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Discover Matsumoto Part 1: The charms of Matsumoto Castle and Tanabata dolls

Discover Matsumoto Part 1: The charms of Matsumoto Castle and Tanabata dolls

Hello! Summer greetings from Matsumoto in Nagano, Japan. In my previous article about Nakasendō (中山道) at Shiojiri, I talked about the Edo Period (1603–1868). This time, I want to introduce more about the Edo Period (江戸時代 Edo-jidai) and Matsumoto City (松本市 Matsumoto-shi) where our office is located.


About Matsumoto City

Matsumoto Castle. (Image credit: JR East / Satoru Ota)


Matsumoto is an old castle town with Matsumoto Castle (松本城 Matsumoto-jо̄) at its centre. There are many historical buildings and rich traditional culture here. Many tourists visit Matsumoto because it is easily accessible from major cities—approximately 2 hours 50 minutes by limited express Azusa on the JR Chūō Line (中央線) from JR Shinjuku Station (新宿駅) in Tokyo, or approximately 2 hours by limited express Shinano from JR Nagoya Station (名古屋駅).


The unique charms of Matsumoto Castle

I would like to introduce why Matsumoto Castle is so attractive compared to other castles.


Matsumoto Castle. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


Firstly, Matsumoto Castle is the only castle in Japan where all walls of main keep are coated with black lacquer. If you look at it closely, you can enjoy the unique texture of the lacquer. 


Moon-viewing Tower at Matsumoto Castle. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


Secondly, the Moon-viewing Tower (月見櫓 Tsukimi-yagura) isn’t a stand-alone structure, but is connected with the main keep—no other castle but Matsumoto Castle has this feature. This tower was built for the purpose of inviting Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光), the 3rd Shogun, to enjoy a feast at night while watching the moon.


On the way back to Tokyo from the then-capital Kyoto, Tokugawa had planned to visit Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City on a pilgrimage, and he was supposed to stay at Matsumoto Castle. However, due to a landslide at Nakasendo, Tokugawa was not able make it to Matsumoto Castle.


Inside the Moon-viewing Tower at Matsumoto Castle. (Image credit: JR East / Michi Iizawa)


The elegant vermillion-lacquered exterior of the Moon-viewing Tower is a sight to behold. If you pay the entrance fee to enter the castle keep, you can also enjoy the inside of the Moon-viewing Tower. Security guards full of kindness and smiles welcomed us, and they made exploring the tower more interesting.


You can enter Matsumoto Castle early in the morning from 8:30, so I recommend visiting the castle after breakfast. In Discover Matsumoto Part 2, I will introduce you my favourite shop that serves tasty breakfast.


Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
Address: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano 390-0873
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station.
Business hours: 8:30–17:00
Admission fee: ¥700


Matsumoto in Summer: Tanabata dolls of Matsumoto

On the way to Matsumoto Castle, Tanabata dolls (七夕人形 Tanabata ningyо̄)—a summer feature in Matsumoto—caught our eyes.


Tanabata dolls around the city. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


The tradition of hanging Tanabata dolls in front of houses to pray for the healthy growth of children and to wash off bad luck has been around since the Edo Period. It was originally a traditional custom all over Japan, but these days it is famous only in the Matsumoto area, and in Himeji City in Hyogo Prefecture. Tanabata dolls in Matsumoto are unique because they have faces of a man and woman painted on, to represent Hikoboshi and Orihime.


Tanabata is also known as the Star Festival (星祭り hoshi matsuri), and originated from the Chinese Qīxī (七夕) Festival. It celebrates the meeting of the star-crossed lovers, Cowherd Hikoboshi (彦星) and Weaver Girl Orihime (織姫), who are represented by two of the brightest stars in the night sky—Altair and Vega. According to the legend, the two lovers are separated by a celestial river (the Milky Way), and can only meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month—Tanabata.


Katari dolls at Matsumoto City Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


In Matsumoto, another unique thing is Katari dolls (川渡り人形 Katari-ningyо̄) being displayed together with Tanabata dolls. If the water level of the Milky Way is above normal, Kātari (カータリ) uses his long legs to help Hikoboshi and Orihime to pass the river and connect them. Having an above normal water level on the Milky Way isn’t seen as a bad thing, because it is believed that there will be a good harvest, thanks to having enough water.


Tanabata doll decorations at Matsumoto City Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


Furthermore, people devote some food to Tanabata sama (七夕様), such as oyaki (おやき), which is one of the soul foods in Nagano, Tanabata noodles (七夕ほうとう Tanabata Hо̄tо̄), and summer vegetables. Summer vegetables are usually vegetables from the gourd family. This is because when you cut them vertically with a knife, water comes out, and this is seen to represent purification.


Matsumoto City Museum (松本市立博物館)
Address: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano 390-0873
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station. (Right beside Matsumoto Castle)
Business hours: 8:30–17:00
Admission fee: ¥700 (includes admission to both the Castle and the Museum)


Next, we went to historically-rich places around Matsumoto City to see Tanabata dolls. Our first stop was the Belle Amie Doll Shop.


Outside Belle Amie doll shop. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


Belle Amie makes and sells traditional dolls such as Matsumoto Oshie (松本押絵雛), as well as doll decorations for the Girls’ Festival (雛祭り Hina Matsuri), Tanabata dolls for the Star Festival, and so on.


Looking at historical crafts in the shop. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


Inside, there are also displays of dolls, so that we can enjoy these historical crafts.


Handmade Tanaba dolls. (Image credit: JR East / Michi Iizawa)


Belle Amie sells handmade Tanabata dolls, made using Japanese paper (和紙 washi).  The well-thought out description is only in Japanese, but if you look at the pictures, even people who can’t read Japanese can make the dolls. Also, you can enjoy the texture of Japanese paper while folding.


You can enjoy the Star Festival by decorating with your handmade doll, or you can send the doll with some prayers to your friend, as the description sheet can transform into an envelope.


Belle Amie Doll Shop (ベラミ人形店)
Address: 3-7-23 Chūо̄, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano
Access: From JR Matsumoto Station, walk 12 minutes.
Business hours: 10:00–18:00


Next, we visited Kubota Utsubo’s birthplace, which is a Japanese-style house and part of the Kubota Utsubo Memorial Museum. Kubota Utsubo (1877–1967) was a famous Japanese poet who spent time in this house during his adolescence. The entrance of the house was decorated with Tanabata dolls and Sasa decorations (笹飾り sasa kazari).


Decorations at Kubota Utsubo’s birthplace. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


You can look around the house freely. I was interested in this quaint Japanese-style house even though I am Japanese. I think that the veranda (縁側 engawa) is a place where people can get lost in their thoughts while relaxing with the comfortable breeze. I wonder that the people of the past were thinking of or praying for when they watched the Tanabata dolls swinging in the wind.


Writing a wish on tanzaku. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


I wrote on a strip of paper called tanzaku (短冊). It is said that a wish comes true by writing it on tanzaku and hanging it on bamboo branches. I prayed that the COVID-19 pandemic around the world will end soon. After the COVID-19 pandemic settles down, please visit Matsumoto and enjoy the culture.


Kubota Utsubo Memorial Museum (窪田空穂記念館)
Address: 1715-1 Wada, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano 390-1242
Access: From Matsumoto Bus Terminal, take a 20-minute bus ride and get off at the Wada-chо̄ Post Office (和田町郵便局 Wada-chо̄ Yūbinkyoku) bus stop. The building is a 3-minute walk from the bus stop.
Business hours: 9:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥310 (Free for Junior High School students or younger)



Drop by the JR EAST Welcome Center MATSUMOTO. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)


If you visit Nagano, please come to JR EAST Welcome Center MATSUMOTO, a counter exclusively for foreign tourists. It is located just in front of the ticket gate of JR Matsumoto Station. A replica of Matsumoto Castle and seasonal decorations will welcome you!


Stay tuned for Discover Matsumoto Part 2, where we will introduce delicious food and drinks around the city!


Header image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara


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Writer’s profile:
Chie Matsubara

Chie can drive trains, but she's not good at driving cars, so she enjoys travelling by public transportation. Chie wants to share information on Nagano from the same perspective as tourists.

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