

You can see in the above picture, small square and rectangular holes in wooden windows.  They are there for defence as this sign told me.


One thing about Matsumoto castle is that it has lots of windows 

which is great as you can get a view of the stunning scenery outside, but if you visit in winter, like I did, dress real warm!!

Also, there are a lot of steep stairs to climb inside the castle

so unless you are a mountain goat or a Sherpa (of which I am neither), you really need to take great care climbing to the top of the castle, but once you get there, you are treated to  stunning views from windows on all 4 sides of the castle!

Also on the way up you there is a gun museum with a large collection of old guns

so if you are a into guns, you will enjoy these next few photos!

It is a very comprehensive collection that they have and all of the guns look in mint condition.

I made my way back down to the ground level again and back outside to be confronted with another danger.

I managed to out ninja the ninja and crept past without him noticing me....

I began to feel hungry and sought out a soba restaurant near the castle that had been recommended to me.  Nagano prefecture is famous for its soba as the water is very clear and pure in the area and I was keen to try it!  I found the restaurant nearby the castle entrance and luckily for me they had an English menu!

If a famous person walks into a restaurant in Japan the owners of the restaurant will quite often ask then to sign a card and write a short message on it.  This then gets placed on the wall as a sign of its quality to other diners and this restaurant had lots of them!

I went for a couple of the recommended dishes, trout sashimi

and soba with wasabi and local mountain herbs.

Now I am not a soba expert and I can't tell the difference between soba from Nagano and soba from somewhere else, but this soba was good!

Satisfied I left the restaurant and said goodbye to Matsumoto castle.  There was one other area of the city I wanted to check out before I returned to the hotel.  It on the other side of the station and had been recommended by a local business owner on a website I had seen.  I walked off and following my trusty English map, soon found Fukashi Shrine.

It was the area around the shrine that I wanted to check out so I continued exploring.  

This area of town was a really nice old residential area and I got quite a few confused looks from people as I wandered around.  I'm sure they thought that I must have been lost!


I walked back towards the hotel and power napped for an hour.  Lunch had well and truly settled by this time so I walked to a little neighbourhood restaurant I had heard about and settled into a huge home cooked meal.  The restaurant's name is Takuma.  You won't find it on any of the tourist maps, but I had read about it on tripadvisor.  The owners are a lovely older couple and the food is delicious!

All of that for less than 1,000 yen!!  The lady was really nice and complimented me on my (bad) Japanese.  The next day I was at the train station waiting to catch the train to my next destination and the same lady gets off a train that had just pulled into the station.  She saw me, came up to me wished me safe travels and told me to come back and visit again.  Lovely moment!

Feeling utterly stuffed full of food, I went back to the hotel and settled in for the night.

Matsumoto castle was great.  Again, pictures that I had seen (and these pictures here too) did not do it justice.  It is even more beautiful and grand in real life.  That's one castle ticked off the list!

Thanks again for reading.  I hope you enjoyed Matsumoto castle.  I will start work on part 3 of the Matsumoto trip soon.

See you next time!